I remember my grandfather once telling me that Leonardo da Vinci was the last man to know everything. Or was it Thomas Young? Or Athanasius Kircher. Anyway, the point is not who this figure was but the story it tells. Of course there was never a person who knew everything but it says that at some point in our history the breadth of human knowledge became too much to contain within the mind of one person — that there became a point where there was too much to know.

In the relatively short history of our discipline of building things online it was not that long ago that it was (or felt) possible to know everything. Most of us that have been doing this for more than ten years have at some point had to be a polymath. In my first role as ‘web designer’ I was a one man team requiring me to know everything from colour theory to typography, through HTML, CSS and Javascript to setting up Apache and knuckling down to spit out some (dirty) PHP code. In an agency environment and with the explosion of teams building web products — as well as the sophistication of the tools we use — we have seen these roles fragment exponentially: programmers, back-end developers, front-end developers, web designers, UX designers, interaction designers. The list goes on.

There has become too much to know and with that we have seen the demise of the polymath. However, freelancers still generally tend to feel they have to do a bit of everything. This was something that came out of the recent freelance survey we carried out where over a third felt they had a mixture of skill sets, echoed in a recent discussion on the Freelance Web podcast.

Myself I’ve always been a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’ — when I was an archaeologist I tried to have a broad knowledge of everything rather than focusing my knowledge on a particular area of expertise. This was very deliberate because I felt this afforded me a perspective that could bring diverse topics together into a whole. Furthermore I was also cautious about pursuing too far down one direction and not being able to turn back.

This approach carried across to my working online and over the years I have been a back-end developer, server manager, front-end developer, UX designer and visual designer. This range of work and experience — and perspective — has been immeasurably valuable to my career. However, with time I have come to appreciate the need to specialise for four reasons:

  1. Specialising fosters knowledge and expertise. There is simply too much to learn — the specs which define the foundations of our work are ever changing. The solutions we choose to adopt are a constant conversation. There is never a final answer. But specialisation helps us to build knowledge within an area and be part of that conversation rather than sitting outside as an observer.

  2. Knowledge and expertise cultivates reputation. It is much easier to build a reputation as a specialist than as a generalist. As soon as I started focussing on specific areas of work I found it much easier to get work. When you specialise, write about your experiences and help others with problems.

  3. Reputation builds connections. Once you specialise in a particular kind of work it becomes a lot easier to build networks and share skills with other specialists. Being a front-end developer, for example, opens up working opportunities with back-end developers and designers, as well as filling in skill gaps or bottlenecks at agencies that have a need for your area of specialism.

  4. Finally being a specialist allows you to charge more because your skills (and expertise) are in greater demand.

Specialism is not for everybody but remember that you can’t do everything. You’ll need to try a broad range of things to discover what you love and what you’re good at and a broad perspective is an important — essential — starting point. However with time I have learned that it is much easier (and rewarding) to find, focus on and hone one area of expertise. To do one thing well.