At the end of February, I was called out as generalist on Twitter. The accusation—it could only be that—made my face flush. As soon as the notification hit my phone, I searched the thread’s backlog for the initial question that had prompted some designer, a complete stranger, to implicate me.
It read: “Who is an example of a successful design/illustration generalist?”
My indignation instantly became embarrassment. The Tweet naming me was rendered innocuous, even complimentary. Also—and this is important—I definitely am a generalist. One cursory look at my portfolio, which has lived under the heading ‘Design, illustration, etc.’ for years, confirms this.
As we all know, skill and expertise are bound together. Specialization implies mastery, and mastery is the be all, end all. It’s the reward of 10,000 hours invested. In one of the design canon’s more famous essays from 2005, “Fuck Content,” Michael Rock praises specialists by lionizing style. He writes that we must “find ways to speak through treatment, to return consistently to central ideas, to re-examine and re-express. In this way we build a body of work, and from that body of work emerges a singular message.” To be a specialist, Rock argues, is in the designer’s nature. It is our higher calling.
But the thing Rock claims on behalf of the designer is style with the privilege of autonomy. For him, style is inherently authorial—and it’s truly not available to all.
The generalist, then, can only be less-than. The adages are as unfavorable to us as they are adoring of experts: We are “jacks-of-all-trades but masters of none.” We’re a “mile wide but an inch deep.” We have no singular message, and thus no substance. We fall outside of Rock’s audience.
All told, the implication is that working generalists are “professional amateurs.” We’re relegated to the level of oxymoron. If that is what I am, I’d like to redeem the term.
So many of the behemoths of graphic design were generalists. Herbert Matter was a painter before he was a designer. Lester Beall was an art historian. Muriel Cooper studied design and science education concurrently. Corita Kent was an artist and a nun. Paul Rand and Saul Bass did everything, as did El Lissitsky and the Eames’. So when did generalism lose its association with the design auteur?
The thing Rock claims on behalf of the designer is style with the privilege of autonomy. For him, style is inherently authorial—and it’s truly not available to all.
I graduated from art school in 2015, but long before my classmates and I crossed the stage, resume obsession and job lust gripped our collective consciousness. We were newly self-aware, grappling with the idea of a body of work as an avatar for self. We bought domain names. We skinned our sites. We tried our work on. The weight of the future constantly pressed. By the end of the year the most effective resumes proved to be the widest ones. The students who landed full-time jobs by graduation were those whose skills were demonstrably general. They confirmed for us the standard for a competitive and oversaturated industry: beginners must do everything, and well. This, or risk that the career door not be thrown wide.
Now, as then, the basic requirement for a beginning designer to enter the field at all is generalism. To play specialist at entry-level is to ignore the brief; it is the job of the newcomer to understand and serve a studio that itself functions as the specialist. They must be skilled hands in service of other brains. At mid-level, the tension between generalists and specialists only grows. All designers begin as generalists, but accepted wisdom implies that to remain a generalist well into your career is essentially to opt to be an amateur.
Herein lies the paradox: While the design industry asks for versatility and broad capability from its youngsters, it simultaneously requires a distinct, honed point of view from its experts. At entry-level, style eliminates opportunity, but in order to be in the class of the acknowledged best you must have a trademark. If you’ve survived your first years in a profession that perpetuates your chameleon nature, you must suddenly look like yourself. And what do you look like? A generalist.
Generalism, I now realize, is in my nature. I’m a generalist not because I think I’m good at everything, but because I think I’m very good at nothing. For now I’m unsatisfied by all that I make (dissatisfaction is inherent to my particular strain of generalism; it is its primary torture). I ask myself, constantly, forever and ever, What is the thing I love to do most? and What am I best at? and What am I? I respond by working in every arena I possibly can. I investigate. How can I know if I do not attempt?
While the design industry asks for versatility and broad capability from its youngsters, it simultaneously requires a distinct, honed point of view from its experts.
All the power of generalism—and it does have power—is in what its everything-ness implies. That is: To be a persistent generalist is actually to be deeply, relentlessly ambitious. It is the natural byproduct of curiosity, of engagement, of unwavering standards, of the insatiable desire for excellence. Commitment to generalism belies a keen and willing mind. Generalism is a pursuit of self. It’s how we strive. Driving us is the hope-borne belief that we will eventually design ourselves into the thing we will be.
And aren’t there great sensory and mental pleasures in a cross-genre practice? Doesn’t broad creation have a special concomitant joy, and isn’t that joy the ultimate?
To be a persistent generalist is actually to be deeply, relentlessly ambitious.
Back in February, having read the Tweet over a few times, having considered the initial question, I found that I was flattered. A fellow designer had seen me.
The fact is that the current class of young designers, the generalists by necessity, have among them the next generation of design powerhouses. Specialization was the natural plateau the designer once climbed towards (we all want the privilege of being both visible and looking like ourselves), but I think our future experts will bring with them a paradigm that reflects the world they came up in. Maybe the answer to working in a paradoxical industry is simply to be a paradoxical practitioner—to be the very best generalist possible.
Chloe Scheffe is a mid-level designer who has worked at every establishment that would have her. She has occupied desks in various capacities at Pentagram (Team Michael Bierut), Other Means, Metahaven, and The New York Times Magazine. She currently works out of the studio of Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday. She has freelanced as a designer for a range of clients, from GQ to Doubleday & Cartwright to Nike to Verso Books to WIRED, and has made illustrations for a number of publications, including The New Yorker, the New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Lucky Peach, and Surface Magazine. She draws in two styles. She’s written a little, both fiction and nonfiction. She has art directed illustrators, photographers, and food & prop stylists, and even once did a stint as a prop stylist herself.