Specialization: a designer’s key to success in the future

I am currently reading “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” a phenomenal book about marketing and branding written by Al Ries. One of the laws of effective branding is the law of contraction. Ries explains that companies (and might I venture to add independent designers or freelancers in general) are likely to be more successful if they focus their energies on one specific skill instead of trying to master a number of different ones.

Jack of all trades, master of none?

The popular phrase “Jack of all trades” has, over time, been modified. Now, you frequently hear “Jack of all trades, master of none. Is this true for graphic and web designers as well? Are we likely to be more successful if we focus our efforts on one specific skill instead of trying to be well-trained and proficient in all things design-related?

I would argue that it is absolutely applicable to those of us in the design profession. I have recently visited a number of designers’ portfolio web sites. I frequently see a phrase like this: “I design logos, posters, web sites, brochures, and more.” This is a typical marketing blunder-offering more services does not necessarily mean that you will find more customers.

The future of marketing is in the niche

It used to be that you could market yourself as a do-it-all sort of person or company. With the way marketing and advertising are headed, however, only those who can successfully target a niche audience will really thrive. Consider the following scenarios:

James is a designer who enjoys working in a wide variety of design-related areas. As a freelance designer, he works one week on a web site design, one week on a logo design, and one week designing some informational graphics. James’ work is professional, but somewhat mediocre because he hasn’t been able to take the time necessary to fully develop and master his skills in each area. When other business-owners ask their friends who can design a good web site, they think first of other designers, not James.
Parker, on the other hand, is a designer who specializes in web site design for small companies. He works week after week on similar projects that allow him to be flexible and creative, but also force him to become extremely proficient in building web sites for small companies. When a large company comes to Parker asking for a web site, he isn’t afraid to turn them down, because he knows he doesn’t specialize in big business. Besides, he receives so much work via referrals that he wouldn’t have time to do it even if he wanted to.

While these examples may have been somewhat exaggerated, the point is simple: targeting a niche market as a designer will help you refine skills in that particular area,will increase recognition, boost sales, and improve client referrals.

Designers who have mastered specialization

David Airey. When you think of logo design, who immediately comes to mind? Among other designers, I would imagine David Airey is somewhere on your list. While David does work in other areas, his emphasis or specialty seems to focus on logo design. This has led him to become an expert on logo design, writing a book and managing a very popular blog–both by the same name–Logo design love.
Ryan Carson from Carsonified. Who creates “hand-crafted web sites” that are simply a beauty to behold? Amongst others, the team at Carsonified has defined their specialty in creating attractive web sites for their clients. Could they handle a logo design, a brochure design, etc.? Most likely. They simply chose to be the best at what they do instead.

There are many more examples of designers who are a great example of successfully marketing and dominating in a particular design niche. Who else can you think of? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

It’s all about positioning

What’s positioning? It’s a simple marketing term that relates to the position you or your company possesses in the mind of the consumer. When you hear the phrase “fun & reliable computer” which machine comes to mind? Apple of course. They have worked hard to solidify that positioning in the mind of the consumer. What about “photo editing”– you think Photoshop, right? What about “design blogs”? Perhaps you think of Smashing Magazine.

Now let’s try it with you and your design career. When a client thinks “I need a logo designer,” who do they call? Those who have established themselves in that position within the consumer’s mind.

Now think for yourself: how have you positioned yourself and your design work?

What’s your specialty?

So what have you decided to specialize in? What are you going to be the best at? Are you going to master branding & identity packages, information graphics, food packaging, stationery, web design, advertising, or something else?

Share with us what your specialty is and leave a link to your portfolio so we can all take a look!

About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Good post. I think that this applies more to Freelancers or one-person businesses.

    However, from experience of running a small design studio, there is a degree to which you need to be multi-faceted. The clients we work for rely on us to maintain their brand standards across multiple forms of designed material, from brochures to annual reports to websites.

    This can all be done to a consistent, high standard. It’s about having the right people for the task and building the relationships with our clients.

    We call this ‘Brand Guardianship’ and it is our speciality.

