Creating a Balance Between Generalist and Specialist 

Creative professionals often have trouble explaining their winding career paths to the business world. In turn, business professionals are frequently unaware how a creative professional can possess such a diverse range of skills and still be equipped to solve their specific challenges.

Architecture of school

By Angela Yeh, Founder and Chief Talent Strategist, Yeh IDeology and the Thrive by Design Program

Creative professionals often have trouble explaining their winding career paths to the business world. In turn, business professionals are frequently unaware how a creative professional can possess such a diverse range of skills and still be equipped to solve their specific challenges.

These misunderstandings limit the success of both the business and the creative professional. Design is one of the most complicated and competitive industries in which to develop a successful career. Sadly, some design professionals find that over time, they are not advancing as they hoped within the industry, and notice they do not love their work or are not earning what they deserve. 

Business needs design more than ever to help solve the challenges they face, and creatives deliver their best work when they are aligned with the mission of the work. There are needs to be met for both parties, and it’s the designer’s prerogative to solve the challenge of how their collective work can be mutually beneficial. When design and business both grow from their collaborations, the result is incredibly powerful.

I’ve spent my career teaching creative professionals how to speak to the business world and how to build a successful career. As I’ve seen career paths evolve, many creative professionals explore building a career within the corporate world or as a business owner, as well as freelance, contract, and consulting practices. I call this taking the intrapreneur or the entrepreneur track. While the opportunities in these tracks are different, many of the problems creative professionals face are similar.

Generalist or Specialist

One of the most common pieces of career branding advice is to specialize as much as possible, even to the point of developing a sub-specialty. This doesn’t always work for designers, who dislike being boxed-in to a specialty. Therein lies the challenge: how does one specialize to meet the needs of the market, if designers don’t want to be labeled or categorized? Should designers follow their impulses at the risk of becoming a generalist, or do they forsake their multitude of passions to become specialized in one area of expertise, so that business can understand what they do? In truth there is a balance that needs to be developed between one’s own goals and business requirements. 

Creative professionals are highly attuned to the sensation of “flow” they experience when following their passions, so they tend to evolve their area of expertise faster than any other profession, and often thrive in this constantly changing state. They represent a particular archetype of talent, forward thinkers, and movers who thrive when embracing new pursuits. For employers and clients who equate value with individuals that have a long history of expertise, this type of work history is a disconnect. Yet employers and clients tend to value experts who have a long-standing history in the expertise they seek. Creating a balance between a generalist and specialist mentality is the key to creating a successful career in design.

The Designer’s Challenge

Designers and creatives are driven by curiosity. For instance, a designer could start with a foundation of industrial design skills in consumer products and evolve into developing user experience skills in mobile internet-of-things devices. They could then migrate to strategy skills in brand development and continue to move into service design in customer experience. If you were to look at that evolution from the eyes of a non-creative hiring manager or human resources, it could be confusing to understand that career path. They’d ask, “Who is this person and what is their expertise?” But from a designer’s standpoint, this person is an expert in design. 

“I’m a Designer and I solve problems.” Design professionals are often capable of solving a wide array of challenges — from physical products to digital services, to organizational or commercial systems, to culture settings. This ability to draw on seemingly disparate experiences in authoring solutions for new challenges before them is a designer superpower. 

Many designers we meet — at all levels of professional achievement — begin their story with the statement: “I am a designer and I solve problems.” Designers love this phrase because it leaves the door open to many possibilities. As multidisciplinary problem-solvers, designers are often able to juggle a wide range of responsibilities. What they fear is being stuck in a position or industry that draws on just one area of their expertise. 

Unfortunately, when designers seek advice from traditional career coaches, they are often told to just pick one specialty and market and stick to it. This is too restricted for creatives, and they can lose their state of flow and thus their creativity. Curiosity for that topic or category evaporates and it becomes rote. Designers will always want to evolve their area of expertise, their range of skills, or the type of problems they want to solve. That is the nature of being a designer. 

To address this problem, designers cannot only quantify their current range of expertise, but must identify how they are evolving, validating, and qualifying future paths. I help design professionals understand their market, attract it, and win the best opportunities by working with them on how they understand themselves as specialists and how they can frame their value. We’ve seen this introspection result in design careers elevating by an exponential level.



Case Study: Jacob

When you don’t know what you’re capable of, you won’t know what to strive for. 

