Some Generalizing about Specializing

When I worked at The New York Times, I used to have friendly arguments with a colleague about the role of information architects on a digital design team. The debate was over the things that an information architect does — evaluating goals, planning features, constructing wireframes — were things that should be the purview of visual designers instead. We would go back and forth over the usefulness of dividing these responsibilities, segregating the nitty gritty planning from the visual execution. Put another way, the question was whether the information architect was even necessary?

I invariably argued in favor of information architects because I’ve always felt that there is a significant population of talented designers and thinkers who can envision, plan and manage a user experience design solution even in spite of their inability to render the user interface itself in Photoshop, Illustrator, HTML etc. What’s more, there are lots of visual designers of the ‘heads down’ type, who are superb craftspeople but are not very adept at the holistic thinking necessary to plan out the entirety of a user experience, or capable of the articulation necessary to convince others of a particular UX strategy.

Things seem to be changing. For one, the term “information architect” seems to have gone out of style. What I hear a lot more these days is “user experience designer.” Now, I dislike few things as much as debating the semantics of these particular job titles, but it does strike me that part of the shift to this nomenclature has to do with the fact that, more and more, what employers want is a single person who can do both the feature planning and the visual execution.


Digital Design Grows Up

A pretty healthy number of employers — both startups and established companies — ask me for referrals to talented people. Even with other sectors of the economy still struggling back to their feet, there seems to be a lot of really interesting work out there if you are an experienced digital designer. But in almost every case, these companies are looking to hire someone who is both information architect and visual designer (and they most often refer to this role as ‘user experience designer’). I’ve tried to recommend information architects to many of them, but they almost aways prefer someone with visual design skills as well.

I think what we’re seeing is maturation in the industry. That’s kind of counter-intuitive to say, because you would think that the more natural progression would be from generalists to specialists, but what I’m describing here is the reverse: a move away from specialists and toward generalists.

Actually, I believe it’s a move back to generalists. The very early days of the Web were the domain of folks who could do everything. But in the late 1990s the ecosystem assumed new complexity with such rapidity that it necessitated a workforce of specialists just to cope with the newness of all its myriad components.

Now, things have swung around the other way. The technology remains complex, of course, but it’s been successfully abstracted enough that it’s once again possible for a single person to create a very robust product, and for just a small handful of people to create a very robust company. And accordingly this has also become what the market expects; big company budgets are shrinking, and startup investors are expecting more out of smaller teams. That makes specialists look more expensive than they have in the past.

There will of course always be some room for specialists, especially in large enterprises, so I’m certainly not predicting a desolate future for those whose skills are highly focused. Extremely talented people will always find a way forward, so long as they remain flexible. But it does seem evident to me that, more and more, if you call yourself a digital designer, it behooves you to be a visual designer as much as anything else. What’s more, there are so few of these fully versatile designers out there that if you are indeed one of these people, you’re more or less free to write your own ticket.

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14 Comments

  1. I agree with your regarding the maturation of the industry. With a more client-service based industry, there are large projects that are run in the usual agency style —аa specialist for each task. It’s completely an agency approach.

    What I’ve seen and am experiencing is that smaller, more nimble teams, whether at small studios or startups (really, just in-house creative studios/teams) are more agile —аbeing able to conceptualize, design, build and thus execute what they imagine. And being able to do it quickly and iteratively is going to allow one to fail faster, get a feel faster and figure out whether things generally work now, rather than three phases down the line.

    The industry is undoubtedly evolving as the new style of doing things takes hold.

  2. I’ve been seeing this trend both in industry publications and in job posts. One serious issue is that there are many people that are great visual designers and an equal number of great experience designers, but very few people that can do both well. The demand for these dual-specialists is a lot higher than the availability.

    Sometimes companies eventually find the right person, but more often it results in an IA doing bad visual design, or more often a visual designer doing bad IA work (because it’s less visually obvious). The worst part is that often these designers know they’re only good at half of their job, but they feel like they have to go after these jobs to put food on the table. I do hope that the industry continues to recognize the value of specialists.

  3. I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing a conscious shift from specialist to generalist; rather, I think what we’re experiencing is an unconscious shift towards more holistic principles all around.

