April 10, 2012

Versatility vs. Specialization


Authors: Ana Labudovic, Nenad Vukusic

The search for original ideas and visual solutions will never end. As modern technologies blur the boundaries between various media, myriad styles and techniques become available.

In order to do your job as a freelancer or as a part of a team you need to harness the skills of a project manager, accountant, copywriter, seller, architect, psychologist, as well as a typesetter, photographer, illustrator, color expert, and filmmaker. Not only do you need to be familiar with the history of graphic design, but also with the world around you. (Let's be honest, many of you are blessed with the curiosity to explore new cultures, areas, and mediums, so this is hardly a burden. In fact, it can only reflect positively on what you do.)

Graphic design isn't about doing one job. It's about doing a dozen of them. The more you know, encounter, utilize, and apply, the more you are worth. If it is a spice of life, it can sure spice up the design. The same way that knowing a foreign language helps you learn new ones and each new one gets easier to master, switching between various fields of graphic design as well as embracing the ones surrounding it (such as project management or pub

lic relations) gives you self-confidence and gets you prepared to tackle new problems.

Yet, it hardly seems possible to train in all those areas and start working before turning fifty. And by trying to grasp so many walks of life, is your quality of work being jeopardized? Does being a successful graphic designer mean that at some point you will have to choose between becoming a jack of all trades (and master of none) and a specialist?

Yes and no. Yes, it is possible—and, no... not in all those areas. You will always remain an amateur in some of the fields you try, but considering the word "amateur" translates from the French "lover of"—that is, one who performs for pleasure rather than money—you will explore those areas not for money but out of curiosity and love of new experiences. And in your line of work new experiences are a blessing. Even if you choose to specialize at some point, your forays of amateurism in other fields can serve as an inspiration or a guideline for future projects.

When you secure your first client the last thing you want to think about is copywriting and accounting. You'll want to explore the topography of graphic design and find your niche.

In theory, the more terrain you cover, the greater the chance of new projects rolling in.

The Jack of All Trades

Versatility isn't necessarily something you choose consciously—it can also be a chain reaction. Let's say that a client approaches you in need of a logo for his company. He is pleased with the effort and the thought you have put into the look for his company, so he wants you to do his website as well as the annual report, but if possible make the binding special and design a new typeface specially for this occasion. Oh, and while you are at it, come up with some nice packaging for their new product line launch, too.

To do that well you need to do more than just apply the logo in various ways. You need to research the context and the medium, experiment, and teach yourself new tricks. If you do your homework well you will learn so much more about your client, his product or service, not to mention prep yourself for jobs. Be open to new knowledge and experiences.

You learn most by doing, taking on each project as a mini crash course in each subject you cover. As you learn, you gain confidence in your abilities. Even though in some situations the process of learning, for example, how to write a style sheet for a website, might take away much of your time, you'll probably learn more under the pressure of a looming deadline than in a CSS workshop.

On the other hand, you might do a sloppy job and never really decide to learn how to do things better next time, turning you into a master of none. Persistence is important. You should never give up after a first failure. It is human to make mistakes, as much as it is human to get up and get on with it. Not even geniuses get it right the first time.

You must be able to decipher cultural signs and human behavior in order to create functional objects. Though it might seem like common sense, we cannot stress enough the importance of understanding and defining a problem clearly. Only after this has been accomplished can you move onto formatting the message and wielding your medium to its full extent. In simple words, know what are you trying to say, to whom and how, regardless of whether you are working on a poster or a signalization system. News reporters have five Ws and an H: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Designers should take those into consideration as well. Giving physical form to ideas, as creators, you have to know exactly what the idea is. They come in various shapes and formats and can be expressed in an equal variety, depending on the target audience: passersby, subscribers, or clients. Choose the appropriate solutions for each and every one of them.

Being able to understand consumer trends, marketing, and manufacturing technologies makes you a corporate polyglot. Use this talent to build bridges between different professionals. This does not mean you have to wear your corporate hat forever, just that you are able to help solve problems. And, according to some definitions of graphic design, that is what you actually do—solve communication problems.

Taking photographs for editorials one day and coding action scripts the next can work as long as you do not freak out about the multitude of work that piles up, and are capable of multithreading. Learn to admit that you are not capable of doing everything solo and seek help if you feel a project is not progressing well, even after several tries. These situations happen all the time because designers tend to be control freaks. They want to be in charge of the entire process, do not trust other people with their tasks, and do not want to share the cake or the glory. But it doesn't have to be that way. Think about it, the worst thing to do would be to waste a lot of time only to learn that you cannot do it, losing the confidence of your clients in the process.

For instance, if you say you will take the photos for a clothing catalog as well as the design, and you botch up the job, you're in trouble. Then you're left alone (panicking) looking for someone to do another shoot for you, which would kill your budget, or spend days and days retouching the images into a half-decent look.

Or you can begin by planning things well, hiring a professional photographer, whose portfolio you would present to the client and whose fee you would include in your budget, which would allow you to concentrate on your part of the work and produce excellent material.

The moral of this story? Experimenting is good, but at some point you need to calculate the pros and cons and make educated guesses before your experiment blows up in your face and burns the lab to the ground.

Source: Field Guide: How to be a Graphic Designer