So you’re starting a design career, and you’d like to know what to specialize in. Stop right there! That’s got to be the quickest way to guarantee your own defeat. I don’t know how many times I’ve been working with someone just starting out, and they say, “I only do book jackets,” or “don’t ask me to design websites.” To me it sounds like they’re saying, “I don’t ever want to learn, grow, be better, or make more money!”
My first “design” job while still in school was working for a company in St. Paul, MN, that published magazines full of home plans. I helped with layout work a little, but mostly, I just used the eraser tool in Photoshop 4–I know that dates me, but I’m OK with it–to clean up dust and smudges on hires black-and-white scans of plans, elevations, and artists renderings. There were times I thought I could fall asleep doing that! But I persevered and I’m now grateful for the attention to detail that first job taught me.
My next “design” job was in Denver, CO, working for a company that did websites and specialized in multimedia CD-Roms. It was while employed there that I got my first freelance job converting annual reports from print to web version for Barker Design, Inc. The combination of print, website, and multimedia design work really expanded my options later, and taught me some principles of design that could translate from one medium to another–and just as importantly, what could not!
Why try new stuff?
The first reason to try new stuff: you don’t know what you don’t know. Let’s pretend that I had stopped with that first job, doing image clean-up for the home plans company. I had a good skillset in print work, and an eye for detail. I could have worked in print forever for say magazines, newspapers, or doing brochures and flyers. Back in 1996, the Internet had just started picking up steam, blogging was a dream at best, and video on the web would have been mocked to scorn. I could have stayed in Printville forever…until the newspapers and magazines started going digital. I didn’t know I could have lost my job/career/skillset to obsolescence.
Too many people have an unwillingness to learn. In this industry–or any field for that matter–you’ve got to be willing to learn from everything. Have you ever had someone ask you, “How do I do [insert basic computer task],” and you could answer, and therefore teach, because you took the time previously to learn? Have you ever needed another’s opinion to help solidify something you already thought but were a little fuzzy on some detail or another? I think you’re already in the learning mode, else why would you be reading this?
I’ll draw from personal experience to illustrate the point. I was working for I.E. Productions as a multimedia designer back in the days of doing CD-Roms for sales presentations. Gary Stewart, partner and Creative Director, asked me if I’d ever done motion design for commercials before. I said no, but I can learn. I immediately installed the copy of After Effects 3.1 on my personal laptop and began playing with it in my off-hours. I worked on the graphics for my first commercial within a month, and within a year I helped work on a spot that received a Silver Rockie award, doing all the post in After Effects.
When to start thinking about specializing
Now that I’ve convinced you to stay away from specializing when you start out designing, you’re probably asking yourself, “Is there a good time to start specializing?” The short answer is yes. It has to be the right timing, and circumstances. In my experience, I have had times where I had to specialize for a while. But there are a few things to remember when choosing a specialty.
Start broad, like I’ve been telling you so far. This will help you more than you can imagine once you pick something to specialize in. You’ll have alternate perspectives to draw from. You’ll be able to talk the lingo of those with whom you’ll be dealing on other parts of the project. You might just have a better or faster process developed for something completely different that you can bring into your specialty. For example, my hobby of metalwork helped me when planning to design a moving entry gate for ranch property developer Monviso. I was able to draw from experience with tensile strength, combining diverse metals, and structural mass for the steel and aluminum gate.
I’m not suggesting that waiting to specialize should make you a “Jack/Jill-of-all-trades, master-of-none.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be a terrible waste of your time and energies if, in your attempt to build a broad base, you become fodder for the handicapper general a la Harrison Bergeron. No, get a good base. Then build on it. Learn from others’ mistakes. Build on successes. Become a “Jack/Jill-of-all-trades, master of at least one!”
Keep your options open
Yes, I just suggested you master at least one trade. If you’ve some sense about yourself, you’ll find something relating to your first specialty, or in line with the process of your craft. Look, if I were designing cars for a living, I’d want to learn a little more about engines, drivetrains, etc. Then I’d be more prepared to not only design cool cars that could actually be built, but I’d know how to minimize costs and maximize performance. Job security.
Never settle into the “I only do” rut. How much more majestic is a mountain range, than a sole peak. When you do specialize, make sure you’ve got solid footing in other areas that you may build a mountain range of abilities. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci. He did it all from painting, to sculpture, to engineering. Be like him! There’s a quote I like from The Last Samurai. Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren, is observing the Samurai people he is living with and makes the comment: “From the moment they awake, they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue.” He’s talking about the way they discipline themselves in not just their training, but also cooking and gardening.
Finally, once you’ve decided on a specialty, realize that you’ll probably change your specialty before you retire. It has been said that our generation will have at least five different careers–not jobs or employers–before we retire. With the amount of effort it takes to start a new career, you’ll be much better prepared if you start with a broad base, specialize in one or two things, and when necessary, jump from one to the other as a career. You won’t want to reach that point and have to start all over in something completely different.