One of our recent clients was a 44-year-old designer named Jacob. Jacob built a solid 20-year career in industrial design and became a talented senior product designer for a well known electronics manufacturer. He led the design of their top product lines, until he was laid off. Since then, he and his family moved to Indiana. Jacob pursued design roles there, working through the local chamber of commerce and business networks, but found nothing. He scoured the local chamber of commerce and business networks and found nothing. In Jacob’s words: 

“I was shooting for design manager or senior designer roles but somehow I could not land the interviews. I tried to switch to teaching – didn’t make enough money. I tried running my own studio – didn’t make enough money. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to love it nor that it would last long, I finally started working for a new company where I was brought in to develop and produce a new product line. This was the first product this company had successfully produced in the last 20 years and what I developed for them will end up carrying them for the next 20 years. While management would never let me go, the work was no longer compelling enough for me.” 

Continuous job-hopping and countless Interviews led Jacob to believe he wasn’t finding the jobs he wanted. He knew he wanted to love his work, but he didn’t know what he wanted next. And in the end he wanted to be able to support his family. 

“Financially, I’ve hit as high as $150k at the job I loved a few years back. Then I dropped so low, when I was trying to teach and run my own business, I won’t even go into it. I’ve since come back up to 120K but I know I’m worth much more than that. Most of all I don’t want to lose the love for what I do or fall out of the industry, like I’ve seen happen to some friends.” 

Like many design professionals, money was not his main driver. However, compensation can be an interesting indication of how well you know your unique value proposition (UVP), and how well you own it and represent it. 

Jacob came to us stuck at the “Senior Designer Ceiling,” one of the most common career ceilings a design professional faces. Many senior designers at this point are highly capable of a wide variety of abilities and are stuck in a generalist perspective, not knowing which combination of those abilities advance in their career — that’s what Jacob needed to figure out. 

While enrolled in Thrive By Design, Jacob developed an understanding of his talent algorithm and how to cultivate it to take his career to the next level. He realized that his true passion flowed from his expertise in leading research and development for new product creation and developing new business models and infrastructure to support those initiatives. We showed him how to identify the top areas of opportunity where he could best succeed. Jacob started to attract the right opportunities that would merit his high caliber and broad range of abilities. He realized he already was the leader he wanted to be. 

While it’s important to know what you’re capable of, knowing how to represent yourself is a totally different set of skills to master. One of the most impactful aspects of the program is the Thrivers Weekly Group Sessions. Alongside other fellow thrivers rapidly evolving their careers, Jacob honed his abilities to represent himself in mock interviews, and reframed his resume and portfolio. He learned to qualify job opportunities, craft the role that he wanted, and even mastered negotiating for what he knew his expertise was worth.


The Employer’s Challenge

We talked about the almost compulsive need for designers to evolve and diversify. Let’s now explore this challenge from our customer’s perspective. 

The designer’s customer is business. Oftentimes business doesn’t know what design expertise is, especially while it’s constantly evolving. 20 years ago, design was an unknown industry. In the last 10 years, the business world has realized design can solve a multitude of problems and challenges, and the pandemic has drastically sped up this realization. 

However, when it comes to identifying design talent and expertise – regardless of agency or individual that could best solve that problem – looking at design talent is incredibly confusing for business leaders and hiring managers. 

When I speak to business leaders, they ask, “What kind of agency or person do we need? Shouldn’t the designer come from our industry? What kind of design expertise do we need? Do we need a customer experience or service design expert? Do we need someone specializing in UX or strategy to solve this problem?” 

As a recruiter, I play in the nexus between employer and talent and between business and design. Beyond appreciation for the end product, business does not always understand how design works. It’s a challenge for businesses to comprehend design thinking, let alone understand which design expert is the best one for them. 

I believe that it’s the mission of all design professionals to understand how to help cross this chasm by becoming skilled at representing the role of design in business, including the amount of time, agency, and funding it takes to support design at a level that leads to excellent results. Today, there are thousands of designers out there — far more design professionals than businesses care to choose from. It presents already unprepared hiring teams with a paradox of choice. Vetted applicants from a diverse range of backgrounds and expertise all claim to be able to solve their problems. Over dozens of candidates, the “I solve problems” promise wears thin. 

This creates a problem for businesses that don’t know what type of design expertise they need. While each design professional is indeed capable of solving a wide range of problems in their unique way, it’s hard for hirers to distinguish between talent and decide who is the best fit. 

Keep in mind that employers and clients gravitate to experts who have a long history refining the expertise they seek. Years spent as a specialist in this industry is a brittle but entrenched metric. Hiring managers and HR professionals often ask, “Why did that design director leave her job after just two years?” As creative professionals, we know that tenure may not indicate one’s ability to solve a problem. In fact, a more divergent career path may indicate that a candidate is a more compelling match for their needs. 

