Boutiques vs behemoths: the pros and cons of specialising in design

Boutiques vs behemoths: the pros and cons of specialising in design
Are contemporary designers at risk of becoming jacks of all trades and master of, well, not very much at all? Rachael McKinnon peruses the trade-off of specialisation versus generalisation.

Are contemporary designers at risk of becoming jacks of all trades and master of, well, not very much at all? Rachael McKinnon peruses the trade-off of specialisation versus generalisation.

Question: What does a graphic designer do?

Answer: Everyfuckingthing.

Those were the words projected on screen by designer Dominic Hofstede at Semi-Permanent 2013, prompting a flurry of tweets and retweets in the twitterverse by designers in the crowd.

dominic hofstede

Indeed, the pressure from employers and design schools on designers to be flexible and nimble could be turning out a generation of jacks of all trades, with specialisation viewed as a luxury for an anointed few.

Did the heady days of honing a craft such as typesetting or illustration disappear with the advent of the computer, turning design graduates into poster children for Adobe? The truth is, it depends on where you want to work and how hard you want to work to get there.

Designers who have honed their craft will always be sought after by boutique design agencies as well as their behemoth equivalents. But there’s a lot of hard graft involved in being a specialist – and employment is not guaranteed.

Big agencies often have the resources to set up dedicated niche departments, such as the recently created ‘spatial and interactive’ team at Designworks, but is it risky business to be too good at one thing in such a competitive industry? 

The alternative – and the reality – for boutique design agencies is generalisation. Smaller agencies have proven they can go head-to-head with the big boys, but with such small creative teams, flexibility is essential. Freelancers are still brought in to consult on specific projects but the real grunt work happens in house, sometimes by just a couple of people.

So, designers, do you want to put one thing on your CV, or ‘everyfuckingthing’?

Small and creative

Hofstede has a two-decade history in graphic design, 17 years of which have been devoted to running his boutique studio Hofstede Design, based in Melbourne. They have a core staff of three full-time designers, which means they need people who are ‘versatile and flexible’, he says. In fact, Hofstede suggests that if a designer is looking for work in a small studio environment, very few can specialise.

Their work on recent projects such as the Australian Design Biennale booklet and brand refresh for Australian architectural firm InForm demonstrate that size doesn’t matter when it comes to producing quality design. In fact, Hofstede says that small agencies turn out more creative and interesting work.

So what is the reality for designers here in New Zealand?

Kiwi agency Designworks has a staff of around 75 in New Zealand and another 25 across the ditch, with offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch as well as Sydney and Melbourne. They work with clients such as Air New Zealand, DB and Genesis energy with a range of services. Because of its size, Designworks has the opportunity to bring together dedicated teams of specialists to realise a client’s brief.

matt hammond designworks idealogMatt Hammond, who specialises in branding, packaging and environmental projects at Designworks, says they have just put in place a spatial and interactive team to broaden their offerings. They often outsource to freelancers for projects, so he says it’s not to say you won’t get work if you specialise in something you are particularly good at. Once you’ve learned to think creatively, mastering the tools of the trade isn’t worth worrying about.

Sven Baker, director and group chief executive officer, goes one step further, saying the most important thing for a designer is to be passionate. In fact, they hire on it. If the passion is there, you can apply it to anything you like.

Read more - Sven Baker on challenges and opportunities for the design industry

The agency recently worked with Air New Zealand to deliver the carrier a contemporary wordmark (a text-only typographic treatment of a company’s name – think Coca-Cola, Google or Canon). For this project, they outsourced to specialist typeface designer Kris Sowersby from Klim Type Foundry who was consulted to craft and detail the letterforms to the standard required for an identity of that scale.

Sowersby is a specialisation success story; he makes his living exclusively through Klim Type Foundry, producing fonts, lettering and logos. 

And he believes any designer can be successful through discipline and hard work.

Read more - our interview with Kris Sowersby from 2008 and We Can Create in 2011

Hammond’s role at Designworks centres on branding and packaging, but he dedicates a big portion of his time working on ‘environmental jobs’, creating stores, restaurants and bars. One of his recent projects was the branding, creative direction and interior design for their client Black Dog Brew Co in Wellington. The brief was to create a retail craft beer concept that would be a hub for craft beer innovation.

Trips to Melbourne and Portland in the US to research emerging trends in the retail craft beer space inspired the concept – yes, research trips to bars – and the agency was given the freedom to reinterpret the best ideas they had seen for a New Zealand context. Hammond’s role was to work directly with the DB hospitality team and architects to realise the vision. 

The result was a bold black and white brand identity, with a lightning flash device becoming a motif emphasising that Black Dog is a place that ‘literally ‘sparks’ new ideas’. This ‘spark’ device is used throughout the retail space.

“The customer-facing mantra ‘new dog, new tricks’ speaks to the idea of new beer thinking, placing Black Dog at the forefront of brewing innovation,” Hammond says.

It was a dream project, he says, and attributes the smooth running to their good relationship with client DB.

“Everything we pitched came to life.”

That’s really saying something for this multi-faceted project. They even got the whole office involved in certain areas of the fit-out, which included everyone hand-painting a beer bottle with whatever they wanted for an in-store installation.

The perils inherent

If flexibility and passion are the key ingredients to successful design, could specialising too soon simply be to sign a career death warrant? For those who have made it to the other side in niche fields, it seems that specialisation is the tougher path to choose but the results, if successful, can be glorious.

