At the AIGA Make/Think conference in Memphis, Elizabeth Coleman, an educator and dean of a liberal arts college said one of the more profound things of the weekend:
"We wait for experts to do something despite evidence that they don't."
Not only did this elicit a guffaw from me (which, if you know me, was comically loud), but it also raises some very interesting questions about a variety of things including, what the infatuation of expertise does to the motivation of actually accomplishing things to the idea that focusing so heavily on the granulated, tiny things that larger thinkers are dismissed as naive, or off in la-la land, or crazy. These are big thins to think about. Things I won't try to address here. But there are some issues designers need to think about in regards to what Coleman is getting at here.
There's a relatively well known site called Win Without Pitching that stresses the idea of specialization in design firms. They offer this idea as a way to differentiate and sell design or creative services. The concept is pretty simple and grows out of the cliche that you can't be all things to all people. Hence you sell this particular thing that you're really good at.
I'm not what you would call a regular follower of their newsletter or website, so I don't know exactly how far they take this idea (Do you focus on a specific industry like healthcare, or fashion? Do you focus on a particular media like print, video, web, crochet? Both?), but there seems to be a danger of pigeon-holing yourself here. While I can see advantages of being an expert in a particular industry, their really needs to be a push in the design field for being specialists not just in design, but in design thinking.
The most famous practitioners of this are places like IDEO, and Frog Design. While they obscure their true design roots a bit by calling themselves "innovation" firms (barf), their strengths lie in how they think about design and how it applies to everything their clients do. They have managed to bring to fruition the idea of their expertise essentially being the human condition.
Designers tend to have the interests and education that allow them to have a unique intuition about how people operate. Additionally, the profession uses techniques like prototyping, testing and refinement that allows for experimentation and the ability to actually measure results. As you may imagine this makes design thinking valuable to people in all sorts of businesses, government, activism and on and on.
What I find to be important is that what seems to make a designer, particularly a graphic designer, able to connect with people is not necessarily their knowledge of things like, design history, design philosophy, or design research, but rather having big general interest in plain old history, philosophy and research. It's the designer that can connect disparate elements of all parts of life that can really communicate with people. Being an expert in design is good, but being a well rounded person will put you over the top.
It seems like this states the obvious. But we live in a world where expertise has been valued to the point of paralysis. People don't make decisions without assurance from the expert to cover their ass. IN this world, sometimes you may need to do the simple thing. Be an expert in being normal. And sometimes that means doing simple things for clients, so when they come to you be an expert at sitting them down and maybe, just maybe, telling them what they already knew.