Do One Thing and Do It Well

Do One Thing and Do It Well

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1st Place

This is a guest article contributed by Jennifer Moline*.

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The old adage, “jack of all trades – master of none,” can apply to the graphic designer who tries to do it all: web development, letterhead design, logo creation, coding, etc. While designers who promote themselves as able to handle everyone’s needs may get a lot of inquiries, their work could suffer as a result.

Just recently, I went out to dinner at a place that serves macaroni and cheese. Sure, the restaurant has a couple of side dishes such as salad and veggies, and it makes its desserts in-house, but as far as entrees go, your options are about 10 different takes on the classic comfort dish. When this restaurant opened a few weeks ago, I thought, “What a great business model – it has a limited number of ingredients to purchase and doesn’t require a huge staff to prepare different dishes.” That got me to thinking: Perhaps more small businesses would succeed if they didn’t stretch themselves too thin.

A lot of freelancers think they need to cater to all potential paying clients. “You want an Asian-inspired logo? I can do that!” “You want an interactive website designed from scratch? No problem!” While I’m sure plenty of folks are capable of meeting lots of customer demands, there’s something to be said for the “expert,” the go-to person for, say, poster marketing, such as Wes Wilson, who is known for his psychedelic concert posters. And while Internet marketers are quick to claim that print is dead, that declaration means magazine and newspaper designers can be protective of their niche.

I’m not saying you should hunker down and exclusively create logos. Rather, instead of doing a mediocre job on a whole bunch of different types of projects, become really good at a smaller field of design work. Become a purple cow. For example, one of my Internet pet peeves is horrible restaurant websites – the ones where you have to download menus and the homepage is in Flash so it can’t be seen on a smartphone. That seems to be a restaurant-exclusive design issue. I’d love it if a web designer stepped in and set the standard for legible and easy-to-navigate restaurant sites. Or what about direct-mail marketing? I get postcards sent to me that are so crammed with text that I just toss them. Surely, a savvy graphic designer could corner the market on direct mail with eye-catching art that teases recipients to look into the company.

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Owning one’s own freelance design business is challenging enough with all the bookkeeping, IT and marketing demands – that’s a lot of hats to wear. By narrowing down your field of expertise, you may get more job offers through your reputation rather than through hits from an all-encompassing Internet search.

What’s your opinion? Should we all have our own ‘specialisation’?

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*Jennifer Moline writes about freelancing, small business and design for the PsPrint Blog. Feel free to follow PsPrint on Twitter and Facebook.

50 thoughts on “Do One Thing and Do It Well”

  1. While I agree with the idea of specializing, I would recommend that young designers try a variety of stuff to find their ‘sweet spot’.

    I probably fall into the jack of all trades designer description, but I’m focusing on two separate skill set: logo design and branding, and
    WordPress website design and development. My target client is small businesses, so this skill set works well.

  2. I agree! However, sometimes when you’re a polymath it gets boring after awhile. I still think many people are changing and becoming hybrids with changing technologies than just specializing these days.

    It takes many hours to become amazing at one thing and it’s true that you can’t fully master them all in one lifetime… however doesn’t hurt to try when you’re discovering yourself though. Some people try at one thing and they are just completely awful at it.

  3. Very well written article. It’s true that since all aspects of business now point towards being global, everyone is trying to set up a ‘one-stop shop’. However, the reality is that this affects the overall result.

  4. I definitely agree that you should try and stick to your own speciality. I’ve come to realise this when being pushed for time and only really being able to focus on one thing.

    But I think your example is a little extreme, “web designer stepped in and set the standard for legible and easy-to-navigate restaurant sites”. But then again, I know of a company that makes websites “just” for schools, so I suppose it’s not too far out.

  5. Really interesting post. I think the problem you face as a Freelancer is that you never want to turn work away so you tend to want to try and offer as many services as you can. I agree that by doing this you risk diluting the things you excel at and confusing your business model. It’s a difficult balancing act and I think it takes a lot of confidence to concentrate on one thing and run with it. It makes knowing and understanding your market place even more crucial.

  6. Two thoughts:
    What if you get bored of Mac & Cheese? What I mean is, one of the reason that I freelance and blog is that I need those outlets for things other than editorial design (my specialization). While I really adore designing magazines, I’m scared that if I did solely that, I’d eventually lose my love for it.

    It’s a scary prospect, to specialize in one thing like that. What if you put all of your savings and heart into a Mac and Cheese restaurant, and there is a pandemic of gluten allergies? With one blow you can be taken out. Do you think that is a false fear?

