The Mistake Employers Make: Imagining A Generalist Is a Specialist In Multiple Areas

Posted By Debbie on February 20, 2015

More and more, I’m seeing companies claim they want more generalists. They want more jacks of all trades. They want a front end dev who is a UX genius. They want a visual designer who “cares” about user experience. They want an interaction designer who can “see a project through” and do the visual design too. They want an information architect who can hand-code his own prototypes in HTML and CSS.

UX: I Do It All

At one job, I interviewed a guy who claimed to be the total UX package. He does it all. He’s a front end dev. He’s a visual designer. He’s an interaction designer. He was sure he was f’ing amazing at all of these things. You only need him.

His LinkedIn showed mostly front end dev jobs until he seemed to get himself into more UX roles. I asked him for his UX artifacts… show me wireframes, customer journeys, approaches, processes, something you designed that was invalidated and then was improved… he had none of that. He showed fully-designed comps and that was basically it.

Is A Generalist Is a Specialist In Multiple Areas?

Would an interaction design specialist say this guy is an interaction design specialist and expert? Without being able to show work, process, and experience, probably not. Would he qualify to speak at an interaction design event because he is a serious expert with a great resume? Probably not.

Would a visual design specialist say this guy is a visual design specialist? Without being able to show an extensive visual design portfolio and his design process, probably not. Would he qualify to teach visual design, typography, iconography, illustration, and branding because he is a serious expert with an impressive background in visual design? Probably not.

Would a front end dev specialist say this guy is a great front end developer? Probably. He had a long resume of front end dev and code samples someone can check out. We can then judge if he’s talented or not in his area of true specialty.

In reality, this “generalist” is a specialist in one area and probably significantly weaker and/or significantly less experienced and/or significantly less educated/trained in other areas. And remember that at least when it comes to visual design vs interaction design, they are completely different sets of skills. Different talents are required. They often don’t overlap at all.

There might be some people who are true specialists in multiple, unrelated areas. However, they are so rare they are often called “purple unicorns” or “purple squirrels.”

To A Specialist, You’re No Specialist

There is an old Jewish joke where a man buys himself a yacht and takes his parents out on the boat. Disregard the captions. Recorded in 1963.

He proudly tells his parents that he is the captain of his boat! He even has a captain’s hat! Long story short, the father says, “By Momma, you’re a captain. By me, you’re a captain. By you, you’re a captain. But by a captain, you’re no captain!”

Basically, in the opinion of someone qualified to judge you, you are not what you think you are.

I started off writing HTML. CSS later. I got my first copy of Photoshop in 1994. Why am I not passing myself off as a jack of all trades? Because to a visual designer, I’m no visual designer. To a front end developer, I’m no front end developer.

I don’t bother pretending I’m a generalist, and luckily, I don’t have to pretend nor do I have to do tasks I don’t really enjoy in order to get jobs. Neither do you. There are niches for all of us. Stand up for your strengths and specialties. Perhaps the more we stand up for our specialties, the less companies will stop creating jobs that combine a pile of completely unrelated skills and talents (coding, art, interaction).