Avoid Becoming a “Jack of All Trades”

web design students becoming a jack of all trades skills for web design students

Before I start, this is a very controversial subject. Some people think that you can learn everything while others think that you should specialize in exactly one thing. This is merely an opinion, from which you are allowed to take what you want.

The Pitfalls of Doing it All

While I was in school, I was always amazed by those who seemed like they could do it all. Branding and identity, web design and development, motion graphics, social media, marketing… the list goes on and on. When I read about these designers, I wanted to model myself exactly like one of them. They seemed to be able to do all of the cool stuff and were never short of a client. While this may be true, theres a big problem with this theory. Being the best. None of those designers were the best, and they never will be.

When you can do it all, you can never be the best at one thing. By spreading yourself over so many areas, you will never be able to be fully developed in one area. All areas of design are constantly growing and all develop at different rates. When you are finally able to catch up in one area, all other areas fall behind in skill level. By spreading out and learning a little about each, you will always be several years behind in all areas.

By spreading yourself over so many areas, you will never be able to be fully developed in one area.

Find a Focus

The best part about school is you have many opportunities to find something you enjoy doing. Experiment with everything. Find an area you enjoy the most and focus your attention on that (that doesn’t mean stop trying everything else). You may continue find something that you enjoy more. The main goal of school is to find and learn things about all areas, that way you can decide what you enjoy the most.

web design students becoming a jack of all trades skills for web design students

Nobody likes a “know-it-all.” Photo credit Troy Cummings.

Carry Over Knowledge From Other Areas

One thing that it took me a while to figure out was that learning one area doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wasting your time on them. Learning motion graphics can help your 3D perception for building logos, or help with transitions in web design. There is always something you can carry over from one area or another, sometimes it just takes a little while to understand what.

Become the Best You Can Be

Once you’ve found your niche, do everything you can to be the best at it. Don’t ever stop learning about it. But the best part is, if you’ve found the area you enjoy the most, you won’t have to try to keep up, you’ll want to.

A Final Note

Being a designer isn’t about trying to be the jack of all trades, its about using your skills to create a better world, to help others. Design shouldn’t be about competing to be the best designer, or the one who has the most skills, it should be about combining the best skills you have with the best skills of others. Without a focus, you will never be able to make the difference that you potential could.



Written by Spencer Hamm

Spencer is a designer currently living in Dallas, TX and helping , tweeting and dribbbling. Oh, and peppermint milkshakes.

12 Comments

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  1. Collin Henderson on October 3, 2012

    I think it depends on your scope of "jack of all trades". Sure you're never going to find an amazingly talented designer who also is an expert at PHP, Ruby, Python, C, C++, Cocoa, COBOL etc, but I think you can find some pretty excellent hybrids out there. What truly makes a designer the best in their field? Is it there ability to draw things on a canvas? Design beautiful mockups? The world of the web is an interesting place becuase I think crossing skills doesn't have to be a bad thing. Designers and developers are always working closely together. I sell myself as a designer and front-end developer but I do a ton of PHP/MySQL, and even a little Cocoa development on the side. Designers need to understand the medium they're designing for, and a designer who also has some dev experience understands limitations, and possibilities, moreso than a strict designer.

    • Spencer Hamm on October 3, 2012

      Collin, I agree completely with you. I think it's more than possible to have a hybrid designer, one that can design and code well, especially as programming languages are getting much easier to use. I believe that in order to be a good web designer, you should be able to at least understand how it is being developed. I was pushing more for the fact that is so hard to be a "Motion and Web Designer/Developer" (just an example) because of the vast spread across the two mediums. But I do agree with you, that if you are becoming a web designer you should be able to at least learn to have an understanding of the concepts behind the more advanced languages, especially since they so equally relate the the speciality of being a web designer rather than being something completely opposite.

  2. Ryne Pittman on October 3, 2012

    This is dependent upon what trades we're talking about. The boundary between designer and developer has never been closer, thanks to content management systems like WordPress allowing more power to be at-hand for people who can't crunch the logic behind PHP like others do on a daily basis. Still, lots of good points here. Find your golden path, follow it, then move on to others if need be once you "nail down" the main set of knowledge you're looking for. Thanks for the last paragraph in this article. Working together and feeding each other's minds daily is way more effective than trying to be a one-man wolf pack.