  7. I believe that when starting out, its is the perfect time to take on all sorts of work to see what you are best at and enjoy doing…for example while I love logo design and branding I have found I am not the best at it; I am however better @ print material and photomanipulation, now I am at the stage where I can market myself more appropriately while still taking on other design jobs. People who have seen my previous logos may still like what I’ve done, so specialising is not all at a loss!

  8. Abigail: The mac’n’cheese restaurant I referred to has a gluten-free option!

    And that actually brings me to another point: True, designing in one style can be boring, but finding a niche doesn’t necessarily mean doing the same-old/same-old. Like with the school example Benjamin Reid mentioned, what about specializing in school design but doing web development as well as printed materials?

  9. You hit on a good point and that’s to focus on one thing you can be great at and go at it full force. It’s easy to get too diffused into too many services.

  10. You have a good point (especially if you have to brand yourself/ yr company) but from a practical point of view it depends on where you live whether this is possible. In scarcely populated areas, there is often a need to offer a wide variety of designing skills. Of course a designer always should have a specialization to one or two areas but to exclude certain other work is not an option for some. I could have quit my business quite soon if I’d done that.

    Also, if you are running a company for a longer time and you started as a graphic designer specialized in branding, then after 5 years, taught yourself web design because you saw that that became more and more important and then, 5 years after that, combined your knowledge and educated yourself to specialize in user experience design… do you need to forget what you have done earlier?

    I think that life is a great way of growing personally, as well as professionally, so that means learning more, rather than limiting yourself like some people I’ve met, who are now ‘stuck’ and against new opportunities. They don’t want to learn anymore because they have specialized into one area that was really important 20 years ago and are really good at it. They don’t want, nor get the new technology opportunities. And start to complain about the younger designers. This is ok as long as you live in a city/country with enough population. If this is not the case, you’ll have less work.

    Oops this became quite long 😉 My point: it’s great to specialize but equally important to be aware of changes and to continue to learn.
    Design changes and grows and as designers it’s important to grow along.

  11. Thanks so much for this article Jennifer. It was exactly what I needed to hear today and I will definitely be putting more thought into that.

  12. I would not agree. One of the primary reasons that I have succeeded in my career is that I can do many things. Even if it’s just a touch of experience, just being knowledgeable a little bit in an area that I don’t actually do helps make me a better part of the team. Recently, when I decided to go back to work rather than freelance, almost all of the responses I got were because I can wear many hats, and wear at least as good as the specialists they hire to just do one thing.

    It wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, it was specialization.

  13. I find it disturbing when a company is searching for a top-notch designer who also has extensive copywriting experience. If you’re willing to hire a design specialist, you should be willing to hire a writer, too. That combination is much more rare than someone who can design logos AND print ads.

  14. Changing to follow the current trends in order to make money is a shame. 9 times out of 10, designers who claim to be an expert at everything, are usually mediocre at everything. If a designer gets bored, try a hobby other than you work and return with a new found love for your field.

  15. Yay! They’ve out thought me with their gluten-free cleverness. And you’re right, specializing doesn’t mean you aren’t testing boundaries and trying new things.

  16. This is a really fascinating read. For me, personally, I have a difficult time with specialization. Particularly because I see conceptualization as synonymous with creative integrity in execution. Therefore, I think that in creating a brand for someone it is so important to take the lead on most facets of design, content creation, and the like.

    What do you think?

    Thanks for writing this awesome article. Great read.

  17. I would put forward that rather than being a jack of all trades you are rather a jack of many, master of some. At work I am the webmaster and have responsibility for website development, programming and design. A few years later I also took on print publications after doing some professional development. I’ve even done the odd logo, but in this area I class myself master of none as I was out of my depth, I’m no Jacob Cass, and reluctantly did this.

    I think it comes down to knowing your limitations and not selling yourself as more than you are, doing so as a freelancer could lend itself to client dissatisfaction and a lack of their willingness to recommend you to others.

  18. This was a good read.
    I personally am struggling with this. I do alot of flyers for people, but I see a huge need for websites. I have little experience in building websites, but if someone comes to me about doing a website for them (and are willing to pay) do I turn them down? I really want to learn it, but where do I start? Any ideas?

