In order to make sense of the complex web of design roles, it can be helpful to think of a generalist-specialist spectrum. While few designers would describe themselves as a “generalist” or a “specialist” at a first point of call – and the language is rather binary for the nuanced nature of the field – we can appreciate the essence of this scale in the view that every designer, with their unique skill set, falls somewhere on it. You may prefer to identify as a T-shaped designer though. In fact, every designer has some sort of T-shape!
At Spotify, we have a community of more than 400 designers and each band member possesses their own set of skills. Like an actual band, some people can play many instruments equally well, while others are virtuoso at one. Even the so-called specialists have multiple layers of knowledge and skill, though. So, what really makes a generalist or a specialist?
In this two-part series, we’ll talk to generalist and specialist designers at Spotify who identify themselves as such. We’ll dig into what they get up to on a daily basis, why they chose their path, what their skill set brings to a team, and what their T-shape – their design DNA – looks like. First up, we hear from two generalists, Siri Johansson and Casey Cavanagh, who share their T-shaped journey.
Siri Johansson, Staff Designer
As a generalist, what does your role at Spotify entail?
I typically work in the earlier stages of projects, on design strategy. Sometimes I follow through to delivery but this is rare. To me, the classic problem setting versus problem solving contrast is helpful when defining what sets generalists apart from specialists. If you put these on a scale, I’m further towards the problem-setting space and figuring out what we should do next.
This means I combine what we know about user behavior and their needs, with the needs of the organization and its stakeholders. From there, I set direction and project tactics, ideally in close collaboration with product and tech partners. Sometimes I proactively propose new workstreams unasked, if a potential opportunity or problem has gone unnoticed. I use classic UI/UX prototyping skills and craft narratives to tell a convincing story of what we should do, and why.
I still care deeply about the quality of execution, but I’m the first to admit that it’s not where I excel. ‘Building the right thing’ and ‘building the thing right’ are equally important, so I leave decisions on how we achieve quality in delivery to colleagues who are specialists in design systems, accessibility etc.
What's your advice for people considering following a generalist path?
Don’t start out as a generalist. The way to be confident in a generalist role is to first put in the time to develop specialist skills. That might sound counterintuitive but the trick is to take specialist knowledge and be able to generalize it in other domains. You do that by following a path you’re passionate about, staying open-minded and absorbing tangential knowledge and skills along the way. Know that most design methodologies are applicable to any type of design. The material is where the specialist knowledge comes in. I’m initially trained in how to design for aluminum extrusion, plastic moldings, porcelain etc. as an industrial designer. Needless to say, that’s not something I have much use for in my day-to-day as a digital product designer. The materials change but the approaches and methods of need-finding, sketching, ideation, prototyping and so on – they’re the same.
Having specialist skills is also (usually) what gets you hired as a junior designer, in my experience. You start a design career answering simpler, predefined questions and progress towards detangling more complicated ones – if you want to. A simple question, e.g. “What can we sit on?” can be solved in a multitude of ways (stools, chairs, sofas, etc.). Harder problems with many, and often conflicting, needs mean many possible ways of asking the question (What is our manufacturing capacity? What are markets that we want to break into? Who are our competitors? What constraints do our suppliers have? How do we monetize?), and the answers multiply to the power of X.
There’s a need for great specialists to answer questions easy and hard, but the latter kind benefits from generalists with an ability to pull from a big (and shallow) toolbox. You can work to own the question definition, or you keep honing your craft of solving predefined questions. That’s kind of how I see it. That’s the reason I moved on from industrial design. I thought the briefs were too set when they reached my table.
If you don’t specialize in a design discipline, how do you stand out?
Think about what design skills are detached from materiality, and applicable to any domain. Collect methods and experience that helps you tackle uncertainty and make you more comfortable working in foggy terrain. Become the expert of and go-to person for that. There’s more inertia in the generalist methodologies compared to a specialist who’s working with ever-evolving material technology, whether it be photo editing, pixel pushing or 3D printing. I don’t see problem definition and solutionizing in the intersection of people/business/technology being automated any time soon so there’s real longevity in that ability.
Depending on the design maturity of a company, a generalist might have a harder time explaining or showcasing their skills to the teams they work with, so be ready to lean in and initiate things without being asked to. People might not know what to come to you for at first.
What do generalists bring to a team? I think the crux here is, even as a generalist, you will have things you specialize in. But what I’d generally expect from someone in that role is the ability to effortlessly switch perspective between an ecosystem and vision level, by way of user flows, down to detailed design, and to understand how each decision affects the next level down.
Ultimately the way I think about my role, it’s about sense-making: helping others think better, together.