Specialist vs generalist designers

You’ve just opened a restaurant, and you’re looking at the applications for a new chef. You need someone who can manage the kitchen, as well as deliver an excellent culinary experience for your small but growing clientele. You’re hiring the backbone of your business, and it’s the most important hire you’ll make.

There’s quite a selection. There’s a dessert chef, a pastry chef, a fish chef, a meat chef, and a fry cook. None of them makes the cut. They are all too specialist. You need a chef who can handle it all. You need a generalist.

For new teams or orgs with a low-level of design maturity, the best design hires are generalists. They have some coding chops. They know how to conduct and synthesise research. They can build prototypes and create production-quality design systems. They’re also great at bringing the team together in workshops, and mentoring juniors. They plug all the gaps you need to get a return on what you pay them.

Only when the design function matures and can no longer maintain so many spinning plates, does it make sense to bring in specialists. You need someone well-rounded who can wear many hats and wrangle a variety of problems. There comes a tipping point where it’s just not feasible to be developing the pastry offering whilst also training the sous chef on the menu, much like it’s not possible for a generalist designer to be planning complex research whilst also keeping up their collaboration with developers.

At this tipping point, hiring a specialist pastry chef or a highly skilled researcher at this stage makes perfect sense. You know it’s a vital part of the service. And a specialist can deepen the quality of that function, far better than a generalist. The generalist can learn something from the specialist, too.

So it’s not a matter of a specialist being better than a generalist, or vice versa. It’s a reasonably stagnant debate. It’s a matter of being in the right role, at the right time, for the kind of practitioner you are. A generalist is a pioneer. A specialist is a Settler or a City Planner.

You’ll find the same is true in startups. The lean, daring qualities that generalist founders have don’t tend to carry over into the latter stages where you they need to grow and scale the business.

But there’s another definition to “specialist” that often gets overlooked. You can be a specialist generalist. If you were opening a sushi restaurant, you’d want a sushi chef. Not a sushi dessert chef.

For a fintech startup, you’d probably want to hire a generalist designer who has experience in the finance sector. This type of specialism matters, because specific knowledge of an industry is giving them a significant leg up to someone who is a sound designer, but is entirely new to the ins and outs of the financial world.

It comes down to trade-offs. A generalist can go fast on their own. A specialist can go far with others. Both are equally valuable and come into play at different stages of the life of a system.