  19. Wow, there are some great comments on this. I agree with Bryan and a few of the others that said similar things. I consider myself fairly good at many things, but I do have focus on just a few. And as Maaike said, it does depend on your location. I live in a rural area, and though I can work globally through the web, local people don’t really have many options for quality design.
    But I also think it can depend on the person. Some people can only focus on one thing at a time, whereas other people are able to do multiple things with equal success. I don’t mean to say one person is smarter than the other, but brains work differently. My child for instance will have extreme focus on one task but just not care about anything else at the time.
    I do want to know how long that mac&cheese place has been open and how long it WILL BE open… Either way, great post and great comments to follow!

  20. One other thing that I was going to mention was that to combat the ‘master of none’ syndrome – don’t take on too many clients! If a designer stretches themselves too thin, then they can’t focus on anything and really will be a master of none, even if they specialize. Give yourself time to really do your best.

    Ok, I’m done!

  21. yeah man i think we need to try just about everything that is out there
    logo design, wed development and editorial design but at least have one mastered because what if we know all of them but suck at all of them too?

  22. I DISAGREE. People are too quick to put on labels and limit their skill set. You need to always be evolving your skill set.

    Example 1: If you are a “Flash specialist”. What do you do when your client wants to rebuild their site in HTML/CSS?

    Example 2: A “Web Designer” that only works in Photoshop and has no idea how their design with be coded. If they had CSS and HTML skills that wouldn’t be such an issue.

    Example 3: I recently started working with Blender (3D rendering software) and eventually used it to make graphics for my website. Am I a 3D artist? NO, but I was willing to learn and it has become a useful skill set.

    Always be learning and have multiple skill sets because eventually your “specialty” will become obsolete.

    PS Bryan makes a great point.

  23. I’m happy that most comments are leaning toward not being a master of one trade! Many older folks told me that I would eventually lean towards one thing — or that I should. I noticed that most of them lost their jobs over the years while I work because we went digital. It’s unfortunate. They refused to learn so we had to hire new people…

    I agree that we are continually evolving and you can be left behind if you dont have some knowledge of a skillset… If anything, at least when you hire someone who is a master of that skill that you need on a project, you’d be able to know when they are lying to you or be able to speak to them in their jargon.

  24. This has been an adage i have always looked up to; however, as a freelancer i dont think it is realistic in this day and age. Have you seen what the ads call for these days? Clients AND recruiters put out requests for creatives that have to DO IT ALL. For example, “We need a skilled graphic designer who can do front end web design who has proficiency in PHP, HTML, JAvascript, CSS, logo design and Flash.” Not to mention they want you to be MASTERS in every piece of Adobe software out there. Until i get famous at doing one thing really well, i am afraid i am going to have to be a “jack” for a while.

  25. Great post!

    I read something similar to this a while ago and I didn’t fully understand why a freelancer wouldn’t want to be a jack of all trades, as it was an issue at the time that had a lot of people agreeing and disagreeing…

    I wanted to be one of those! Today, I still am. However, a while after reading that article I realized that I dislike doing some projects over others and am now trying to be good at that one thing.

    I am focusing more on web design/development and less on logo design. I find it hard to do those because I over analyze and end up driving myself crazy. On the other hand, web design gives me a whole other level to be creative and keep learning new techniques because it’s always evolving and changing. It interests me more than logos.

    So like Bryan said, “a jack of many, master of some.” Well said!

  26. I agree with the part of the article that says you don’t have to hunker down and just do logo’s, and I think this brings the point well – that you can make a name for yourself by doing one thing VERY well (along with the others you choose to do). Quality counts! This post makes me hopeful – when I reach an impasse in one area, I have others to concentrate on and hopefully find a niche that I am really really good at.

    However, the web design career has taken a neck breaking accelerating climb by adding social media – in its many morphing forms of importance, analytics, seo, changing standards and that is one thing I really love about this career – even though I am new at it. I love to learn! This article makes me hopeful again that the amount of time I put into learning will help me find a niche down the road.
    Thanks for the post!

  27. While some may be awesome at being a jack-of-all-trades, personally it’s not for me.

    Through my experiences I have found that stretching my creative energies makes me feel scattered in my thinking and I end up developing solutions that could have been a lot stronger.

    I just think it’s impossible to know everything about all facets of the design industry and be a superstar at every single one. But hey, that’s just me.

    Blair Enns has some fabulous insight on this topic in which I would have to agree with. Depth of experience holds more valueable than breadth.

