Specialisation in Design Roles

To what extent should a designer specialise? Can somebody perform UX/IA design as well as graphic design as well as the craft of markup and styling? And does that increase their effectiveness? Is it in fact only possibly to span two of these areas? And what does “effectiveness” mean in this context?

That last question makes me think that in fact it’s probably all just boring old capitalist economics.

If you look at the history of other industries from the point of view of role specialisation, there is a reasonably regular pattern over time. They start off with generalist roles. They then move into specialisation, and are only really forced back into generalisation again in the face market forces. If they do move back, the specialist phase is often associated with a “golden age” of quality in the industry. The old hands then look at contemporary works and disclaim that they don’t make them like they used to. The cause of this complaint is often because there’s nobody around any more who knows how to bind a book, upholster a couch, or typeset a page. The fact that machines displace manual labour is brought about by the fact that the business case for such labour – and its resulting quality – declines in the face of price competition. After all, do you really need a panel-beaten car, or stained glass windows?

If they don’t move back, it’s usually because the market they operate in affords success to those that innovate, or those that produce intangible value that drives demand. This is true of the financial industries, entertainment media and luxury goods manufacture. This is not true of construction or the automotive industry. So wither digital media?

My guess is that at this point the value of quality in digital media is not very well appreciated by those who look at business cases for it. Most ventures start as cottage enterprises where roles cannot specialise. In a typical start-up, there’s no money for somebody to think through the IA and perform useful customer research because it’s more important to think about what the icons should look like and whether or not they can float over the home screen on Android devices. Specialisation therefore gets a bad name as being “inefficient”.

However, what I would like to see more evidence of is what “inefficient” means. I suspect the old saying is correct: if you think hiring an expert is expensive, just wait for how much an amateur will cost you.