If you’re thinking about going out on your own, or have already done so, and are deciding what kind of studio or freelance business to run, here is a brief description of what we’ve learned about the pros and cons of being a specialist vs. generalist.
First of all, what’s the difference?
A specialist serves a specific (easy-to-define) area of business. So, for example, as a specialist you might focus on one medium like web design, and do that for all types of clients. On the other side, you might be an industry specialist who works with different media (web, print, etc.) but does that for a specific industry like entertainment or finance. As a specialist, it’s easy to explain what you do—“I’m a book designer” or “we design for the sports industry”.
A generalist, by definition, will do all types of work for all types of clients. One of the most influential generalists Tibor Kalman (M&Co.), said, “once you’ve learned something, move on.” Emily Oberman, Stephen Doyle and Scott Stowell worked for him and went on to start generalist firms of their own and have incredible careers. The benefit is that you are open to take on anything that excites you and constantly grow through new experiences. Generalists have a trickier time explaining what they do. You might say something really simple like, “I’m a graphic designer,” which leads to follow up questions, or you may try to explain it in other ways like, “well, we do different things, but let me tell you about what I did today…”
Specialists are usually remembered by what they do, while generalists tend to be remembered by their distinct personalities.
So which is better? It will really depend on who you are, but below is a list of pros and cons based on our observations.
As a generalist:
• It’s exciting to take on new projects and learn new things
• Everyone is a potential client
• You are flexible and can adapt to changes in the market
• It is difficult to become (or to be considered) an expert in a specific area
• You may not be able to charge a premium for your services
• It is harder for potential clients to remember what you do
• You are often learning new things, which takes extra time
As a specialist:
• It’s easier to become (or be considered) the best at what you do
• Getting the business that you want is easier because you have a specific story to tell to a specific audience. You will be more clear and deliberate
• You will have an easier time getting high-profile projects
• You can charge a premium as a recognized expert
• You may get bored
• A market downturn in your area of specialization will have greater impact on your business
• Depending on where you specialize, you may stop learning at a certain point
When we began RED, we started it (like many people do) as generalists. The idea was that we wanted to get off the ground so we took almost every project that was offered. Beyond that, we like doing new things. We did (and still do) websites, books, posters, etc. for different types of clients. After six years, we are still very much generalists at heart, but have gradually shifted our mindset and accepted that specialization has benefits. We now describe ourselves as brand identity experts.
One of the main reasons why specialization feels smart is because the amount of incredible designers and designer firms is exploding. There is simply way more competition in the market now than there was 20 or even 10 years ago. The more competition, the more difficult to stand out, and not having a specific selling point makes it even harder. It’s more important than ever to carve out a niche.
If you already lean toward doing one thing really well, then by all means definitely do that. It will be a distinct advantage to specialize. If you want to generalize, however, you should try it. Just know the pros and cons, and also think through if you might, in fact, already be an accidental specialist.
If you want to see a little more, and also some other types of jobs that are out there, check out this presentation I created for my senior portfolio students at FIT.
And let me know what you think. Specialize or generalize?