16 Aug 2017
Why You Need To Be A Generalist Designer

Why You Need To Be A Generalist Designer

A long time ago, when I started in graphic arts (pre-computers, if you can believe it!), roles were very narrow. Becoming a graphic designer meant you trained to be a specialist at some point on the production line from concept to finished product. My original training was in graphic reproduction, which involved reproducing images for print and no longer exists as a job.

There’s also no longer an emphasis on specialising in one particular area, which is just as well given the rapid change in technology. Just as you master one thing, there’s something new to replace it. Stuff coming over the horizon will test a lot of designers and how quickly they are able to adapt. For instance, I was asked to freelance recently on some VR with “360 stereographic, volumetric and photogrammetry with 3D animations”.

Given that I’m still working in the industry, I must be doing something right. So, I thought I’d share my secrets on how I managed to outlast my training.

Use Design Thinking

If you are a visual designer of any type, you need to play by the basic rules of design _or at least, know them so you can break them. This includes typography (hierarchies, font mixing, font weights and general typographic styles), colour (Josef Albers’ interactions of colour is a great starting place), form, space, and imagery. Use these basic approaches to find creative solutions to your brief, whether it’s 2D, 3D, motion, web or print. The platform or output does not matter, find the solution. Destination matters far more than the process in design.


If a client has a PDF do you think they give a shit how it was created? NO! What matters is how fast you can get a concept on the page, stage, or screen. Also, consider whether you will change the document or someone else. If it’s the latter, what’s their skill level and do they have the tools to edit it? A rough example would be a GIF for web, do you use After Effects? Photoshop? Or even some other kind of web based animator? Define your workflow before you even pick up a stylus or mouse.

Understand The UX Of Graphic Applications And Keyboard Shortcuts

Start with the basics. Once you figure out the keyboard commands for one product in a graphics application, say Photoshop, you will probably be on the money if you try it throughout the entire stack. For example, Command-A (or CTRL+A) is almost universally the function to select all, whether it’s an Adobe or Microsoft Office or even a browser. Once you know commands, you can use these to create hierarchies in Word, PowerPoint, or hell, even Outlook if you are feeling bold! This also applies to operating systems. For example, Command-Tab cycles through your applications on a Mac, while ALT +TAB does the same thing on Windows. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising sometimes to see designers who figure that since they haven’t used a particular tool before, they don’t know how to use it.

Know How To Manage Client Expectations

Your client wants a 10-minute video that requires massive post-production but has next to no budget. What do you do? Suggest something that will create the same outcome. It’s up to you how you do this, maybe it’s a scaled down version of the video or maybe it’s something else entirely, but make sure you are on the same page as your client from the very beginning.

Be Curious

See something jaw dropping? Find out how they made it. Figure out the concepts and applications behind it. While it is most definitely not cool to rip off someone else’s work, design is a constantly growing lexicon of form, shape and time so keep your finger on the pulse! We all have our strengths. Know what yours are and play to them. We also have our weaknesses, and it’s a matter of working to overcome them as much as possible.

Obviously, these are very broad strokes, but once you realise that you can apply your skillset and strengths to multiple design tasks, you can offer more to clients as a designer than just straight-up 2D design.


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