In Defense of Design Generalism

A multi-tool is a generalist. A chameleon is a generalist. Your mother is probably a generalist. What do they all have in common? The ability to instantly adapt to unique situations.

On the flip side, a chainsaw is a specialist. Alex Honnold is a specialist. A flashlight is a specialist. You catch my drift. If you’re really good at one thing, and you’ve spent your life deepening your skills around that thing, you’re a specialist. Specialists are, generally, thought of as the most qualified in their fields. They are revered. Generalists, on the other hand, are viewed as scatterbrains, commitment-phobes, and “jacks of all trades, masters of none.”

Natalie Rowan

Being a true blue generalist myself, I’m here to make a case for generalism. Rather than zeroing in on one thing, I’ve spent my career honing my entire skillset, which has helped me to flourish both in my personal life and within the field of design. I love expanding my arsenal of knowledge through varied challenges. I jump, hop, and skip from one encounter to the next, learning tidbits and solutions from each, and carry them across my mind’s chasm of seemingly unrelated challenges.

There are many instances in which this practice resulted in far more unique design solutions than I initially imagined. I’ll tell a few of those stories later on.

Rather than zeroing in on one thing, I’ve spent my career honing my entire skillset, which has helped me to flourish both in my personal life and within the field of design.

Generalism in General

The gist of generalism is that it exposes you to a variety of disciplines. This eventually produces a more layered perspective and arms you with an array of skills to tackle a ton of problems with one cohesive solution. Generalism also enables you to perform faster than anyone could wrangle 10 specialists into a Zoom meeting. Generalism is about learning, and ultimately, knowing enough to be a singular source for an assortment of tasks. It’s about being efficient from a high level.

The world stigmatizes generalists though. People assume we’re all breadth and no depth. This notion is unhelpfully biased, and I’d like to challenge it with a story.

Generalism is about learning, and ultimately, knowing enough to be a singular source for an assortment of tasks.

A few years ago, I was between jobs and casting a wide application net for any design position I could find. I had a few promising interviews at companies that made products I had never designed before, like drones. This was a product genre in a crowded space that could benefit from innovative fresh thinking, and I knew I would excel at solving the challenge both functionally and aesthetically. The drone company chose not to hire me due to my lack of experience in this particular space. (How many exclusive drone designers exist anyhow?) I was hurt by the one-sided conclusion that, since I hadn’t designed a drone before, I couldn’t design drones period. I even started to believe that maybe they were right. I doubted myself and internalized their skepticism. After all, they were the specialists, right? 

Shortly after this encounter, I landed at a design agency that needed a highly-technical inspection drone designed, engineered, prototyped, and manufactured. I was asked to lead the design. I called on my previous background in mechanical engineering, along with my experience in designing robots, motorcycles, cameras, and sporting equipment to guide me through this complex design challenge. My ability to tap into these experiences informed the critical choices I made along the way.

Using my extensive generalist toolkit, I considered every detail: materials, manufacturing, parting lines, indication lighting, textures, venting, crash protection, modularity, and an aesthetic connection to technology. Lo and behold, I could design drones! One year later, that drone won a Red Dot. Vindication. Just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you can’t do it well…if you’re a generalist.

One summer early in my career, for example, I dove deep into international fashion research to gain inspiration for a mainstream consumer electronics product. I had textiles, colors, and patterns swirling around my head. Months later, I was commissioned to design a hot-cold wrap for the medical industry. I won the client over with a macro pattern previously only seen in cold weather performance clothing, which I had observed in an ISPO sportswear exhibit. The connection I made spanned five genres: Consumer Goods -> Fashion -> Athletics -> Physical Therapy -> Medical.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, generalists take lessons from one genre and share them with others that may not be closely related. This method of cross-breeding ideas can produce super impactful design. 

How To Embrace Generalism in Design

Product design is a field that merges invention with art. Invention solves problems, and art appeals to emotion. Both are essential for developing something truly innovative. That said, carving out your niche within the broad design space can be challenging, so I opted to go in the other direction and gain exposure to every available role within the field.

Joining an early-stage startup appealed to my multiple hats personality. Startups rely on you to wear all hats, and expect you to wear them well. One day you’re pitching to clients and VCs; another you’re solving manufacturing constraints; the next you’re developing a marketing strategy. As a design generalist, you get to dabble in all areas while continuing to enhance your skills along the way.

If you can, gain exposure to every available role within the field. Design and engineering are intrinsically linked, for example, so understanding considerations on both sides will make your design concepts even stronger. Similarly, design and marketing are linked through iconic forms and ideas. Marketing is all about making an idea stick mentally. An iconic “sticky” design can make a marketer’s job easy because good design markets itself. With all that said, every facet of creating a product affects another.

Shuffling Hats

Early on in my career, I worked at SanDisk, a corporation that ships millions of products per month. (You can find SanDisk products in virtually everyone’s homes, keychains, backpacks, and laptops.) My experience there taught me how to be creative in a mundane industry while designing hard drives, USBs, and servers. How do you design a commodity product that outsells all of the other commodity competitors? I researched, learned, grew, and eventually jumped to the next stepping stone.

