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Tips for Young Designers: Diversify Your Skills or Die

There is no denying it, in recent years the trend has been towards specialization. While specialist can command a higher price from a select audience for the short-term, this is not a great way to build a long-term career. Let’s look at what some of the challenges are of specialization and just how much should you diversify your skills.

While specialist can command a higher price from a select audience for the short-term, this is not a great way to build a long-term career. Let’s look at what some of the challenges are of specialization and just how much should you diversify your skills.

For starters, as mentioned, specialists can command a higher return for their hard-won sharply honed skills, but they also have a limited audience to sell those skills to. Without a wider range of competencies, the specialist will often have trouble seeing the forest from the trees, limiting their ability to deliver a strategic vision and limiting their role to the tactical level.

Worse, specialization often comes with an expiration date. It is only a matter of time before the specialist’s skills are no longer the hot new skill or method, something else can come along to displace it. If not, then others will follow the money and learn enough of the skill set to make it work and slowly saturate the market, leaving the specialist to gripe about the unwashed masses of barbarians at the gate and how clients should be more discerning.

Many agencies love specialists. Agencies can compartmentalize specialists, and by doing so, can bill for multiple layers of services and justify higher fees for greater levels of specialization. But creativity and product development cannot be built with an assembly line process, and knowledge workers are not line workers. The most dynamic and productive teams are cross-functional with T-shaped team members who are cross-trained in more than one discipline.

In technology, where every field is changing constantly and rapidly, we must all continuously adapt or die. So true is this maxim that one former associate left a promising career as a chip designer when he realized to be at the top of his game he would have to specialize to the extent of ignoring all else. If he were lucky, the area he chose to concentrate would take off, and he could ride the rocket until something else came along in a few years. But by then, he would become unemployable until he could start to retrain in a new technological specialty.

The Value of Diversification

In their seminal paper The New New Product Development Game by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, the authors include some advice from a manager at Epson. “I tell my people to be well-versed in two technological fields and in two functional areas, like design and marketing,” according to the manager, he continued, “even in an engineering-oriented company like ours, you can’t get ahead without the ability to foresee developments in the market.”

For myself, I have chosen the two technical fields of User Experience and Product Strategy (driven by both Agile and Lean thinking). For my two functional areas, my focus is on both product design/management and branding. Combining the lenses of product development and brand into a holistic view of the product, users and customers—plus the ability to understand the market at large—gives me an enormous advantage over someone who can only focus on a single cog of the machine.

Diversifying your knowledge base also helps hedge against one skill becoming obsolete, simply not that hot anymore or market saturation. Just enough diversification also allows higher level thinking, opening the door to being able to build a strategic vision. When this happens, your value increases, but in this case, for the long-term.

To be clear, I am not encouraging you to become a jack of all trades, master of none. But rather, a master of more than specialty.

The challenge with diversification is of course that you will have to learn more. And before you can start to provide strategic thinking of any value, you need to have a mastery of your skills—not just a working knowledge. Attaining this level of broad and deep mastery means it will take time and dedication to get there. Perhaps this is why some people prefer specialization; there is simply less to learn.

Photo Edgaras Maselskis.