In defence of the generalist

Paul Boag

Being a generalist is often considered a bad thing in digital. But people like Leigh Howells show just how valuable it can be.

A while ago I wrote a post for Smashing Magazine entitled “Defending The Generalists In The Web Design Industry”. I wrote it because I sensed a move towards specialism. A move that characterised generalists as somewhat amateurish.

At Headscape we believe it is important to have a balance between specialists and generalists. Both are crucial for success.

There are lots of reasons why having a generalist in your team is worthwhile.

  • They can aid communication between different disciplines.
  • They tend to be more pragmatic as they see the various tensions between roles.
  • They have more freedom to explore emerging trends and innovations.
  • They find it easier to adapt to changing requirements in projects.

We have two such generalists in Headscape, myself and Leigh Howells.

Like myself Leigh started as a designer, but has grown into something broader than that. He codes, writes music and indeed dabbles in almost any aspect of the web you care to mention.

He is still a designer too, constantly striving to develop his craft. But he also works alongside our clients to understand their business problems and set their direction. If a client is stuck on a way to proceed, Leigh seems to always find the way forward.

Leigh has a way of approaching problems from many angles thanks to his wide ranging knowledge.
Leigh has a way of approaching problems from many angles thanks to his wide ranging knowledge.

The other thing I love about Leigh is he is obsessional about technology. He is always playing with some new app or gadget. He is always experimenting, learning and expanding his knowledge.

Sometimes we laugh at his obsession with the latest app, but it has proved invaluable time and again. When faced with a new challenge, that experimentation comes to the fore. It inevitably leads him to come up with an innovative solution.

That is the great thing about generalists. They have a huge pool of disciplines to draw upon. They could solve a problem with business logic, technology, design or marketing. They are not confined in their thinking.

Don’t get me wrong. We need specialists. Headscape is built on the depth of knowledge that our specialist staff provide. But we need people like Leigh. People to push us in new directions. People who can come at a problem from many different angles.