Around the same time every year, half-way through the Spring semester, just as the pull of Summer begins, my students begin asking variations of a similar question. My graduate students, unsure of how to organize the weird experiments they’ve been doing for the last few years into a coherent portfolio, want to know how to pitch themselves to potential employers. My seniors, beginning to worry about looking for jobs for the first time, ask about how to position themselves: are they product designers or UX designers, print-focused or web-focused? Should they be generalists or specialists? And then my younger students wonder what their concentration should be. (Many design schools have students pick a disciplinary track like ‘branding,’ ‘interactive,’ or ‘advertising’ during their sophomore year with designated classes for each.) They’re afraid of picking the wrong one, of choosing a focus too early.
What these questions show is that as the design field has expanded, it has also fragmented. As the definitions and boundaries of design have blurred — opening up even more opportunities for designers to work in a variety of scales and mediums, contexts and cultures — the working conditions of the contemporary designer have become ever-more siloed. When design can mean so many different things, to simply call yourself a designer is too vague, so we add increasingly specific descriptors to the front of our titles: Digital Visual Designer, UX/UI Designer, Product Designer, Brand Designer, Design Researcher, Data Designer, Production Designer, Design Engineer… No wonder students are confused as they move from the classroom to the workplace. From the beginning of a designer’s education, a student is asked to pick a focus, and then four years later, when applying for jobs, are again faced with the task of declaring a specific area of expertise that matches a specific job they might be applying for, sometimes in a specific industry.
I’ve noticed another title, too, another type of designer. This one isn’t typically on job boards but can be found on designers’ resumes and websites: the Multidisciplinary Designer. Where those other titles promote a specific skill set or focus, to be multidisciplinary is to reject the ever-increasing specialization in the industry. The multidisciplinary designer works in both print and digital! The multidisciplinary designer designs apps and brands! The multidisciplinary designer is serious and educated and won’t be placed into an overly specific job. All of which makes it tempting to think of the multidisciplinary designer as something new (I’ve also started seeing related terms like ‘Transdisciplinary Designer’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Designer’ recently, too), a reaction to the splintering and compartmentalizing that permeates the field, a preview of a new type of designer who transcends these silos allowing everything to blur together. But this new title, describing a specific type of designer, is just that: a new term for a type practice that was once the norm. A look through history shows us that multidisciplinary is what design has been all along.
A look through history shows us that multidisciplinary is what design has been all along.
Consider, for example, Massimo Vignelli, he of Helvetica high-modernism, notorious for only using five typefaces. Vignelli, who with his wife Lella originally studied as an architect, worked not just as a graphic designer but also designed interiors, clothes, and products. Charles and Ray Eames, perhaps the seminal example, designed buildings and furniture, made films, and drew patterns. George Nelson, the design director of Herman Miller from 1947-1972, led the design of the company’s advertising while also designing furniture, worked as an architect and interior designer, and was a writer and editor for various architecture journals. Muriel Cooper made books, experimented with digital design, and taught classes at MIT. Isamu Noguchi made sculptures but he also designed landscapes, lamps, and stage sets. Corita Kent was a printer and a nun! And don’t forget the Bauhaus Masters — those who gave us the foundation classes found in art schools around the world — who worked across painting and architecture and design and sculpture.
Or you could go back even further and find the fluidity between mediums even goes beyond the scope of what we might consider design. We’d find Benjamin Franklin running a printing press and designing the country’s first newspaper, creating bifocals, and advising on the young United States. Or how about Da Vinci, whose work spans art, science, and invention? “Many persons wonder why we do not have such men today,” wrote Buckminster Fuller of people like Da Vinci and Franklin in his 1967 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, which proposes a loose history of specialization. “It is a mistake to think we cannot.” (Bucky, by the way, was another polymath who resisted specialization and worked across design, architecture, and engineering.)
I’m drawn to his optimism because I don’t always feel it myself. The designers I listed were — and still are — my role models. Their careers always felt radical and expansive, driven by curiosity and openness, the opposite of the design jobs I found myself in after I graduated. I want a practice like theirs that spans different types of design, maybe even throwing in adjacent activities like writing and teaching and whatever else catches my interests. I’m guilty of tacking “multidisciplinary” in front of my title to signal this ambition. I went back to grad school, after years working in more specialist jobs, to figure out how to build a truly multidisciplinary career for myself, and, honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out.
The term Multidisciplinary Designer signals something new, something elite even, when it should be (could be?) the norm. Yet it feels even less accessible to students now. Big companies aren’t hiring for designers-at-large. When I was thinking about looking for jobs as I finished graduate school, I realized there were less positions for me than there were before, not because of my education but because companies don’t hire people for this expanded practice. To have a career like this requires an independence — the permanent freelancer! — and with that independence comes a precarious career, made more unstable under a neoliberal, capitalist political economy.
Henry Ford developed the assembly line in 1913, atomizing the parts of the process into discreet and independent steps that could be reproduced easily. He was drawing on the ideas of the 18th-century philosopher, writer, and economist Adam Smith (another polymath!), who wrote how dividing labor into small parts could fuel capitalism. As mass production grew, so did the assembly line model, popularizing the term “Fordism,” the idea of organizing workers by specific tasks to create standardized products. This is capitalism at work: always forcing us into more and more specialized modes of working. As the design field has grown and increased in complexity, this specialization feels inevitable. Graphic designers can work across mediums (print, web, digital), at various scales (icons and environments), in assorted contexts (branding, product design, editorial), and in different environments (in-house, big agency, small studio). It’s impossible to learn every new tool or be involved in every step of a complex design project, so it’s broken down into specialized teams. Design school does the same thing, choosing specific concepts and skills to prepare a student for these future jobs. We’re all part of the assembly line, working on increasingly smaller parts of increasingly bigger projects.
We’re all part of the assembly line, working on increasingly smaller parts of increasingly bigger projects.
To be a multidisciplinary designer today signals a prestige, a privilege even. It’s for those who feel confident enough, or financially secure enough, to move beyond the assembly line and choose their own projects, to move from interest to interest. But it shouldn’t be that way — multidisciplinary is what design has always been. “All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable,” writes Fuller. “Yet in observing a little child, we find it is interested in everything and spontaneously apprehends, comprehends, and co-ordinates an ever-expanding inventory of experiences. Children are enthusiastic planetarium audiences. Nothing seems to be more prominent about human life than its wanting to understand all and put everything together.” That ‘understanding and putting together’ is the design process, even if it’s become harder and harder to truly work in the mode.
I bristle when my students begin asking those questions again each Spring. I’m not sure if it’s wise advice to tell them to ignore such questions, that it doesn’t honestly matter that much what track they pick, but that’s what I want to do. I want to tell them they can do everything, try anything. (If you design one thing,” Vignelli supposedly said, “you can design everything.”) But I also know such advice doesn’t prepare them for a dubious life of independence, especially when so many want or need stability. When they ask these questions, I want to respond with questions of my own: how do we break out of the assembly line model and return to a mode of practice where we don’t need these silos? How do we make this type of work available to even more designers? We could stop appending new descriptors in front of our titles that confuse as much as clarify. We could embrace the mandate of the designer in the broadest sense, as someone who understands and puts together. Then, we would truly be multidisciplinary. Again, we could just be designers.