    • @Chris Young,
      Good Point. I tend to believe, however, that even studios, agencies, and companies will need to become more and more niche-market-oriented to survive in the business world. I appreciate your point of view as well and see where you are coming from. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I understan where you are coming from, however I strongly feel that with the right team, you can have a studio that is a jack of all trades, and master of some.

  3. After nearly two decades of working the front lines of the hospitality, tourism and restaurant biz, when I switched careers to my passion – design, I took all that experience with me. Now the hospitality sector is my niche because I have so much more to bring to the table. I still venture out into other industries on occassion, and find it keeps me sharp and not so pigeon-holed. DeepDishCreative.com

  4. I disagree, emphatically. This may be true of freelancers, but not in house creatives. In the current economy, companies are looking to consolidate teams. They can’t afford to hire someone who only knows motion graphics or only knows Flash. They need people who are versatile and can work on a variety of projects. If something comes down the pipe that the staffer doesn’t have skills for, they can outsource and not have to pay the “just motion graphics” guy a full time salary with benefits.

    Additionally, specializing to a “niche” may limit your sources of inspiration as a designer. I find that working on a variety of projects keeps me fresh. I pull ideas from my web designs into motion pieces or print pieces and vice-versa.

    Furthermore, as technology evolves, (web) designers are expected/required to know more about the factors influencing design. IE- when you are designing a new website interface, you’d better know how jQuery works. Designing for a CMS? Better understand what that CMS can do. Client wants a website in HTML5, how can you possibly know how to design for that without understanding how it works?

    Don’t believe me? Check out job postings on CreativeHotlist or the FWA. One example, right now Tribal DDB is looking for an Interactive Designer. Required skills?

    • Expert level Photoshop.
    • Ability to animate on the timeline in Flash, and to write an animation briefing.
    • Experience with After Effects would be useful.
    • Experience with Illustrator, InDesign. 3D, video or audio experience a big plus.

    That’s a pretty wide breadth of knowledge, and DDB isn’t the only team looking for it. There are many posts like this.

    Bottom line is, it’s never good to put all of your eggs in one basket.

    • @tyler,
      Thanks so much for some of the points you have brought up here. I think, however you may have misunderstood my point. I am not saying that you should not be familiar with multiple technologies. I also have not said that we shouldn’t strive to learn all we can about each portion of the creation process in any project.

      What I was trying to get at, and I think this will be clear as you review the article, is the importance of MARKETING yourself in a particular way as a designer.

      My point was you need to stand out from the thousands upon thousands of designers who simply “do a little of everything”. If you want to do a little of everything, that’s fine- but find something that you do really well and sell that!

      Also, you don’t necessarily have to stick to one technology to be a specialist. Lara, who left a comment above yours, for example, does all sorts of design work, (web, print, social media, etc) but for a particular kind of client. There are lots of ways to carve out your niche.

      Thanks for the great discussion.

    • Aaron Asbury says:

      @tyler, Completely agree with a lot of what you brought up here. I was continually frustrated at college because my teachers spoke of the importance of specialization, whereas I had my hands in film, motion graphics, print design, and web. I felt that given my personality, and the type of projects and places I want to work with, specialization wasn’t going to give me happiness. This is not to say that I do not have my strengths and weaknesses.

      I found coming into the professional industry that my ability to work on a wide variety of platforms and projects made me a valuable asset at my place of employment. Perhaps I will find this as a disadvantage at a future place of employment, however, I don’t think that would be the type of place I would want to work for.

      That being said, your point of an emphasis on marketing yourself towards specialization is a great one. I would argue that a designer like myself should cater that marketing to the company or client I am targeting, and not to one niche.

  5. This was an interesting read Preston. While you do bring up some pertinent and great points, I don’t completely agree with you. I think in today’s industry, we have room for both the “specialist” as well as the “Jack of all trade designer.” To be in either one of these fields doesn’t make your work and your skills relevant. While you have mentioned some designers who are great specialists, there are also plenty of great designers who are Jack of all trades as well.

    Anyway, thanks for the great read. Keep up the great work.

    • @Design Informer,
      Thanks for your comments, Jad. I see where you are coming from. Like I mentioned above, this is an article more about marketing yourself as a designer–not necessarily possessing or ignoring certain disciplines.

