To specialise or not to specialise... Is limiting yourself a good thing?
For some industries specialising is a no-brainer. In the medical profession it is obvious that specialisms are needed - after all, it would be difficult for a doctor to cover all areas of medicine: you are referred to a 'specialist' for a reason. With that comes a greater level of trust because we expect that 'specialists' have had more training in their area of work, or at least more experience. But is specialising in other industries a good idea too?
For the nine years I spent working within a graphic design agency I was expected to be versatile - I needed to be able to work for a wide range of clients and tailor my work to fit in with their requirements. But as I developed more of my illustration work I was commissioned based on my unique 'style' of working. In the illustration industry, working in a number of different styles is a no-no because clients want to know what they're getting when they approach an illustrator for a project. They may see something I've done for someone else and see how it fits in with their company or project, and they commission me on the basis that I produce consistent work. Think of any well known illustrator and you can guarantee they have a distinctive style. Not only that but many illustrators specialise within their field; there are 'children's book illustrators' 'botanical illustrators' 'fashion illustrators'... The list goes on. But limiting yourself is quite a daunting prospect. What if I've chosen the wrong specialism? How much longevity does this have?
In recent years I started to specialise in work for the food industry - I drew some food; someone else liked it and commissioned me for a project; I did a bit more and got more commissions. I decided to approach more food based companies and I got more work. There was no doubt that showing a specialism helped me to get more commissions; people liked the fact that I had drawn food for other people and they figured that I knew what I was doing. After all, no one likes a 'jack of all trades' do they? People want to see that you can focus and do things well. But whenever I wanted to do something different or push the boundaries of my work I felt uneasy: will my work still be recognisable? Should I stick to what I know? And as much as I am passionate about illustrating food will I be known for this forever? What about my love of character design and lettering?
Not only that, but what if I want to experiment with new media, to push the boundaries of my work? How do I keep my work fresh yet meet people's expectations of me? How do I keep my work recognisable yet make sure I am keeping it up to date with current advertising trends? And as someone who works across both illustration and graphic design fields I have a problem: One industry requires me to be versatile and the other to specialise. One requires me to tailor my work to fit in with my clients, and the other requires my work to be unique enough for a client to select my style for a commission. Well, which direction do I take with my work?
At the end of the day I have a love of both graphic design and illustration and I don't want to separate them. I love considering the layout of the page; the typography; the way images and letters collide. I don't want to lose that side of my work - I don't always want to be told what to draw and where to put it; I want to think about what I do and how I envisage it on a page or screen or product. But how do I bridge the gap between illustration and design without compromising my work?
I have connected with a number of creatives recently and those that inspire me the most have certain things in common: the way they challenge ideas and seek new methods of working; the way their work is full of passion; the way they believe in what they do, not just as a means to pay the bills. Some have specialised and some haven't, but all of them are known for something, whether that's experimentation, passion or a good sense of humour. Whatever it is, there is personality in what they do.
And so the question is not really about what you specialise in but what you want to be known for. For me that is less about subject matter and more about connection, passion and just producing really good work. How can I better connect with my clients? How can I show more personality through my work? How can I push myself to keep getting better at what I do?
What do you think? Have you specialised and has it paid off for you? Do you prefer someone who can specialise or be versatile?