Specialist vs. Generalist: Which Web Design Career Path Is Right For You?

The path you choose will play a role in the direction of your web design career

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I often respond by saying that “I am a web designer.” It is an easy answer that most people can understand, but the reality is that the title “web designer” is an umbrella term that can cover a number of much more specific careers within the web design industry.

In a broad sense, web design careers can be broken down into two categories – specialists and generalists. Specialists focus on one particular branch or discipline within the industry while a generalist has a workable knowledge of multiple areas.

There is value in each of these career directions. Understanding the opportunities they each offer is an important step in determining which path may be right for your career.

The Generalist

There are many, many branches of knowledge that grown from the tree that is website design. Someone who identifies as a “web designer” is likely to have an understanding of design principals, front-end development (HTML, CSS, Javascript, responsive web design), search engine optimization, usability and accessibility best practices, website performance, and more. A generalist is someone who possesses a working knowledge in many of these areas, and while they may not know everything that there is to know about any one particular area, they are at least fluent enough to use that knowledge in their work. In many cases, they may be what is known as an “80 percenter.”

The 80 Percenter

Yvon Chouinard, the founder at the clothing company Patagonia, talks about the concept of the “80 percenter” in his book, “Let My People Go Surfing.” I first read Yvon’s quote in an article by web designer, Dan Cederholm, and I immediately identified with this concept. Yvon says:

“I've always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession that doesn't appeal to me.”

This is an accurate description of the generalist career path in web design. Getting to 80 percent proficiency with the various disciplines in web design is absolutely enough to have a working knowledge of that skill. The remaining 20 percent is often so specialized that the focus needed to acquire that knowledge (often at the expense of learning other skills and becoming an 80 percenter in additional areas) is often unnecessary in the scope of a web professional’s normal day-to-day work. That does not mean that this specialized knowledge is never needed. There are certainly instances that require that level of specialization, and these are the instances when a specialist is called for.

The Specialist

Any of the various branches and disciplines in web design lend themselves to specialization, but as the quote from Yvon Chouinard states, the obsession required to achieve this knowledge and rise above that 80 percent proficiency level is substantial. To achieve this, other skills must typically be neglected in favor of the specialization. This means that instead of having a working knowledge in multiple areas, a specialist is keenly focused on being an expert in their specific area. This can be incredibly important in those instances where “working knowledge” is not enough to get the job done.

Choose Your Path

There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these career paths. The generalist’s well rounded knowledge base makes them more marketable in many ways. For agencies and teams that require employees to wear multiple hats, a generalist will be who they are looking for.

If an agency has a special focus in on particular area, however, then a generalist’s knowledge may not be sufficient. In these instances, a specialist will be required for the position that the agency is looking to fill - and since there are far more generalists in the web industry than specialists, when a specialist is called for, these skills can make that person highly desirable.

Ultimately, choosing between a generalist and a specialist is not only about what it does to your marketability; it is also about what appeals to you on a personal level. Many web professionals enjoy the ability to be involved in multiple areas of a project. Others like the specialization of one area in which they are passionate about. In the end, the web design industry needs both generalists and specialists, so which ever path you choose is one that will be step towards a successful web design career.