Chris Thelwell

Should designers be generalists or specialists?

I was asked by InVision “Should designers be generalists or specialists?” This was my response.

Written on Wednesday, 15th June 2016 by Chris Thelwell

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At Envato we have a distributed design team. Designers are embedded in small cross-functional teams alongside developers and a product manager, so it’s really important that our designers can do a bit of everything.

We look for generalists when we hire

We need people who have a wide range of skills. One day they can be doing user research—interviewing customers, writing surveys, analysing results, etc.—and the next day they’ll be doing interaction work and visual design. At some point they’ll also be working closely with front-end developers, and they may even write code.

Sketching flows and screens on a whiteboard.

Sketching flows and screens on a whiteboard

If we hired specialists to cover each of these roles, we’d have some problems:

  • Less efficiency—designers would wait around for the next task that required their speciality
  • Loss of context on projects during handoffs
  • A weakened relationship with the development team

Most designers have one skill they’re better at than others. We share these specialities to mentor our teammates and level any gap in skills. A designer with great research skills will work with the other designers to help them become better researchers. We don’t give all the research work to the person with those skills.

A team built from generalists is a team that can handle any design task


We have a UI design team that works on our Design System—they’re specialized in visual design, which we like to refer to as UI design. They’re expected to learn new skills like Framer.js.

Information architecture (IA) and copywriting is another exception. We have a great IA and UX writer (she opened World IA Day 2016) who works closely with our designers. Since we have such a complex IA in our product, and because we have a global audience, this is the one area that we need a true specialist.

Generalists are in demand

In a product environment, I think it’s essential to be a generalist. You need to be surrounded by other generalist designers who can share their skills and experience.

The design team at Envato

The design team at Envato

A team built from generalists is a team that can handle any design task. That’s the kind of team we need at Envato.

This article was first published on InVision BlogShould designers be generalists or specialists?