  28. I do think there is a limit that one human being can do well – however a design studio is a design studio. I can’t imagine it being easy on the client to have to go to a designer for the logo, then another one for the web interface, then find a developer for the code, then another company for the seo, and yet another company for the social media. (And this doesn’t even cover flyers, etc that the client may need to promote their product/service) To keep everything in house ensures reoccurring client work – which is key to business success in my most humble opinion. Plus I can then control the end result and make sure the client has an excellent product by delivery.

    With that being said – there are things I flat out know I will never be good at and have absolutely no desire to learn or do because I get zero enjoyment out of them – such as flash work and programming. Whereas I can code a website in html/css and make it all seo friendly, I definitely bring in people on a project basis if it calls for more advance tender love and care. Needless to say – flash and programming are totally different animals. If I tried to learn them, I think I would be stretching my limits. I would rather pay someone that I know does good work – all while giving the client one point of contact.

    The key to a happy balance is educating yourself and keeping up with what’s happening. You can never stop learning and most importantly, you can never stop loving what you do. The second you start designing crap you have no desire to design, your work will definitely suffer. But if you love it all, and schedule projects appropriately, I don’t think that means your work suffers. You’re just getting more of it.

  29. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as the saying goes. Could this mean not investing in a particular skill set or not targetting such a concentrated niche market based on geography? Whatever the argument, designers ought to just focus on things they love to do and work with, learning the supplemental skills when necessary, rather than blindly pursuing every design trend out there. When you take your passions and interests and integrate them in your work and work flow, the end result will always be authentic, memorable and satisfying. Part of the equation is tackling the psychology of your paying potential clients who belong to a particular market niche, the other formula is building trust, forming relationships and being an excellent and positive human being–maybe those are the primary qualities we should improve on first.

  30. While I believe that trying to be a MASTER at all forms of design, web, programming, 3D modeling etc. is literally impossible and detrimental to oneself, it pains me to say that it’s becoming more difficult for designers with a skill set and a degree to even get a job in my state and because every year there are literally thousands of graduates that major in design and one job available versus you, it’s as if a designer like me has no choice but to take on more skills, become a hybrid of multiple tasks, just to get a client/company to choose me over the next thousand people who can do the same thing I do.

    I like creating the graphics for print material, I like coding up and stylizing a website, and I like sketching for countless hours on a logo, but I would rather make a commitment to a couple of those roles and learn everything about them than having to commit to learning everything in the package.

    As a student, I do enjoy adapting a few new skills on animation, filmography, web design, and programming, but I can’t become a professional at all of the above. I say do one thing and do it well or maybe two but not all. I see a lot of my college peers under stress and feel like they don’t stand a chance at getting hired for what they study. The question is “why” and the answers always seem to be “the economy is bad, nobody is hiring, they don’t need any more designers, they can do it themselves, or I’m not doing enough.” Perhaps this is why a lot of young designers want to try to become proficient at everything they encounter?

  31. I’d disagree that you can only do one thing well.


    I think you can do many things well if you have the right people around you.

    You as one person may be only able to do one thing, but if you want your design business to grow you have to allow others to flourish around you.

    I can’t imagine a senario where I would turn down work because ‘Sorry, I only do one thing well, and I can’t do this’

    You will of course have your creative strengths which you should lean into, but don’t let it limit your design business’ potential!

  32. This is something that we need to focus, and learn. We all have the idea that we can make more things at the time. This is totally not correct,since i can tell it from my own experiences. I use to work as accountant, and during my off time, i was working on my hobby, which turns out to be more efficient then my accountancy.

    For all those who know that they can do 2-3 things on different niches at the time, i advice to focus, on just one, and that one, to be done real good, with high quality professionalism .


  33. I would tend to lean to the agreeing side of this argument however there are circumstances where by I would disagree.

    As a well established designer with, for example, a particularly strong skill in web design, then I wholeheartedly agree that they should focus on that, promote themselves as a web designer and maybe offer logo services as an accompaniment. At the web design company I work for, we go even further and have separate departments for the various areas within the web design niche. In this instance, there’s no doubt that pushing what you’re good at is just common sense and will lead to a growing reputation within that field.

    However, as a young designer without a reputation, limiting yourself to one specific skill set will also limit your opportunities and chances for employment. Surely for them, having a broad range of skills is a positive and with age, they could then hone in on the one area they specialise in and run with it.

    Sure, I’ll agree with you in saying some dabble in areas they aren’t too great at and subsequently continue to produce poor work, however focusing on one area within design should surely be something that people do later in their careers once they are established designers.

