Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Extremists vs. Specialists

A really cool story, that puts thoughts in perspective!

By: Andy Mangold
Some thoughts on extremists vs. specialists, with a few little diagrams.

There is this guy I know named Jerry. Jerry is a very passionate person, especially about one subject in particular: lighting fixtures. Jerry’s job is to sell and install lighting fixtures, in his spare time he reads his favorite lamp blogs, and he surrounds himself with other lighting enthusiasts. By all quantifiable measures, it would seem that Jerry is an expert in lighting: the guy you would want to have around when making lighting decisions in your own home. However, for the sake of this story at least, Jerry is an extremist. Though he may know all there is to know about these fixtures themselves, he has no interest in your family, your home, or your specific lighting needs. When you ask him a question about lamps, his answer is so full of jargon and the snobbery that all to often comes with expertise that he is no help to you. Despite all of his knowledge, he is useless and irrelevant to you and your lighting woes.

While Jerry is clearly not real, this question of specialization vs. expertise was spurred by someone just like Jerry, though his/her passion was not lighting, unfortunately. I was reading an individual’s thoughts on a particular subject, and though they had clearly devoted a large portion of their life to pursuing this subject, he/she had surrounded him/herself with so much like-mindedness and extremism that his/her ideas were no longer relevant to the population at large. (I apologize for all the him/her-ing; now you see why I made up Jerry.) As I was reading, and finding this person more and more irrelevant for their extremism, I wondered if I myself had not become an extremist. I spend the majority of my days either designing things, reading about design, admiring and studying design, or trying to take everything I learn in life that is not design and relate it to design. I follow my favorite designers’ blogs, I try and surround myself with talented and dedicated designers, and I work very hard to try and become good at what I do. Am I no different than Jerry?

I hope I have not made myself irrelevant. I want to become a specialist: the go-to guy, not the obsessive looney. After some thinking, and discussion with some of my close friends, including my ever-insightful roommate, Dai , I have decided that the main difference between an extremist and a specialist is not expertise in their field of choice (which is likely comparable) but their sensitivity to the world at large. To be a great graphic designer, one mustn’t focus on the details and minutia of the trade alone, but also, and I think more importantly, how everyday people are affected by design. Without skills and expertise in adjacent fields, one becomes obsessive and extreme.
I am going to try and remember that sometimes the best way to move forward is to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Taking an afternoon off and having a picnic may just make me a better designer than pulling beziers all day.

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