Depth vs. breadth– the age-old argument

"Tools"-- Via New Old Stock
“Tools”– Via New Old Stock

A finely honed screwdriver. A Swiss Army knife.

We all have our favorite tools. But is one inherently better over the other?

Specialist– or Jack-of-all-Trades?

This has been a source of debate within the design community that has gone on for a long time now, and it’s likely to continue. Be a screwdriver or a multi-tool. Specialize or generalize. At its core is the difference between depth and breadth. Peanut butter or chocolate. Pepsi or Coke. “Less filling” or “tastes great”.

(For those not familiar, that last one was a nod to a Miller Lite campaign that was big in the 70s and 80s– here’s a sample of one of the ads)

But I realize it’s both. Especially in today’s marketplace, where global competition is so fierce. Sure, it’s important that we become focused in some area. That we have depth of knowledge in something. It helps establish us as thought leaders, experts in our field. It helps to set us apart from other professionals.

At the same time it’s important that we’re at least familiar with a lot of things outside our area of focus. If we’re a print designer, then knowing at least the basics of things like web design or packaging. Or even cooking. If our focus is on web and mobile design, maybe things like motion, or video, even music– may be a good thing. It’s this breadth of knowledge that helps balance out, and complements, that expertise. And, it also helps to give further depth, since things learned in other disciplines can be brought in and re-interpreted through that design lens. Or whatever your area of focus may be.

Is one better than the other?

So, the debate may continue. People will continue to argue for each side. And, each one has its merits, sure. But discussions on whether you should be a specialist, or jack-of-all-trades, will go on. Whether it’s better to be a hammer or a Swiss Army knife. Whether one is better than the other.

I say be both. You’ll likely be the better professional– even the better person– for it.