    Being a generalist is only great if you can demonstrate tangibly understandable results—highly effective writing, great visual design, code that performs much better, and so forth—that employers can easily comprehend.

    But if you’re a specialist in only one such area, you need to show additional value. Not because we’re looking for generalists, but because we are, as you say, maturing as an industry. That means we are more aware of the need for people to work together with others. Thus, more holistic understanding of the interconnectedness of all of the disciplines involved in making great software & web products.

    That’s my belief anyway, and why I think we need more awareness and understanding in a holistic sense—because the best results are achieved when everyone is allowed to do what they excel in, but knows really well how to make their efforts work well with those of everyone else.

  4. Having made this move myself recently I can vouch for the need for generalists and the huge task that lies before many of us making this shift. The last few months have been an accelerated process of broadening my skill set and getting up to speed on everything from IA to front end code.

    The level of execution for each discipline I’ve had to cover is not on par with the work I was doing at an agency. But the product taken as a whole is much more powerful that a perfectly typeset book cover or carefully crafted logo. I still love the work of the specialists, but I’ve learned to love the fact that I am not a specialist, and maybe that makes the work I do a little more accessible.

  5. Hi Khoi,

    Nice post, I agree with your observation but I think a designer always has strengths and weaknesses, there are so many aspects to digital design :

    - business understanding
    - communication
    - visual design
    - structural design
    - image creation
    - technology
    - rational of information organization and flow

    + two heads are often better than one (although collaboration can be challenging)

    What I’ve noticed is that traditional graphic design education still put so much emphasis on visual design (VS structural design) that visual designers are often very much biased toward the visual experience (visual objects, aesthetic) vs the user experience as a whole.
    On the other side, I would say that some HCI trainings are even worst, they don’t teach you how to draw an interface.

  6. I agree – though I personally don’t view someone who is adept at IA (specifically referring to big IA*) and visual design to be generalists – I think they are multidisciplinary. To me generalists imply a dilution (jack of all, master of none), that I don’t think is necessary in this context. These disciplines share quite a bit – both are about communication and sense-making. Among many more implied areas, the one area IA and VisD explicitly share is information design – which can be abstracted further to caring how much an interface makes sense to a user.

    I was an information architect for 6 years before going back to school, getting my MFA and forsaking (for a few years) digital design as a ‘traditional’ graphic designer, specializing in editorial design. I found myself employing much of the same skill set as an editorial designer that I employed as an information architect. In some ways, all three IA, IxD and VisD have “big” and “little” versions of themselves. The “little” versions are where specialists live, along with each’s version of ‘craftspeople’ (and where potentially ‘juniors’ should start to learn the caft). But the big versions are surprisingly similar in their mandate and I think are indeed becoming more of a singular whole (think: communication designer).

    We also shouldn’t try to encapsulate our career to something that can be fully baked upon graduation. For example, in the traditional design hierarchy you start as a ‘designer’ and eventually may become an ‘art director’ – you do not graduate with the mastery of the disciplines to start as an art director, in this context. The same can be said for “ux design” you may not graduate and be a fully baked “ux designer”, with all the IA, IxD and VisD skills that may imply.

    But, yes, I do think visual design (think in context of info design, gestalt principles, grids, color and typography, etc.) will be an increasingly important and expected skill set for the ux designer or digital designer.

    - Chris

    *Big IA/Little IA
    http://argus-acia.com/strange_connections/strange004.html
    http://beep.peterboersma.com/2004/11/t-model-big-ia-is-now-ux.html

  7. I think in some respects you’re also seeing the classic “web designer” mishmosh / lack of understanding with updated job language. On the agency side I think people still mean “interaction designers” largely when they say “user experience designer.”

    Obviously start-ups are looking and will always be looking for more bang for their buck especially in the lean times. I think there you’re seeing the emphasis on user experience because the need is intense to be able to do everything you’re saying the IA type brings to the table. There’s always time to update and beta test look and feel down the road after all.

    In big agency life I think the trend towards specialization continues unabated. The late 90s were the golden age of generalists and where many of the t-shaped leaders of today came from. Now roles of all types are being split between thinkers and makers, campaign types and platform types, etc. Never mind the crush of social media, event, mobile, etc. specialists.

