Leaving the Autoroute

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I recently had the pleasure of traveling across France via autoroute. In the past, my husband and I had taken all backroads for our adventures, but on this trip we need to get from one in-law to the next in a day, and the autoroute was the ticket. The vast expanses of French countryside are gorgeous and remarkably varied—rolling hills and grassy fields becoming bluffs and cliffs; vineyards become cornfields then become sunflower fields; all punctuated by signs proclaiming the next town. The signs caught my eye. Unlike America, where a sign just has the town name, here each name was accompanied by an illustration of the things for which the town was famous: one town is famous for mustard, one town for knives, one for nougat, one for a type of melon… the first time I saw this I laughed. The idea of a town devoting itself to nougat seemed a bit absurd. But specialization has power. The nougat of Montelimar can be found all over France and is known to be the best. Laguiole is recognized as making fine knives not only in France, but around the world. Everyone knows the mustard from the city of Dijon. By committing all their attention to a single craft, often literally over hundreds of years, each town has received the renown that comes with great work.

But what happens when you leave the autoroute, lured by one of those signs proclaiming the town’s mastery and claim to fame? You find a town—a butcher, a baker, a pastry shop, a pharmacy. Little gray-haired ladies with their baskets heading for shops, men sitting in the café with a glass of Pastis or playing Petanque in the park. Mothers shopping, pushing baby carriages, tourists eating in overpriced cafes with English menus, a church still frequented by worshippers as well as chubby tourists… in other words, each town has all the things a town must have to be a town. Laguiole has its share of knife-shops, but overall it is still a town and supports the inhabitants that give it life. The knife-maker has a place to eat and drink, work and worship, as well as to see friends for a drink and a game of Petanque. Moreover, as he watches the butcher cut a steak from a side of beef or a pastry chef slice apart a cake, he knows more about what a knife should be.

So, other than a chance to reminisce (ah, the oysters of Gujan-Mestras, the macaroons of St. Emilion, the cannelles of Bordeux) what does this mean for us, practitioners of the young and unrefined craft of designing digital systems? What the heck are you raving about, Wodtke? Simply that the passionate debates over specialization vs. generalization are a false dichotomy, and are not serving us. It’s not vs, but and that we should be using. Designers who know nothing of html or image optimization, usability experts preaching without even a basic knowledge of design principles, information architects and interaction designers who don’t understand each others’ skills are weakening themselves, as Laguiole would, if it closed its pharmacy for another knife shop. The health of your craft comes from a rich broad base of knowledge.

Recently a well-known usability expert discovered a clue to improving his own site from a web design list. This tip was one of the most basic pieces of design knowledge you learn when you begin to study design. Yet, this specialist didn’t know it—and moreover, it hurt the usability of product because he was not well rounded. Usability sites are notorious in the crudeness of the design, design sites for their lack of usability. Sites by engineers often miss both, while sites without an engineer’s knowledge load slowly and are buggy. It’s not enough to be a specialist—as they say, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. You have to have a broad grounding in the related fields along with a deep understanding of your area of specialization. IBM calls these folks T-shaped people, and seeks them out when hiring time rolls around.

Moreover the world beyond our craft teaches us our craft. Poetry informed my ability to be an information architect—you learn about the subtle nuances each word carries and to craft phrases to ensnare your readers’ emotions. This knowledge informs labeling choices of course, but also the more delicate arts of contextual messaging and categorization. Cooking and collecting cookbooks impart a great deal of insight into what makes instructions succeed or fail; travel has taught me to question my most basic assumptions about user behavior.

I have also cracked a few O’Reilly books and learned basic coding, I have spent time in usability labs learning from users and the researchers who can interpret what that means, I spend time at designer’s elbows asking them to explain color, line and form, I read business tracts — all have had a direct and immense effect on my skill at Information Architecture and Interaction Design. I don’t consider myself a master-craftsman, but I know that if I wish to become one, it means attending to not just my specific skillset, but to the world in which it resides.

You can’t be in expert in everything, obviously. But you can make sure you have enough knowledge to appreciate the craftspeople you work with. So designers, take “Introduction to programming” at the local college. Engineers, attend all the usability sessions and watch what those crazy users do. Usability folks, go read Robin Williams “The Non-Designers Design Book” at least.

If you dream of being an expert, read the Sunday paper cover to cover, from business section to comics page and then read a peer-review journal. Take a painting class, study yoga, cook a complicated meal. Learn from your coworkers, and learn from your friends. Specialize, but remember to be a human being as well. And someday you may be as famous as the mustard of Dijon.


  1. Excellent, Christina. I think one of the interesting things about this industry, especially when working in small agencies or in small departments that do web development, is that a lot of people have no choice but to be diversified in their skills and knowledgeable of what their colleagues do. I’ve also met more philosophy, religion, art, [insert non-science discipline here], people that are programmers in the last five years than I would have ever expected. It always surprises me when I hear what experiences people bring to their craft.

  2. I agree. Where I work, we promote the idea of User Experience Architects, and one of the better definitions I found of User Experience comes from Challis Hodge & BrainBox Aug 20, 2002 –
    ” The combination of these roles in practice is often described as Experience Design. The result of their combined effort is likewise referred to as the User Experience.

    Information Design
    Concerned with the categorization and structure of information

    Interface Design
    Concerned with creating controls to make use of structured information

    Interaction Design
    Concerned with human interaction with controls over time

    Immersion Design
    Concerned with human interaction in context of use”

    Although I would swap Immersion Design (and give up the 4th “I” word) and go for Usability Design – focusing on usable and useful design.

  3. How about Sheep Design ?

    Sheep Design
    Concerned only with what is dictated (no thought)

    Let’s just ignore the user and shuffle them into convenient categories we can use to sell books (and ourselves) $$$!

  4. To further take up space, it may be important to note that distinction of profession and separation of duty goes nowhere far towards ‘doing the work,’ and that, although common tongue and genuine understanding is noble-in-pursuit, having the neatness of shelved categories (of duty) is ‘position,’ not ‘action’ in orientation, so that, it is better to conjoin (ring) yourself in fellowship, to exist in uncertainty (if that is indeed, for you, how it must be) all the while in performance of duty — to recognize the Pyramids were not built by standing around discussing role-definition.

    I’ll shut-up now and go create something beautiful.

  5. Surprising you didn’t use the “jack of all trades, master of none” (mis)quote. To summarize, you are saying one needs to be a “jack of all trades, master of one.”

    Or, as Robert Heinlein, the famous sci-fi authoer put it: “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.”

  6. The only thing I can add to the “jack of all trades (master of none) theory is that when you work at a small agency (and do everything), very often times you wind up being somewhat mediocre at all of them. And even if you are relatively good at most of them, you’re widely varied skill sets come in most handy at another small shop. Moving up to a Fortune 500 company can be harder when you don’t have the specific, specialized experience in one or two areas. I worked at a small shop where I served as copywriter, information designer, account executive, strategic planner, and project manager for Web and print projects. By the time I had been there for five years, I had a ton of experience at doing a lot of different things…but was not qualified per se to get a job at a large agency doing any ONE of those things because my portfolio was too thin in any given area. I had in effect, made myself unemployable. Fortunately, I had enough experience in the Web field to land a job as an information designer at a large company where the benefits are good and my skills in one area are appreciated — and rewarded. Just a musing from the mistress of many trades…

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