Specialize Vs Generalize

2 04 2009

I used to work for an agency describing themselves as ‘integrated’, offereing services in PR, web and print, spreading their risk by offering a variety of services. In contrast to this, the company I have recently moved to are a web agency, choosing to employ individuals with specific skill sets.

To look at this idea from a slightly different angle, the current economic crisis, has forced many people to reassess their skill-set and try to put themselves in a position where they are employable/safe in their job.

With this in mind is it best to specialize or generalize within the web/design industry?

Advantages to specializing:

Highly specific roles are becoming more common. As the industry evolves and the general public become more aware of design and the Internet, people are wanting more from their products. Consumers aren’t content with ‘muddling through’ on websites anymore, if a site isn’t good enough there is an abundance of competitor websites who can provide the same product/service.

This has led to the advent of a new role within the web industry, the user experience designer. This is a highly specific (and very vogue right now) role that focuses on making processes on the web as easy (or even enjoyable) as possible.

These specific roles are more common within bigger agencies who look to complete jobs with a collaborative approach.

Being able to charge more. Another advantage is the ability to justify charging higher rates. If you can honestly sell yourself as an expert in a specific field then clients can expect to pay more for your expertise. With the current economic climate, clients cannot afford to pay for mistakes. Clients are willing to pay extra if it means a quality job done first time. (This is of course providing you are dealing with the right type of client.)

Notoriety. Being able to advertise yourself as an expert in a specific field can gain you respect amongst your peers within the industry. This can lead to you being asked to speak at conferences or open up consultancy opportunities where you advise other agencies on a short term basis.

Advantages to Generalizing:

Varying skills look very good on a CV. Being able to tell an interviewer that you have a broad range of (relevant) skills, puts you in a position where you would be able to complete a number of varied projects. This flexibility can be attractive to employers who are looking to be cost effective in their growth. Employing an individual with a varied skill set is far cheaper than employing a number of specialists.

Variety in your day to day work. If you can be in a position to take on very different types of project your working week can be far less monotonous. If you are the type of person who gets bored doing the same work on a daily basis then a general skill set should provide you with more joy.

Spread the risk. This relates more to market knowlege than skills. However, with certain markets collapsing, the property market for example, it can be a good idea to cover more than one base just in case it dries up. By having a range of skills, or knowledge of a veriety of markets, you give yourself a better chance of survival.

To conclude

There is no right or worng option in this argument, it is very much dependent on the type of person you are and the type of job you are doing/looking for.

I would love to find out what you guys think about this. Have you had to make this decision and what option did you choose and why? Also, if you have taken a chosen path how has that worked out for you?

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4 responses

6 04 2009
Paul Seys

Like the article Michael, and welcome to the agency!

You might be interested to read a few recent(ish) articles discussing this exact issue. The growing concensus of opinion is a move toward ‘T-shaped’ people; professionals with specialist knowledge of a specific area but a good general knowledge.

This is what we’re currently trying to do with the Redweb UX team by the way.

Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?

Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists by Jared Spool.

6 04 2009
Dave Harding

I like the idea of developeing “T-shaped” people, sort of like having jacks of all trades, master of one, in a way. One of the problems that I’ve found with this is that from a very young age we are given so many options, and this continues throughout school and into university. Perhaps there should be a more generalized first year at University say, and then to ensure that people choose specific area’s to major in.

I also think the importance of one’s skillset depends heavily on the job role that you’re fulfilling. For example if you manage a group of people then you don’t need to have the skills to do everything, but you do need a good understanding of the methods used and required by each person in your team. It’s also equally important for the team members to have an understanding of what everyone does, and then to specialize in their own areas.

That’s my take on things anyway. Good article.

21 04 2009
Heidi Cool

I think one needs to find a balance that suits one’s interests/skillsets. I sometimes call myself a marketer who builds Web sites and/or a Web strategist. I’m a Web designer, but I have a background in marketing that I apply to my Web development philosophy, and consider the “visual design” elements to be only one aspect of overall design work.

Basically my skills cover the general range of front end development: Goal planning, Content development, site architecture, HTML, CSS, Web standards, SEO, social media. I can write copy, take pictures, design and build the site, etc. But I don’t do back-end programming or server administration. I’d like to learn more programming, but also realize that there just isn’t time to do everything. If I have a project that needs a programmer I have people I can work with to implement those particular needs.

That said, it’s handy to have a broad skill set. Knowing SEO helps me to design sites with that in mind, understanding usability keeps me from letting the design overshadow functionality. All the details work together so it’s helpful to know how they integrate.

21 06 2013
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