Still, there are far fewer guarantees of security. Hofstede says it’s about education.

“Design schools these days are predicated on producing generalists, not specialists. Those who end up in fields such as illustration and typography really want to be in those fields.”

kiwi artist kelly thompsonKiwi artist Kelly Thompson’s interest in design has been with her since she was 10, when her grandfather taught her how to draw houses in 3D. She did a Bachelor of Design degree at university and now makes her living working as a freelance illustrator, occasionally writing, tutoring and consulting on the side. Over the course of her career, she has experienced the industry both as a designer and as an account manager for illustration agency Jackie Winter Group.

Thompson says it’s important to have a core area of focus and to avoid spreading yourself too thin, but warns, “a niche can either be fantastic if you hit it right, or terrible if you don’t angle yourself in the market correctly”. The trick is to develop a strong portfolio and create a style that is uniquely yours.

“Promote yourself well,” says Thompson. “And don’t expect it to fall into your lap.”

Her experience has been better when working with big agencies, because they know what her work costs. “You don’t have to hustle,” she says. “The little guys have less and try to get more, but it’s understandable as their clients are smaller.”

Having worked in New Zealand and Australia, she has a bit of an idea about how Kiwi attitudes to freelance designers differ from those across the ditch. In Australia the people are “more appreciative” of what you are doing for them whereas sometimes New Zealand has a “we are doing you a favour, you should be grateful” vibe.

Design is unique in the creative sphere in that the creator’s hand is usually invisible in the end result. Unlike illustration, a successful design project cleverly and simply executes the client’s requirements or necessary function without the author’s fingerprints – although that’s easier said than done.

Kiwi designer Nell May definitely views the designer as the invisible hand behind a project.

“I’ve always aspired to the idea of a designer not having a personal style,” she says. “Ultimately I think if a style is apparent then this is probably a failure of the designer. I don’t think many designers completely achieve this, including myself.”

However, there are still opportunities for a designer’s artistic voice to be displayed in the work through the creative decisions they make.

Says Hofstede: “A consistent methodology and philosophy can be applied to a range of disciplines. If one believes in a reductive, simplified approach to their work, that ‘style’ would be as evident in the design of a website as much as a wayfinding system.”

May, now based in Berlin, arrived at design from an arts background after studying at Elam School of Fine Arts. Today she designs for artists and galleries in Europe and New Zealand.

“I’m lucky that the low living costs in Berlin make it possible to work almost exclusively on projects I find interesting and of creative value. If I still lived in Auckland I’d be struggling to do this and would likely need to start catering to more commercial clients.”

May’s experiences working independently or in small collaborations have led her to believe that it is easier to work to high standards with a smaller team because the motivations are likely to be less driven by finances and time.

For a designer just starting out in their career, May advises against technological specialisation. She recommends dedicating time to understanding typography and grids, “preferably doing this away from the computer as much as possible. It has always been a disappointment of mine that I wasn’t first introduced to typography by letterpress – the computer has simply been an obstacle I’ve been fighting.” 

For the love of it

Self-taught designers Jenny Miles and Nik Clifford of Hardhat Design, which has offices in Auckland and London, were recently awarded first place in the non-alcoholic beverage category at the Dieline Package Design Awards for their work for Coffee Supreme. Despite being a two-person agency, their ability to offer a wide range of services meant they could tackle the project.

“We don’t really use freelancers for the creative, mainly because that’s the bit we love and want to carry on doing ourselves as much as possible!” Miles says.

jenny miles and nik clifford from hardhat design

As a studio, the pair offer brand creation, identity development, websites, ecommerce, social media and email strategy, print design, packaging, book covers – just about anything a client’s heart desires.

Their enthusiasm for the creative side of design shows in their Coffee Supreme project. The pair illustrated 16 individual takeaway coffee cups, in addition to branding, identity development, secondary logo design and packaging design. They indulged themselves in drawing and lettering the 16 unique designs by hand in paint, ink, chalk and pencil to tap into Coffee Supreme’s hand-crafted identity. The brief was for Coffee Supreme to show it had grown up while still retaining a quirky sense of fun. Their win for the project is testament to the ability of a small agency to compete not just nationally against bigger competitors but on the global stage. 

Miles’ father told her not to specialise too early. His reasoning became particularly clear after she worked at larger agencies. “There were designers who only knew how to create flat designs in Photoshop and would have to pass those designs to someone else to finish off.”

Says Clifford: “You need to stay nimble so you don’t become redundant.”

And if you are going to specialise, perhaps it’s worth waiting until later in your career. “After all, we aren’t the same person in our 40s that we were in our 20s!”

As a smaller agency, they feel there’s more freedom for direct contact with the client. “Larger agencies have the teams available to focus much more on strategy, consultancy and market research.”

The main difference between projects undertaken by boutique agencies, or their behemoth counterparts, is simply in method, rather than results. Smaller agencies have the in-house flexibility to offer creative and innovative solutions, with a bit of Kiwi can-do thrown into the mix. And by being flexible, nimble and working seriously hard, they can deliver some surprisingly creative results.

Although non-specialisation can be viewed with a dismissive ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ eye, the reality these days for graphic designers, artists and agencies is that designers are curators. The client’s brief, project or creative goal comes first and a designer will pull everyone together into a big creative group hug, evaluate the problem and deliver a beautiful solution.

“If you get this recipe correct,” says Hammond, “you’re going to produce something  great.