Sandisk was my unsuspecting pathway into the startup world. My engineer coworker had a friend with a genius idea for a VR camera that captured video in 3D before virtual reality was an everyday thing. That engineer was recruited as a startup cofounder, and they asked me to come on board as well. I had to take a leap of faith. VR was still very nascent back then, while SanDisk, on the other hand, was a commodity product company in a stable industry. That’s when I decided to go from an industry that was safe and monotonous to a thrilling, disruptive, and unpredictable one.

It was an exciting time and I was thrown into the deep end. We wanted to make VR palatable for everyday folks. What if people wanted to travel but couldn’t leave the house for some reason? We wanted to democratize travel. Looking back, it was almost like we were preparing for the 2020 pandemic.

Over the next two years, I dipped my toes into business development, the hiring process, prototyping, engineering, branding, and marketing. My role shifted daily to meet the needs of the startup. In that way, I was acting as a design director, even though I was their only designer. Those years opened up many options for me in different avenues as my skill set continued to expand.

If you meet other generalists, they’ll understand how your full-time job can be something you describe as “on the side.”

I went from startup to startup designing products after that. I became addicted to the excitement and unpredictability of the next challenge and became a serial entrepreneur. Having that solid multifaceted experience gave me the confidence to launch my own design consultancy. I knew that as a consultant, I could design anything for anyone. It wasn’t consistent though, so I ended up getting a full-time job on the side. (If you meet other generalists, they’ll understand how your full-time job can be something you describe as “on the side.”)

Eventually, my array of skills got me poached unexpectedly by another startup as Employee #1. The burden of product ideation and development was on my shoulders, as was a level of employee management, but securing funding was not. That was a huge relief and allowed me to do my job as a designer. The startup aimed to design beautiful, eco-luxury showerheads that were also motion sensing, thus water-saving. Unlike pesky airport faucets, I ended up designing a magical water conservation experience that suited most bathroom aesthetics and was sensitive and stable enough to work in any condition. Its technology was so simple it should have existed 10 years ago when motion sensing faucets were first gaining popularity.

I started with a sketch. The product architecture was done by week one. Product design was done by week three. The engineering, however, took a year of prototyping, development, and tooling to complete. Finding the right contract manufacturer took another year. Refinements, DFMA, and identifying the right supply partners was a pain, but had to be done. It was a grueling process. All the while, we still didn’t have an Employee #2. I struggled, I won’t lie, but I added to my many hats throughout the struggle. 

I became addicted to the excitement and unpredictability of the next challenge and became a serial entrepreneur.

Before I had touched this product, my career was filled with mostly consumer electronic products. I had never solely worked on a hydro-electro-mechanical device. Waterproofing this thing was a beast. How do you waterproof something that lives in a constantly wet environment and has water passing through it? I researched a variety of design solutions. How does one inconspicuously embed sensors into a product while ensuring they are not so hidden that users will think they’re being spied on? Gosh, the perception of this device had to be spot on. In the end, I toed the line between a totally benign and somewhat futuristic design—something I learned while transitioning between SanDisk and my VR startup.

General Empathy

Because I’m someone who enjoys picking up on subtle nuances within social interactions, I’ve learned to become all things to all people. How does this relate to generalism? Well, understanding human nature, including people’s motivations, personalities, and expectations, helps to guide countless interactions. It also aids in building strong relationships with your team while co-designing superior products. I’m now able to work well with people performing a variety of roles, including engineers, designers, founders, and every once in a while, a tough client.

As a designer, you are constantly in service to someone else.

Design generalists are method actors of sorts. You can use the impressions made on you during your various career experiences to inhabit your end user’s specific needs. The more challenges you meet, the more quickly you will adapt to future design challenges, and so on and so forth.

As a designer, you are constantly in service to someone else. That person may be a specialist in their field, a product manager, a CEO, or most importantly, your end user. The trick is to always remain open to learning from them—technically and empathically.

People ask me all the time, “What do you design?” My answer changes regularly. I’ve always been able to adjust to a diverse range of projects, personalities, and roles. Perhaps that’s because I’m a Myers Briggs ENTP. The P stands for perceiver. I like to observe and internalize people’s abilities, struggles, quirks, and joys to uncover what it means to be a part of the human experience. I can then answer the question, “How can I best design for humans?” Perceivers are the most available to other people. That personality trait also enables me to learn bits and pieces from everyone…even other generalists.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to becoming a generalist is that you become future proof.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to becoming a generalist is that you become future proof. Unlike specialists who are at the mercy of economic changes and their niche roles being automated out, generalists can seamlessly move from one position or industry to the next.

While collecting viewpoints over the years in my own various roles, I’ve continued to develop a kaleidoscopic perspective that I now apply to both my work and my life. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.