  3. Sheena on October 3, 2012

    Nice blog post Spencer. Thanks for sharing! I think you made some very good points there, though I would have to say that I believe both specialisation in one particular subject and being a ‘jack of many trades’ come with their own advantages and disadvantages. As designers (or developers, or whatever you hope to be for that matter) we should always aim to learn, improve our skills, share our knowledge and strive to become ‘experts’ in our craft. Specialising in one area of the creative industry is a fantastic way of reaching that goal of becoming the best you can be, but I’ve found that it’s also extremely beneficial to be able to provide clients with multiple services – all at the same level of quality of course. Granted, if I was to try to offer additional services in other areas outside of my own speciality such as back-end development, copywriting, SEO or marketing for example, I’d really be spreading myself very thin! However I do feel it’s ok and acceptable to be skilled in a number of areas. Everyone is unique and with that bring their own set of skills to the table....just my two cents :-)

  4. Paul Stonier on October 3, 2012

    I fall right in the middle of you two. I think the point that you make about being open to learn different areas, because you can always bring it back to your specialty is especially true. From my experience, it makes the most sense to build a specialization, but as a set of skills rather than something overly focused. For example, I started out at a graphic designer that could do just about everything, but REALLY focused on typography. As time as gone on, I've found that the skillset that my clients needed was a web expert with a strong understanding of branding. For the majority of my projects it starts with developing a brand image, then taking that to build a website to market that brand. Therefore, in order to serve my clients well, I've had to learn the following skillsets to be able to meet their needs: Web Development (HTML, CSS, jQuery, PHP/MySQL, WordPress, etc), SEO, Responsive Web Design, Server Management, Video Streaming, Page Load Optimization, Email Marketing — while still pulling from my foundation of graphic design. I would consider myself an expert or close to it in some of those topics, but having the specialized knowledge as a package puts me into a Web Design expert, in my opinion. That allows me to be a full-service Web Design shop while working with back-end developers when needed. If I relied on an expert in each sub-topic, the overhead wouldn't make business sense. This way, I'm optimized to meet the needs of small to large businesses in my area.

  5. Sendoushi on October 3, 2012

    I totally agree with Collin Henderson. I'm also a designer that knows about PHP/MySql, AS3... and I think it's pretty important for the designer to know at least the basic about that. He shouldn't announce although he is the best guy on doing such areas and I guess he wouldn't like to advertise areas he doesn't like to work on. There is still another side of the coin. I would love to work only on web design (design and front end), although I love graphic and type design too but unfortunately, from own experience starting now my own company, it isn't easy to get works saying i'm only a web designer. I have to advertise sometimes more areas to see if I gather more work and still... hasn't been easy! I don't think it's the lack of quality but I do think it's the lack of the right connections. So, until I gather more work on web design I have to keep saying I do other works too.

  6. Travis Welborn on October 3, 2012

    It's like you said Spencer, it's all a matter of opinion! I tend to focus primarily on web related stuff but that doesn't mean I don't like to dabble in graphics or typography. It's all just a matter of what you're into, what you're comfortable with, and what you're comfortable "selling."

    • Spencer Hamm on October 4, 2012

      I completely agree with you Travis. That's the other fine line, is knowing when to take a break and expand out sometimes. I do think it's good to take time to explore other areas because usually when you come back you have a new perspective.

  7. Joshua Barker on October 5, 2012

    Story of my life. Good at everything, Great at nothing. But in a way, I am kind of ok with that, because I also don't want to be completely one dimensional. I think when it comes to web designers, there are at least two things we should be great at, and thats designing and developing. I think that way it would be very hard for us to NOT have a job. But again, opinion. Great read!

  8. Will Luce on October 15, 2012

    Just wanted to say thank you for addressing an issue that plagues us all. I also wanted to let you know that I linked to your article and cited you as a resource in an article of my own at www.themanymes.com. Again, thank you.

  9. Eric Morris on November 1, 2012

    While I agree that for most designers it makes sense to find a focus and stick with it, there's a major subset of people that I feel you might be overlooking: facilitators. For a product manager, a startup CEO, a design strategist or anyone else responsible for leading an interdisciplinary team, often times even a peripheral understanding of a number of different technical and design aspects can go a long way towards being able to effectively work with specialists in a number of fields. While interdisciplinary understanding is essential for these types of leaders, it can also help a lot for individual members on such teams, since collaboration is a lot easier when you know what your teammates are talking about. I don't mean to say that everybody's education should be "a mile wide and two inches deep," but I feel that a broad base does go a long way in design (if only to make you T-shaped).

  10. Alok Desai on April 26, 2013

    Thanks a lot. I totally understand the point you are trying to make here. And guess what, I came here searching for someone who believes in what I have started to feel lately. I am a freelance web designer & developer. And I am trying to stretch myself in all directions to meet my client's needs. In the process I really forgot that what I love is purely design. And one more thing I agree here with is that trying to learn all the skills, you stay years behind in one particular department. This I am saying, because I am experiencing that myself. Unfortunately, the people who have commented here (who are very good designers/developers themselves) did not get the point really that you are trying to make. And some are helpless because they have to do everything to get complete website orders. I am sure they think you are talking about specialising in just one subject. But I understand, it's not one subject, but one area. If I take my example, I like being into UI/UX design & Branding. Now that is one area of design, which itself is a big and complex field, enough to keep me interested with the "various subjects" involved in getting good with it. So well, I am on this new path of focusing on one area that I am interested in and getting good at that. Thanks again for this article. Cheers.

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