Why this path, and the expertise it represents, are compelling is up to the candidate to explain. This means understanding how their diversified portfolio of experiences aligns with the client or employer’s needs. How best to represent themselves as the expert for a company’s needs — when their career path has been so varied — is a complicated science. These stories of alignment are different for each design professional seeking a step up and vary depending on the client they are speaking to.


Design Strategist Can Mean Different Things

Design terminology is being adopted by other disciplines. Terms like “product design,” “actionable insights,” and “strategy” can be found in diverse job descriptions. Employers and design professionals who are unnecessarily creative in the design roles they create can further cloud things. Catalysts, Provocateurs, and Disruption Officers may look great on a business card, but they confound HR teams. 

A first step in the Yeh IDeology process is a gap analysis, conducted with our recruitment clients, to understand their team landscape. In this assessment, we move past the titles and job descriptions to help the hiring team clarify their design team structure and calibrate their needs for the open role. We assess the product categories, representative initiatives, and varying design challenges in the role. Do the open positions require more research, strategy setting, or design implementation skills? Do they require a high level of corporate diplomacy? 



Angela Yeh leading a Thrive by Design master class. 


Through this process, the hiring team may realize that their archetype for an ideal designer may change drastically depending on the priorities driving their corporate initiatives. Descriptions for the scope of responsibilities and range of expertise for ideal candidates may need to be fine-tuned. 

In one recent engagement, the company already had a top-notch design team, but the product management teams were in vastly different stages of design awareness. They were also on different pages concerning the investment needed for a new hire who could marshal the adoption of a new universal design system. The hiring team identified this challenge as the leading criterion for the position. In the end, they needed a design strategist, who could bridge the gap between the design group and the different product management teams, while serving as a liaison between separate design units. 

Our talent assessment process similarly looks beyond the title and industry. In our experience, an ideal candidate may come from a variety of backgrounds. They may currently hold roles with titles like designer, researcher, or strategist. They may currently work within customer experience or service design teams. In this instance, our client was surprised to find that their three top candidates, equally qualified for this role, had widely differing backgrounds and unique value propositions (UVPs).

Balancing Needs

Getting the balance between generalist and specialist right starts by establishing the ideal balance between your own needs and those of your customer. That balance each of us seeks is unique for what we offer for each of our customers — our UVP. Ask yourself, “What is my Unique Value Proposition for this customer?” 

When a designer is talented, multidisciplinary, and capable, it’s harder to define their UVP. We call their suite of abilities a talent algorithm. When a business is unfamiliar with evaluating design backgrounds, this equation can be confusing. It is incumbent on the designer in these instances to understand what they can offer each customer and know how to represent that value. What the business needs from you is your UVP. Empowering professionals to identify and own their talent algorithms and to credibly and successfully articulate their UVPs in the pursuit of step-change roles is the UVP I’ve defined for Yeh IDeology. 

Learning how to distinguish where you sit in the design industry and how to represent your perspective is The Work. Those who ascend develop a clear understanding of how their unique combination of industry experience, design expertise, facility with tools and methods, and passion for the goals they seek come together in the context of the roles they are pursuing. 

After moving through the Thrive By Design curriculum, Jacob interviewed and won a role as a design engineering manager at a top company near where he lived that came with a $50,000 salary increase over his previous position. He was brought in to expand this company’s offerings, identify new clientele, and develop new products. The role was a substantial jump in scope and responsibility. Having mastered how to envision his best future and make it a reality, Jacob has broken through the senior designer ceiling, moved up into management, and is evolving his professional skills, all while making a bigger impact at a company that respects and values his expertise. 



Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 021

Thrive by Design Masterclass

Understanding your unique characteristics, skills, and career desires is a critical step in guiding your career evolution. We call this assessment of expertise a talent algorithm. In our Thrive By Design Masterclass program we help designers assess their body of work alongside their distinctive abilities, insights, and expertise to craft their own talent algorithm. No talent algorithm is the same. They reflect an individual’s problem-solving methodology, aesthetic sensibility, technical know-how, communication skills, and leadership and management skills, among other characteristics. But because creative professionals evolve faster than most, we push past quantifying their current range of expertise. We want them to develop a deeper understanding of how they are evolving. What career paths are they drawn to? How can we validate and qualify those futures? What is the market for their expertise? How should they understand their value as specialists in these markets? Ultimately, we teach them to frame that story, so that they win the best opportunities with talent seekers. It requires introspection. The reward is design careers with exponential growth.