In a bygone era, creatives would more often than not fit into neatly allocated definitions. The illustrator, the copywriter, the photographer, the musician or the fashion designer would do exactly as their name suggests – they would illustrate, write copy, take photos, and so on.
But while digital developments have led to a new wave of specialists (to code or create apps with consummate ease and expertise, for instance), it has also given rise to the new generalist – the agency that provides the strategic overview, say, the illustrator who’s also an art director, or the product designer who embraces graphics and illustration.
While definitions are still being applied, creative individuals or agencies are increasingly breaking free of them, taking on new skills as and when a project requires them, and merging them to create unique multi-disciplinary forms of work.
The recent recession might be partly responsible, as creatives multitask to survive, but the accessibility and relative affordability of new technologies means consumers, viewers and visitors need to be reached across different channels, while new skills are more easily mastered.
The emergence of generalists – the creative multitaskers – also keeps the industry interesting, believes illustrator and art director Ben O’Brien – aka Ben the Illustrator. “If an architect has a go at directing animation, he will have a far more interesting and ‘new’ approach to it than someone who has worked solely in animation for decades,” he argues. “The architect may not have the perfect approach, but it might throw up something new. Also, for me personally, it’s just more exciting, more fun and far more interesting, it keeps you on your toes and enables you to constantly have something new to do.”
In this article, we speak to creatives who defy definition and have honed their anti-specialist work to offer a unique approach to design and creation, so that they might inspire you to add a few more strings to your bow.
Ben the Illustrator
The illustrator, art director, whatever
Ben O’Brien has adopted the ‘Ben the Illustrator’ moniker, but with a background in animation and a predisposition to look beyond what he knows, Ben has transformed his illustration practice into a multi-disciplinary one that includes art direction, animation and all sorts.
For example, he’s currently working on a collection of fabric designs that will be applied to a number of different products, adding professional fabric cutting to his expanding list of skills.
“Three months ago, I never would have thought that I should learn that skill or how it would ever help me in my career,” he says. “One key to being multi-disciplined successfully is not just broadening your actual skills, but also your knowledge.”
Other recent projects have included editorial illustrations for a new science and business magazine that The New York Times is publishing in China, and art direction of animated ads for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, created with animator Ben Mounsey.
Learning new skills has definitely become easier nowadays, argues Ben, with various outlets making learning more accessible. “Magazine tutorials, online tutorials, trial versions of software, it is all out there for the taking, and costs are fairly minimal,” he points out. “Students are teaching themselves tools and processes in design and animation quicker than their own tutors can learn it themselves.”
The revolution in crafts and ‘DIY design’ over the past few years has also lead to more variety in people’s skills, with web designers producing letter press prints, for example, or animators stitching felt toys, adds Ben – “maybe for pleasure, maybe to broaden their professional scope in the creative industry”.
But being multi-disciplined also helps being noticed. “The more outlets you have, the more you will stand out above the general population of illustrators or designers, a community that’s bursting at the seams right now,” he adds.