      I see where you are coming from, though. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

  6. Hi Preston,

    i can understand and agree with you. being specialized in a particular field/media helps create a identity for ourselves. As i graduate with a multimedia diploma, i feel the frustration of knowing a little of everything but not ALL of something.

    Anyway, i’ve decided to further on print and graphics. Glad to find your inspiring article. It has given me confidence and assurance in my decision.

    Cheers!

  7. I work at a web marketing company that does web design, hosting, print design, seo management, etc. and in that sense we are a “Jack of all trades” web company. Our specialty, however, is in marketing to bed and breakfast owners and innkeepers, and in the process have developed and acquired years worth of knowledge, tools and resources that are tailored to that particular industry, that any other web company couldn’t quickly and easily offer. Our specialty is in the industry we market to, not necessarily the services we offer.

    Altogether, an excellent article! The idea of Positioning is helpful and inspiring to me as I’m taking steps toward developing a freelancing business, and finding my own “best at” marketing niche!

  8. Scott Birnie says:

    Excellent article and there are some interesting and varied responses.

    I can relate to the article but having worked in a large variety of sectors within the design industry I would have to disagree with most of the article. I believe that as a designer you should be able to apply your “trade” to anything and everything design related. If a client were to approach me to produce a website for them or their company I automatically ask if they have an established brand, corporate stationary and strategy in order to provide an added service but helping to improve or create one for them. As a designer I am also always looking at developing new styles, technologies, approaches and solutions. By allowing myself to absorb all other media means this experience only increases with every project. Before the days of super-niche design titles like, UX Designer, WordPress Designer, Pay per click specialist etc etc… there was the Multimedia designer. Multimedia means exactly that, multi media.

    After working in traditional print and graphic design, eLearning, eCommerce, UI Design and web marketing I have been able to apply those skills learnt throughout all my projects to all future projects too. “Jack of all, master of some” I agree with.

    Having said that it is always each to their own and I do enjoy producing multimedia solutions and if someone comes to me asking to design them an apron and hat I tend to say, “ok I will see what I can do”. Then I may have trawl the web for an Apron and Hat Designer title!

    Great post though and look forward to more.

  9. Preston – you hit the nail on the head with this one.

    UX/UI Design – mastering conversions immediately jump to mind.

    Cheers,
    Jason

  10. Great article. It’s so hard to pick a specialty because right now all that’s on my mind is finding ANY job, so I don’t want to limit myself. Desperation makes one neglect their specialty and mastering something when they’re trying so hard just to DO something.

    I believe my specialty is illustrating, however.

  11. Thanks for the great article. I agree completely with you that freelancers as well as large agencies should figure out their specialty and market themselves that way.

    Specialization does not mean you have to limit yourself to doing only one thing. But, when you articulate your specialization, you let your potential clients know that if they are looking for that one thing, you’re the one to contact.

    By the way, Scott Design specializes in creating online marketing communications for technology companies. Feel free to check us out and let me know if our portfolio supports our claim!

  12. Amazing article. Thaksn to WDD for link

  13. I don’t agree with everything right there (as many before).

    I think whether you work as a freelancer or hired employee both decisions, to work in your niche only (or at least almost) or to provide a broader range of services, are completely valid, also marketing wise.

    I certainly agree that, once you specialize in a niche (let’s say wordpress design) you’ll get loads of referrals and customers, which want exactly what you do, wordpress design.

    But many clients are also happy if they can put all their web/design-related needs in one hand, instead of many.
    A client (especially smaller enterprises) doesn’t want to go to a logo designer to get his logo designed, then to another designer for his stationary, next stop web designer followed by a web developer, maybe add a illustrator and animator on the way, etc.

    I agree that it is rather difficult for a single freelancer to provide all these services to a high standard, but it is not uncommon, nor a bad decision, to provide logo and web site design in combination with front-end development.

  14. I agree, specialization will make us become experts. Perhaps our work is not much, but the results of our work can satisfy the customer. So that they will recommend us, because we have quality.
    Hi, thanks…

  15. This is a great viewpoint you have put forward.
    my question is that how do we graphic designers know which specialization is in demand?

