Q&A |

February 19, 2020

Niche vs range, which is the better strategy for designers?

In talking to junior designers about their aspirations for the future, I find amazing, open, creative people whose vision and outlook is remarkable and refreshing. But more often than not their optimism is tempered by a duo of uncertainties. The first question is how and in which area to specialise. The second is which software tools are needed to succeed as a designer and which should be mastered first.

Let’s address tool anxiety first, for want of a better term. In day-to-day life as a designer or designer/creative you certainly need a few tools in your kit. Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, and the basics of Premier. Most juniors I talk to worry about their competence in these. It’s easy to conflate mastery of a set of tools with competence as a designer.

Firstly, I don’t believe mastery is necessary. Especially not to begin with. In fact, focusing on the tools can get in the way of the creativity. I explain it like this: creativity happens in your head. The best way to express creativity fast enough to keep up with your thoughts is on paper. Therefore you need to add a pencil to all the software in your toolkit. A pencil, a rubber and a notebook are far more potent tools for creativity than After Effects or Photoshop.

This doesn’t mean you need to be able to draw beautifully, whatever that means to you. Mastery of the pencil isn’t necessary unless you’re a storyboard artist or a visualiser. But the notebook is where you translate your thoughts into actionable design tasks. As long as you can develop those thoughts rapidly on paper and then adequately communicate them to your team, they don’t need to be beautifully rendered — they just need to be quick, because that is how you think.

I encourage daily practice with drawing for everyone, but I don’t see skill at drawing as a prerequisite for creativity. Some of the most effective creatives I know struggle with drawing, but they find other ways to express ideas quickly. Collage, image re-use, written word, even speaking descriptively and engagingly works for some. But pencil and paper remains the standard.

The next thing I explain is the difference between creativity and design execution. Once you’re on screen interacting with a tool you are executing design. You are not being creative.

If you’re attempting creativity while executing design you’re actually working at cross purposes with yourself, and this is going to rob you of time. A few people can do this but they usually fall into one of two categories; full on late-stage 10,000 hour mastery of the tool so that it isn’t a hindrance, or people with much more time to play with elements on screen than a commercial environment ever allows.

So, on to the second anxiety; specialism. Should you be super specialised or should you develop a range of skills at the expense of specialism. This is easier to answer: Range. Designers need range. Develop range in your practice early, you can always pitch a niche later on. Niche specialism is a good way to present yourself in a getable way in a crowded field. But even the most niche designers should be able to apply their mind and hand as widely as possible.

This relates to another question that arises from junior designers and that relates to time management outside of work hours. I don’t see a designer or a creative’s job as being like others in an agency for one key reason. When you finish work you don’t get to switch gears as much as other agency roles. You should still be engaging in being a designer.

This means observing and consuming the sights, sounds and ideas available around you voraciously. And by that I mean consciously making choices that increase the range of input you experience in all areas every day.

What does this mean in practical terms? Here’s an example; under no circumstances should a designer be watching all eight Game Of Thrones seasons. You should be watching the first season and then investing the remaining time in watching the first season of seven other shows — in particular shows that you might not think you’re interested in.

Don’t like Sci-Fi? Watch a season of Battlestar Galactica. Don’t like Politics? Watch a season of House Of Cards. Don’t like history? Watch a season of Babylon Berlin. The same applies to books, movies, exhibitions, video games, cities, food, music, sports, people, (did I mention books?), everything.

The reason for this somewhat contrarian omnivorous approach is to onboard as much culture and creativity as humanly possible in the time you have available. It is to sample as much of the culture, the artistic and creative dialogue, the zeitgeist as you possibly can. Because in order to express creativity, you also need to imbibe — as widely and from as high quality sources as possible.

It is undoubtedly true that the higher quality the input to your creative mind, the higher quality the output. And don’t forget, time is against you. Even though it might not seem that way when you’re 23.

Which brings me back to range. Range is good. We live in an entrepreneurial moment where defining a niche is seen as desirable. But that is mainly for marketing purposes. If you have a niche you’re easier to understand to a potential buyer. I get that, and I get that certain niches require certain specialist tools such as Sketch, Flinto, Javascript or Capture One Pro.

But, even the most niche designer will benefit from the kind of range that comes from applying yourself to the basics of as many tools as possible rather than trying to master one or two. Even the most niche designer will benefit from as wide a range of interests and influences as it’s possible to accrue.

As technology continues to change everything at an ever increasing pace, it is range that will define your ability to work across multiple platforms and engage with disparate ideas. It is range that will open new avenues for you as you develop your competence — even as from time to time you may present yourself as a specialist for the sake of getability.

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