How to be a multidisciplinary designer

Everyone knows that you’re expected to work across multiple disciplines these days – but is being a generalist a must-have skill?

Nobody ever said that a job was for life or a career path was guaranteed to remain the same.

You could be an accountant, plumber or butcher and new ways of working would come along. They'd be new ways of calculating or fixing leaks and chopping meat. That's progress and it happens in every career choice.

The difference between those professions and working in our industry is that in our business changes seemingly occur in dog years from one year to the next.  Tech and design fads come and go, new screens come along to play with and design for, software changes and we're continually haunted by the industry chant of “Keep up! Keep up!” It's not really a career for those opposed to change and is often described in industry wishlists (or job ads as they're commonly known) as a ‘thriving’, ‘fast paced’ or a ‘challenging’ environment.

It may appear that you’re following a linear path as projects have moved from a print to digital focus and from static to moving and interactive – but in truth your skills are likely changing from having a singular focus to becoming multi-disciplinary. You’re still tapping the same key skills in aesthetics and storytelling – but across more than one medium.

The RSA’s Great Recovery project saw Hilary Chittenden working cross media on the website and newspaper as well as event organising and additional photography.

A key skill here is the ability to collaborate. The creative process for many projects no longer follows the rigid pipeline of one person doing the Photoshop layouts and then moving these to a developer who then moves them back again when the tech and logic dictate they need to change. With the push towards skills convergence we're seeing the rise of the 'creative technologist' where design and development are developed alongside each other if both are to be successful.

“We commonly pair designers with developers so that they collaborate in real time on creating and improving design directly in the browser.” explains Charlotte Hillenbrand, client partner at Made by Many. “For some designers, this could sound like a nightmare, particularly if they're used to handing down polished PSDs in the expectation that they'll be executed to pixel perfection. What we look for in a designer is someone who is passionate about their work, and knows what they are trying to achieve but doesn't feel the need to be totally in control of the interface”  

Made by Many's approach is progressive and certainly empowering for the creatives working there. There's no pipeline process here.

“There are no ivory towers or creative directors lording their vision over teams.” explains Charlotte. “Designers are expected to be strong team workers who are comfortable collaborating with a multi-skilled team”

It's important to be set goals and objectives so you can see a progression in yourself and career but around this you can still adopt a flexible approach to your job function and create and expand your role above and beyond what a job may say you can and can't do.

“I studied 'Information Design', which I think sounds incredibly specialised” says Hilary Chittenden, communications designer at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). “I always incorporated a lot of different mediums into my work: from animation to editorial, digital to photography and have never thought of myself as specialised. I think what I have found surprising is that both in my day job and personal projects, the concept of 'multi-disciplinary' extends far beyond design skills. I find that I spend a lot of time organising events, project managing and running workshops on top of all of the more traditional roles as a designer.”  

Hilary has since been involved in The Great Recovery Project, an RSA project that took advantage of this approach – with Hilary being involved in the photography, editorial, print and digital aspects of the project.

“My interest in design was slightly schizophrenic: a combination of theatre, digital media and graphic design “ remarks co-founder and creative director of Thought Den, Ben Templeton (below). “But I’d argue all disciplines relate in some way to the design of an experience”

Creative ownership is the key motivator to wanting to learn more about how a creative project is put together and a desire to move away from being a cog in a creative machine. This in turn is driven by an underlying good idea and a desire to actualise that in the best possible way.

“That's not to say we don't have specialists” Charlotte Hillenbrand stresses. “All our people are excellent at one or two aspects of their job and very talented in others. That could mean an iOS developer who can turn their hand to databases or photography; or it could mean an interaction designer who is as at home with creating user journeys as they are developing a new brand identity.”

Designer Natalie Jahangiry has been working with four friends to create an advertising blog called To Work or Play (above). Its focus is on women in advertising: what inspires them and what work they’re currently producing.

Working as such as small unit and with each team member coming from different positions and departments in the industry created a need to expand their skillsets to launch the site.

“We had to do everything ourselves” remembers Natalie (below). “I designed the site, along with print material and the general branding. We recognised the fact that a lot of our audience would be using mobiles or tablets (in fact around 40% of our current traffic use devices), so made our site responsive, of which I had to learn how do. The project has definitely expanded my skillset and all those skills come in handy when working on other advertising projects”

Andrew Jackson, senior designer at Ragged Edge, took the more 'traditional' route to becoming a designer working predominantly in print and identity and then the industry pushed him into digital a change which led him to a front end development course. “Knowing how a website is built has really informed how I design for it. It's helped with production handover, working side-by-side with developers in the studio and just tinkering with designs in browser until I'm happy” he says acknowledging that the project has given him a greater understanding of user experience and having this technical grounding changes the way he approaches a web project.

Ragged Edge have recently launched a website for a group of Spanish restaurants in London called Brindisa Tapas Kitchens (below). When the agency presented the concept they also pushed for new video and photography content to fulfil the brief which the client agreed on. Andrew found the project used old and new creative and transferable skills such as composition, layout and a good eye for detail with him taking on Art Director duties for four on location shoots and helping with the homepage video.

The big idea behind all this work is what powers all this and a desire to take that creative concept and take them into as many creative and effective mediums as possible from web to social video to app and even print.

“Our project ‘Design In A Nutshell’ for Open University (below) was multi-disciplined and multiplatform.” remembers Ben Templeton with Thought Den asked to create six short animations to explain six design periods ranging from Gothic Revival to Post Modernism a project which in terms of activities had the team researching, scriptwriting, copywriting, storyboarding as well as producing sound design, illustration, HTML 5 and Javascript. Ben notes that to be a creative lead his role was on the “Big picture”. With this role jumping from “Copywriting to art direction, or from directing a voice actor to wire-framing the user journey on the interactive”

Increasingly there’s evidence in the industry that creative leads or creative directors have to extend their skillset and embrace a multi-disciplinary way of working if they’re going to manage the output of the agency effectively. Understanding the bottlenecks in a project and the needs of each team member demands this way of working if creative is to be delivered on time and to budget.

“It’s not possible to excel at everything” cautions Ben Templeton “The aim should be to balance a 360 understanding with specific skills.”

Andrew Jackson points out there’s more of a risk of being pigeon holed into a specialised area at larger creative agencies “But that’s what works on that scale” he advises.

The creative industry as a whole is working harder to keep customers loyal, and as a ripple effect this means designers and creative also have to work harder to produce campaigns that work across seemingly numerous platforms.  Are the specialist generalists taking over? Does this spell the end of the master craftspeople of old?  Charlotte Hillenbrand doesn’t think so.

“It's not about losing core skills” she remarks “The projects we work on offer all our teams fresh challenges that open up the possibility of acquiring new skills along the way. We're always learning, seeking to improve. It gives us competitive advantage and keeps the smart people we hire engaged every day”

In a rapidly changing industry that sense of engagement and passion is a must. It will always drive those who are curiously creative into discovering new mediums for their work. Ideas power great work and software skills can help realise that but knowing how to take original idea and present it to your audience in the most effective way is at the heart of all creative knowledge learning.

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