Profile of a Generalist: the story of a multi-disciplinary approach Profile of a Generalist: the story of a multi-disciplinary approach

Profile of a Generalist: the story of a multi-disciplinary approach

by ,
on 28 March 2018


In his article, “Why Can’t Startups Find Designers?”Sacha Greif writes:

“If you’re looking for a designer who can come up with your identity, design your site, create UIs with great user experience for your web and mobile apps, and on top of that code his or her work in HTML/CSS (and why not throw Javascript into the mix!), then I’m sorry to inform you that you’re hunting unicorns.”

The term “unicorn designer” is not new: it refers to a designer who is talented in many different fields. If you browse through online job sites, you’ll quickly observe that companies are looking for designers able to work interfaces, search, code, manage projects, as well as customer relations, training, SEO, optimization, data analysis, and the little extra something: make a decent cup of coffee. For S. Greif, this profile does not exist. A designer must choose between excellence in one field or mediocrity in many.

This point of view seems a little partial to me. More to the point, I believe that the arguments set forth to prove the non-existence of “unicorn designers” is due to a number of false ideas as to what defines the learning process. Today, it seems necessary to me that we demystify the belief that the only road to excellence is that of specialization.

The skills are not mutually exclusive

Let’s be practical, the skills are not mutually exclusive. Learning Javascript does not mean you will forget how to create a page template. To the contrary, combining the two skills is not linear; if you combine 2 skills, you create a third. SXO (search experience optimization) for example, is the combination of SEO and UX. You probably have your own examples.

My primary argument is that each learning phase has an opportunity cost. Learning Javascript takes time, time better spent studying the issues that we will encounter in a project. That’s what the product management manuals say. In theory, I would agree with this point, but in practice, most designers I know do not learn in an optimal manner. What I mean is that we spend the greater part of our time solving the same issues, again and again, intrinsically limiting the development of our skills and knowledge.

However, if you learn at your maximum ratio, the opportunity cost argument always leans in favor of a multi-disciplinary approach. Design and its components are like all other production skills: it is always possible to develop one of the components and approach absolute mastery in an asymptotic manner. But the process takes longer and longer with a lower and lower rate of return.

Would you prefer to improve your door-making technique by 2% as compared to last year, or to learn to build the rest of the house over the same time period?

I believe that the analogies and repercussions between skills have more value than the simple incremental gain in one field.

Be care to keep in mind that all is but a question of priorities. What do you want to learn now? Here? Right away? You’ll have all the time you want later on to build a better door and in addition, you’ll have gained a host of skills that will help you to improve your technique.

Design is already the sum of several skills

 Theory that does not allow us to be good in more than one field is naive. The majority of fields already contain different skill granularity. Typography, for example, includes kerning, set-width, inter-letter spacing, and legibility. But typography is itself but an element in graphic design which is also a grouping of skills like color theory, page layouts, and many others.

Of course, all these things are different, in their use and in their function but are part of a holistic system where they work together to accomplish a task, and this, with little regard to the level of granularity.

Each of us is already skilled in many disciplines. So why would it not be possible to progress in other areas?

No need to be good at everything for beautiful accomplishments

Developing new skills is not only a personal plus. We learn in order to do, and it is the quality of our productions that serves as a benchmark of our effort.

When people hear “Designers should learn how to code”, we often interpret this as “designers should be as talented as full-time developers”.

Personally, I interpret this as, it is important to know the possibilities and the limits in order to create. To understand why it’s impossible and how it works. This understanding cuts down on the number of back-and-forth and makes it possible to build a relevant project that’s easier to produce.

In the case of user experience design, it is necessary to look at user behavior and thus to know how to extract the most information from analytical tools. One must check the pertinence of content or information and as a result, the architecture of the data base or the product information model. When creating customer pathways, one has to think about access and so SEO. When working on interactions, one must know the limits of the technology being used. In short, many fields mesh.

It is not necessary to be talented in each of these areas, far from it. But to know the basics in each of these fields makes the work more relevant and easier to understand for our clients and co-workers.

A unified process favors better results

If we accept this holistic vision, design then becomes a simple component in a much more important effort. Design works that never get past the mock-up phase are not real. Design is nothing without implementation.

The development process for the product or the site, must ensure that this overall view is maintained. We all work with the same goal in mind: getting out the product, getting out the site. Better implementation will better reveal the designer’s intentions, and a better design will better reflect the product’s objective. That’s the underlying thread that ties each step: the product must reflect a unique vision and offer a coherent explanation of why it will be a success.
Maintaining this red thread overrides all individual points of view and all political considerations that arise from an area of expertise (design, development, marketing, etc.)

It’s with this type of dynamic that products are created by small multi-disciplinary teams reap such success despite the numerous constraints the teams face. It will be easier for a small team to align on a same objective, especially if the designer and the developer speak the same language. The designer will also have adapted his/her creation to the technology used by the developer and the latter will pay particular attention to spacing, types, and design guidelines.

This system means that we recognize that we are no longer in front of linear processes. Design and development must nourish one another in an equal manner. Often, development reveals design flaws: undocumented or unforeseen status updates and conditions, poor hypotheses with regards to use, and many other events that are difficult to foresee when a project is still locked away in Photoshop. A designer who participates in the implementation of his/her work experiences these loops directly and can make appropriate changes in an environment that’s close to the final context. 

A multi-disciplinary approach is not there so a designer shoulders the role of developer or project manager.

It must be developed to fluidify dialogue and enable optimization of our work and our process. Promoting a multi-disciplinary approach means allowing for better communication and favoring a common project vision. In that manner, a project is not the succession of mini-projects difficult to fit together and completed by a multitude of experts.

A project becomes a solidly networked “all”, built by a team of generalists who share a common goal.


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Profile of a Generalist: the story of a multi-disciplinary approach