“I’m a freelance designer. Should I really choose a specialty?”

November 12, 2021
 Min Read
“I don’t want to lose out on projects because I focused on one design specialty. I’ve also seen people call themselves graphic designers and multimedia designers, even though they have similar portfolios, and they seem to get a lot of work. Is it wise to choose a specialty early in my career?”

This is a question I received back in June 2012, from a Multimedia Arts college student, who freelanced on the side.

Tl;dr of my answer: Yes. Generalize internally, but specialize externally. Your career depends on it.

How I found my design specialty

In my career, I’ve been called many things: from Website Designer, Webmaster, The Web Guy, UX/UI Designer, Website Programmer, even The I.T. Guy (my favorite). These days, I refer to myself as a UX consultant. It’s short, easily Google-able, and has a nice ring to it — it seems to work well for now.

If we go down the rabbit hole of the bigger digital design profession, we’ll come across a lot more variants that often overlap: Graphic Designer, Multi-disciplinary Designer, “Multimedia” Designer, UX Designer, Interface Designer, Web Designer, Layout Designer, Product Designer, App Designer, Visual Designer, Information Designer, Motion Designer, Interactive Designer. On the surface all of these might be difficult to distinguish, for clients and peers alike.

I believe being a designer means we have to embrace all mediums — but that doesn’t mean we should take on all kinds of work. Having an understanding of the whole design discipline empowers us to discover solutions for people’s problems effectively, regardless of our specialty. This allows us to have a clear view of the big picture, but not lose out on the important details. It presents a helpful and meaningful way to make things work for others, which then allows everyone to live better.

Hitting the ground running

When you’re a student starting out, your experience and education shouldn’t be just focused on a specific discipline or singular specialty. This is the best time to try different things, test what works for you, learn the ins-and-outs of each design method, and see what you like. It’s like A/B testing — you’ll never know what’s effective, unless you try your options. Of course, you can have an eventual goal for your ideal design career path, but don’t let that stop you from broadening your horizons.

When I was a young designer myself, I began my career by doing all sorts of design work: from hip-hop album covers to local movie posters, even retail store murals and pro-bono websites of Catholic churches. Come to think of it, I believe that it allowed me to see the breadth of the whole design discipline at a very early stage. I understood, albeit naively, what each type of work had to offer. I eventually gravitated towards a specialty, website design and development, because I liked how it used both sides of my brain. 1. My creative side that loved symmetry, colors in harmony, and clean lines, and 2. My analytical side, that strived for efficient code and frequently fed my curiousity (e.g. why users would always click the blue button, but never that damn orange one 🤷🏽‍♂️).

Unknowingly, I stumbled upon a more specific niche. I combined my chosen specialty (website design), with my love for basketball, and I was hooked. I created downloadable NBA wallpapers, fan websites, and basketball forums with custom banners. Somehow, this obsession eventually lead me down a long path, building high-profile athlete websites, including official websites for Kobe Bryant, Usain Bolt, James Harden, and Dwyane Wade, to name a few. I was basically known as the “Guy who made Kobe’s website”, for around 6 years or so.

But I didn’t mind, it was great business while it lasted. It jumpstarted my career, and it helped me gain knowledge and experience with things I never knew I could do on my own: building startups, hiring people, leading small teams, doing payroll, negotiating contracts, managing clients, listening well, and communicating clearly. All because I honed in, and doubled down on one very specific thing.

Finding your niche

I’ve come to learn that the best professionals in each industry become who they are, because they all have a specialty; a niche of their own.

Watch any TED Talk; the speakers are all telling unique stories, and they all work in their own very specific niches — a comedian that indulged scam emails, a motivational speaker that starts with why, a researcher that presented 10 things she didn’t know about orgasm. Generalists rarely get invited to speak.

But, it’s not just about choosing a specialty, and then waiting for the money to rain on you.

Who hasn’t heard of this familiar scenario: a designer gets approached by a client who wants their print brochure redesigned, even if it’s explicitly stated in the designer’s resume that she’s a “UX Designer”.

Pro-tip: the people that own businesses, focus on their own businesses, as well as their customers. It’s highly unlikely that they have time to read that Medium article about the “Top Trends in UX Design for 20XX”. It’s our job to help solve their business problems, but it also falls on us, as an industry, to educate our clients, politely and directly.

It’s each designer’s responsibility to help clients or stakeholders understand what we actually do and why we choose to make each important design decision (e.g., why we place their logo on the top left of the page, why using a lime green background is not the best idea.) For every client that knows what we’re really capable of and hires us for our expertise, there are 10 more that have no clue what we actually do.

Our value to clients shouldn’t be all for what we make (the output). Our value also lies in why we do it (the process, which leads to the outcome).

We may not take on a job beyond our own specialty, but the duty falls on us to be fully informed ourselves, before we inform others. Not only do we have to go deep on our own discipline, but we have to go wide as well — we have to broaden our skills, study, and be familiarized with other niches. And it isn’t difficult to do so. For example, search “Designing for Accessibility” on Youtube, Medium, or Quora, and you’ll have thousands of results. Go for skills that are a bit “wider” as well: marketing, psychology, business, communication — any of these will make us a better design professional. I’m personally reading up on Facebook Ads for E-commerce (through this book), and it’s been a wild ride.

Lastly, the main reason for choosing a specialty shouldn’t be just our individual proficiency, the “coolness” or newness of a fancy job title, the market demand or amount of pay it commands, or even our preference of tools. Next time, do this: think of something you would enjoy doing every single day, regardless of money, even if you’re not the best at it yet. You’ll become the best at it eventually.

And if you’re still getting inquiries for that brochure design every now and then (as a UX designer), then maybe you’re not targeting the right audience. Either that, or they just simply love your amazing brochures, and you should rethink your chosen specialty. 😇

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