Do you need a specialty to succeed in design?

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How important is it to have a niche? I love trying everything and have no favorite, per se—am I at a disadvantage? —@danidonovan

Having a niche can be incredibly important, but are you at a disadvantage by trying everything and not focusing on a specialty? That all depends on what your version of success and happiness looks like.

Take AIGA Medalist Ric Grefé: He worked in naval intelligence during the Vietnam War, then worked as a journalist for the Associated Press and contributed as a business writer for Time magazine, all before his 20 year tenure as the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design (1995–2015). For every case like Ric, there are countless other designers and creatives who have personally experienced and witnessed success by defining themselves as experts in one field.

T​here isn’t one single​ definitive answer that outweighs the other. But let’s look at both sides of the argument to see what’s right for you:​​

What is a niche?

Interestingly, Google's definition of the word niche is: “a comfortable or suitable position in life or employment.” But when we think of the term in professional practice, the vague definition comes into focus as a high level of expertise and specialization. On a more granular level, it’s the substantial dominance of one's service offering in a non-crowded, sub-section of a market.

If we use the example scenario of having a niche in the design industry, we would say someone who is a senior digital designer at a large advertising agency for 10 years is a generalist. Conversely, someone who is a senior digital designer at a small boutique design firm for the same amount of time, delivering AR environments and VR landscapes for companies in the aviation sector, would be considered a specialist.

And in this case, it’s important to note that a niche is not necessarily defined by the area favored by the individual—it also takes into account where there is a current market appetite and future need. VR and such digital needs are part of a new, explosive market. In such context, it is certainly important to take action on niche opportunities as they arise—it’s a part of professional survival. Designers must be prepared pivot and upskill when the industry faces revolutionary changes.

Generalist vs. specialist

Whether you’re a generalist or a specialist, the bigger goal is finding the sweet spot that answers three main questions: What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What pays well?

It sounds to me like you’re at a stage in your professional development when you’re exploring your options. This is one of two ways to discover your niche. In the case that your niche doesn’t come to you, you need to go to your niche. If you don’t explore, you’ll certainly never know if you’re good at it and if you enjoy it. Browsing around, so to speak, and choosing your target market and positioning your design services in a non-niche area can be profitable through factors such as networking and building quality advocacy relationships alone.

On the other end of the spectrum, you may have been born into a niche, with skills and knowledge passed down from your parents as soon as you could walk and talk. Are you at an advantage or disadvantage in that scenario? Again, it depends on what drives your fulfillment criteria. You might find your inherited niche fits in the “sweet spot” we covered earlier. Or you may feel like you were forced into that niche, making you feel caged and unable to exercise your curiosity towards other ventures. The metric that measures your disadvantage would depend on how aligned your job role is with your personal value system.

Niches eventually expire

The other consideration to assess is that we’re now in an era with multi-hyphens to our job title. No longer are we labeled as dominantly one thing.

We are able to not only have multiple roles, but be damn good at all of them. Who’s to say that you can’t be an expert in multiple things in various niche markets?

Sometimes we just need to get out of our own way. I’m certainly learning that myself. We can be our own worst enemy one day, then our own best friend the next. Rather than analyzing and labeling, we can be more present. And rather than focusing on our to-do list, we can shift that lens on our to-be list.

Like you, I tried everything. I even started in the mailroom at Ogilvy after graduating under scholarship in design school. The first 10 years of my career saw me jumping from design spaces within advertising, marketing communications, packaging, typography, branding, exhibition and environmental design, events, service design, and now writing, podcasting, and speaking.

My niche right now is helping emerging designers be employed. However, I guess you could equally argue that my niche is being a specialist generalist. Either way, I didn’t find my niche until 12 years in the industry.

Lastly, I’m challenging you to simplify the meaning of “having a niche.” Try not to get caught up in having a point of difference. Because, a niche is simply another way of saying have focus. Whatever you choose, do it well. Aim to do it better than anyone else—niche or no niche.

About the Author:

If you'd like to be a designer, read Ram's internationally industry acclaimed book here:

www.getajobasadesigner.com

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Ram is an award winning Design Director, Blogger, top ranking Podcaster, Speaker, CreativeLive.com Instructor and Author of the internationally acclaimed book 'How to get a job as a designer, guaranteed'. He's based in Sydney, Australia and in 2012, started the blog GiantThinkers.com which helps thousands of design students and graduates be employed. Ram has since been featured in Communication Arts, HOW magazine, Herman Miller, deFrost*, AIGA.org and Apple. 

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