    There’s also an argument that people like to adapt and change what they are working on. If they can do that to a high standard, why not?

  34. I don’t know. I mean if you are working for an ad agency you would specialize just in one thing, but if you are a freelancer you really don’t have that option. You have to do it all because that’s a paycheck you could be skipping out on.

  35. Thoughtful post – you blog well.

    IMHO, being good at design is the ‘one’ thing and mediums are what you master.

    Someone said ‘jack of many, master of some’ – that sounds right to me. Master of more over time.

  36. Great Article. I think the more you know the better. While I agree that even the jack-of-all-trades that can do it all should really focus on marketing to a specific genre of the business to produce whatever it is exceptionally well, I think that it is wise for all freelancers to familiarize themselves with many different areas of the business.

  37. The actual quote is: “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”

    and personally I prefer:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    -Robert A. Heinlein

    Having a reputation for being able to do something amazingly is great, but to not diversify and be able to handle whatever gets thrown at you will end up making a better all-round designer, what you learn doing editorial design will help your layout of web pages, what you learn doing logos will help convey messages in other small formats like banners.

  38. I think this topic is definitely not black and white. There are people that are great at mastering one thing while others can master many. Personality plays a big role in this too. I can’t just limit myself to one specialty. I crave learning new things and with practice, I can master them all. I have built my business on offering many services that I am good at from print to web to video production. I put just as much passion and energy into one as the other and my clients appreciate that.

    Maximize one skill or ten. It’s up to you to determine what your limits are and what makes you happy as a designer. As long as you apply 100% to everything you offer (which is very possible) and enjoy what you do, you can be a jack of all trades and master of it all. The “all” being whatever works for you.

  39. In this industry you need a broad range of skills and not just stick to one thing I know how to design and I know xhtml css javascript some php and mysql and i do SEO and Im not going to stop there. im 22 I have years left of me to learn more things and improve in others.

  40. Great article. The restaurant analogy is a good one – how many times do you go to a restaurant and they have this gigantic menu with just about every concoction under the sun, and none of it is all that great. I so wish they’d just ditch two thirds of it and do a better job on the remainder.

    But hey, maybe it works for them?

    I personally think as a designer you can be master of many trades and pretty darn good at a lot of them. I find my flexibility and skills have got me a lot of varied work – and because the technological landscape is always changing I find that I’m having to constantly develop new skills and styles.

    I remember the days of ordering typesetting — those guys were experts in setting type. Then along came the personal computer and they were gone overnight. So was being a master of one trade a good thing? Not in this case. Maybe some typesetters moved into design. I wonder.

    I think finding a niche is a good thing as long as you don’t back yourself into a corner you can’t get out of. Keep other options and skills alive. But ditch the half of the ‘menu’ that is holding you back from being great.

  41. Michael B.: I think you perfectly sum up what I was trying to say in this post: “I think finding a niche is a good thing as long as you don’t back yourself into a corner you can’t get out of. Keep other options and skills alive. But ditch the half of the ‘menu’ that is holding you back from being great.”

  42. That’s a pretty valid point. Especially in design and creative companies, it is better to stick to your strengths than take up projects that is more than your capacity. As one bad review can be quite destructive to your brand.

  43. well first of all ,,article is very simply written and that makes me to read whole of it and want to agree with with the main point mention in it.I some how agree with this that we should specialize in one thing rather than doing all things but just at mediocre level so better do one thing that can give us more popularity.

  44. ya know, I needed a article like this. I am like the jack of all trades, master of none. I at least feel like that. I do have a good idea of which I prefer to focus on and have started advertising in that direction, but this article kind woke me up. So thanks!

  45. Great post. I really agree with you. Sometimes we want to do many thing at a time, but can’t do well in the end. But if do one thing at a time and do it well. That’s better than doing lots of things but not doing well. cheap android tablet

  46. I’m so relieved to see it isn’t just me who suffers this dilemma! I did channel my vast aray of subjects offered into 4 specific areas, after offering every kind of illustration from motorsport to fairies, in every kind of medium (!) but even though I reduced to 4, I still find I’m struggling to give each of the 4 areas equal marketing, creating and improvement, as each has it’s own particular market and customer demographic.

    I’m too nervous to specialise even more, as each of the 4 areas sells equally, so I’ve no idea which one I’d opt to specialise in. And I must admit, all of the ilustrators I particularly like are ones who specialise in not only one specific subject, but also one particular medium as well!!

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