  8. I’ve been scratching my head this past year as I listen to people talking about the difference between UI, UX, IA, Content Strategy, Product Design, Front-end design, front-end coding, Design Technologists, etc., etc.

    In order to be licensed as an architect, you have to demonstrate documented work in schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction oversight. You can’t pick one and specialize. The result is that every licensed architect has experience in all of the different aspects of designing a building, from figuring out how to allocate space at the beginning to solving a flaw after construction is underway. It’s a nice model that assumes your career will last more than a few years.

    While UI/UX/IA/CS/PD/ETC designers aren’t licensed, you can start to see how generalization as an ideal within the culture strengthens and matures the field as a whole, especially if you allow young people to gain expertise in multiple aspects of the design process in their first few years in the industry.

  9. Hear, hear, Juliette. While it makes sense for people to be better a certain thing (e.g. wireframing, mapping, spec writing, etc.) I’d be hard pressed to ever hire someone that was only good at such a thin slice of the whole.

    That said in the same way that there’s a difference between an architect and say, an interior designer, there’s a substantive difference between UX designers and visual designers. Clumsy analogy is clumsy but I suspect it gets the point across.

    People long for t-shaped people to transform into “fat dash” people but until the culture starts to really cherish generalists it’s going to be hard for that to happen.

  10. In the startup world or wherever there are tighter budgets, it makes sense that generalists are in demand. And I agree that it’s still possible for a single person to create a very good product.

    But I think that’s more difficult now—not less—than it was a few years ago. So if there’s a move back to generalists, I think its from economic conditions not better abstraction of technology or otherwise reduced complexity.

    If anything, the web has gotten way more complicated of late. A few years ago, it was “as simple as” (haha) design research, business strategy, content strategy, information architecture, interaction design, HTML/CSS/jQuery, backend programming, etc. Now it’s all that plus apps, mobile, and responsive design; object-oriented javascript for complex web apps; and a renewed interest in content management and emotional design.

    So it hardly seems like things are getting simpler, and I can’t imagine that changing anytime soon.

  11. My observation (at least in the bay area) is that a lot of folks who have traditionally specialized in IA and such, tend to be better as product managers.

    Additionally, in my own team, I hire a bunch of generalists with strengths and weaknesses that balance each other out as a whole. Some are stronger in user research, while some are stellar visual designers, while some are stronger at front-end coding and prototyping. The goal is to have a team that can help train each other and fill gaps where needed. I don’t expect everyone to be able to do everything.

    That all said, even though my background is primarily in IA and interaction design, I never hire pure IA’s. I tend to hire people with a strong visual design base and an aptitude for IA/coding in hopes that they can be trained on the latter points over time.

    One thing to note, these type of people are not cheap. If you have the flexibility, hiring a pure visual designer or pure IA/IxD is not necessarily a bad thing depending on the make up of the rest of your team.

  12. Hi Khoi

    I find the terminology shift confusing also. Having worked in the industry as an IA for many years (egad over 10 years in the industry.. I started out as a pretty average designer I quickly found my groove with the science come creative landscape of IA.
    It’s wonderful methodology is becoming such an accepted part of the process, and that it is embraced by folks at all stages of their career.
    There will always be space for experience and good work…I hope

  13. Agree with this. Reinforces the point that job titles and such should never limit people to a few responsibilities. Todays companies especially startups demand the employees to wear more than one hats. I remember writing a similar article a while back. Link

  14. This is an older thread, but I read it and my experiences of working with IA’s, UX, etc… gives me pause….

    We too often focus on the roles, rather than whether or not the people involved gel together, and if they actually get the “central insight” into what the final product should actually do, and for exactly who…. and how….

    I fear the biggest downfall is not the skillsets, but the invisible, slightly different agendas…

    I’ve worked in startups and agencies and I’ve seen over and over how shared understanding is far more important than skillsets….

    Having the “best people” is sometimes death, as they may be the most headstrong, and least likely to listen carefully.

    Generalists who listen carefully and have a nice skillset are much preferred in the startups I’ve worked with…. even if they’re not 100% at each skill, there’s less possibility for multiple unspoken slightly different agendas that way.

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