  16. Awesome post. Thanks so much for sharing!

  17. A post to think about. Thanks for the insight.

  18. it’s a great article, thank you!

  19. Grate article! Grate perspective! but , from my point of view, there are always exceptions. yes the quality of your work can have to suffer when you want to do 10 things at a time, but when you love what you are doing, I’m sure you will not screw nothing. You said about David Airey , a logo designer that has something to say, but I don;t think that, just because he’s good in the logo design process, with a little crunching he will not create: a nice site, a packing design, a brochure or other stuff, in the graphic design area. It depends only on the individual, and on his professionalism.

  20. Richard Podsada says:

    I think that right there is the trap that many small businesses also find themselves in: desperation. That’s why they’re afraid to specialize (saying no to clients means not paying the bills), and why they take on work that they’re not entirely experts in. I think you can find success as a generalist, to some degree, but more and more clients – and I mean bigger clients, not mom n’ pops, want somebody who truly understands their situation and unique problem. No generalist can usually pass that barrier. And there’s the catch 22: We start our businesses as generalists hoping to some day land those big prestigious accounts, only to find that none of them will hire you because you won’t get a foot in the door with ‘I sort of know that.’ Nor do you make the kind of money you need to grow to a sufficient size to attract bigger clients – because people pay less for ‘me too’ than ‘I *really* know how to fix your problem.’ So you slog your life away at the mom n’ pops – who no doubt appreciate what you do. But will you find true success or financial freedom one day? If all the stars align and the unicorns dance, maybe. But more likely, you’ll die in a basement working on the same shit you were doing 40 years ago. Luckily, most people burn out before that happens.

    The thing about specialization and positioning is creating something remarkable about yourself. Nobody talks about a ‘me too.’ Quality, service, integrated solutions… Everybody has those. But a real master, people line up for and talk about. *They* feel privileged to work with them. Take Happy Cog for example. Do people get on a waiting lists to pay you $200K+ to build a website? Or like Jiro Ono, the sushi chef in Japan who ran a 10 seat sushi bar in a subway that people would book months in advance and pay ungodly prices for. There’s a documentary about him now. Or Southwest airlines, eSportsDeskPro, and many more. The list goes on.

    I believe the reason that specialization is becoming more important is because our industry is becoming commoditized. With the advent of WordPress and 99designs, the masses no longer need the ‘middle-man’ marking up the work. Of course I don’t agree with these, but they’re a reality, and they’re driving prices down and consumer expectations up. It’s hard to compete with that when in the client’s mind, the product is essentially no different. Of course WE know better – but clients don’t get it. They treat it like buying fruit.

    Think of specialization as your edge, not your limitation. There can be many other things attached to the handle, but the blade itself must be very sharp.

  21. FANTASTIC! now go tell the world and every freakin employer on this planet about this! Unless you are a freelancer this does not apply! Good luck finding a job that only expects you to design logos or only design one kind of website! They want you to be a graphic designer, web designer, web developer, Photo editor, Video Editor, VFX Specialist, SEO / SEM Specialist, Programmer and developer! They they want to pay you a whopping $20.00 an hour if you are lucky enough to even get that! Ow and most company’s want you to be a IT and Server tech as well. So ya unless everyone starts pulling there heads out of there A$$ this is invalid and will not land you a amazing job that pays you what you are really worth!

    • Actually, like many who commented here you missed the point. First of all, you don’t want to work for a company who want’s to bang you out for the best of their buck (designer who is a .net specialist or a designer who knows plumbing too)..if you apply for a web design job that requires you to know how to write and publish books as well is not where you want to be applying.

      I have designed business cards, logos, club flyers, websites, facebook tabs, icons, album covers, posters, etc etc…Now i specialize (focus) only on Web/UI Design aimed at the music & entertainment industry..I can be doing a website one day and a mobile app the next, and a client might even ask to throw in some branding work also in need of a fresh logo..

      This post was not meant for anyone to leverage in order to land an amazing paying job. Might be best to re-think what is invalid here my friend.

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  4. [...] debate in the design community (that I don’t plan on diving into today. If you’re interested, read here.) about whether or not a designer should specialize in one specific area or strive to be a [...]

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