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Insights EDU

Generalists and Specialists in XR: Mechanisms for Coping and Survival

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Panos Voulgaris | MALVI | Creative Director & Partner

19 Jun 2020 | 7 min read

Nature has a pretty interesting way of figuring out whether a species will thrive, or not: it always comes down to how efficiently they can survive in a given environment. 

You see, animal species have long been put somewhere along a spectrum, ranging from ‘broad generalists’ to ‘extreme specialists’ and everything in between. The former are the ones that don’t have a preferred food source (or prey) and rely on their ability to adapt to various environments and conditions. The latter, adapt by creating a specific niche which they fill, structuring their livelihood around learning to do one thing great.

We tend to map these behaviors to humans as well, from plain old zoomorphism to more complex philosophical statements, like Isaiah Berlin’s conceptual framework, composed of foxes and hedgehogs. Historically though, humans—as a species—have always been generalists; adapting in every situation, making the most of their environment. 

Modern jobs (as in post-industrialist ones) have amplified the dichotomy between generalism and specialism. By making specialization a key for a successful career prospect, constantly pushing for overly specific tasks, one could sometimes only apply if they were truly specialized in that one item of work. 

The creative and marketing industries have always been kind of an outlier regarding these conditions, but in recent decades we’ve seen an overspecialization there, as well. Retail design architects, iOS app designers, Facebook Ads Specialists, you get the idea. Various tasks competing against each other for dominance and stability. Even though XR is a fairly new industry, taking its first toddler steps in search for a wider audience, its people are not. They all come from different backgrounds, carrying over various specialties and skills from a variety of fields, mostly from well-defined environments and industries.

How do you survive in an ever-changing environment?

But, what happens if the environment you find yourself in keeps changing constantly? We’ve been entranced by the constant VR technology leaps, for example, that we oftentimes forget that the vast majority of people have yet to experience their first immersive journey in the virtual realm. Almost every single business that works in Extended Reality didn’t exist just 5 years ago. And, with every new announcement, development, headset, or SDK, all of them struggle to keep up the pace. It’s all very exciting at first, but it can get really tiring, really soon, when you’re constantly trying to play catch-up. 

So, how can you cope with a landscape that is in constant motion, expanding in all directions (or dimensions, if you will), at the pace of a supercharged toddler going through childhood at mind-boggling speeds?

The generalist approach

Well, if you’re a generalist, you’ve probably already understood by now that you can’t. It’s physically and mentally exhausting—not to mention next to impossible—to try and comprehend every single aspect, of every single technological change out there. Trying to stay up to speed is one thing, but really gathering a deep understanding of everything would probably require a few lifetimes (and would, technically, make you a specialist, sorry).

What you can do though, is tune your spidey-senses and try to filter out the noise, by looking at the bigger picture: What is the industry’s general direction? How can you anticipate the shifts? How equipped are you and your team to pivot and adapt, if the ground beneath your feet just disappears from one day to the next? One moment you could be developing something unique and exciting, and the next an announcement by a major tech player can render it obsolete, or irrelevant. How quick are you to respond to “the next big thing”?

For generalists, the long-held mantra of “thinking outside the box” is somewhat irrelevant in this context. There is no box; and that is both an opportunity and a battleground.

With the industry still, pretty much, at its infancy, the only way to navigate the constantly changing tides is by relying on what you know from other fields. Borrowing, adapting, and repurposing ideas for a new medium can provide you with opportunities to build experiences that can have an immense impact.

If you break down the components that comprise an XR experience you’ll find a host of different specialties and fields, each playing an essential role in creating a product. Architecture, interior design, 3D modelling, UI/UX, graphic design, marketing, software development, psychology, creative writing, animation, and a myriad of other fields can come into play. Each with their own subset of specialties and skills you can draw from, in order to create a product / experience / service that can be both meaningful and impactful. 

Keep in mind that there are very few industries that actually need the input of so many different skill sets within the scope of a single project. If you’re not taking full advantage of the wildly diverse environment in which you work and create, you might be doing a disservice to the users that are going to use your product. And generalists beware, you really need the specialists; not just because they are the ones who are going to get it done, but because they are also a constant source for inspiration and the healthy dose of reality checks. 

As a generalist, there’s a unique opportunity to hone your skill at something specific, true. But you can also approach a project unbiased by a specific skill, offering a unique insight as to how all the different pieces fit together, almost as an outsider looking in—which is something that specialists can’t often shake. As the old adage goes, to a hammer everything looks like a nail; and as we’ve often seen, the less diversified skills a team employs, the less likely they are to keep a firm grasp of the bigger picture.

The specialist dilemma

How about specialists though? They have long been thought to be easier to adapt to gradual changes, but harder to do so after ground-shifting events.

Therefore, while it is easier to cope and comprehend a well laid out roadmap in a, comparatively, more stable industry, it is a whole different ball game when it comes to the XR ecosystem. Even though we can assume that everyone involved is well aware of the rhythm and speed in which innovations and breakthroughs are being pushed through constantly, it is—understandably—not an easy environment for every specialist to adapt to.

Specific workflows, tools and techniques are part of a specialist’s toolbox, each iteration of which is geared towards providing a more robust, creative or well-honed version of their process for the team’s benefit. A paradigm shift can require quick readjustments (sometimes even major ones), and the only way someone can prepare for that is, mostly, by anticipating that it’s coming. Because it is coming. There are actually a couple of ways you can do that; and both of them include stepping out of your comfort zone, for a bit. 

One is having a good understanding of how your own part fits in the general scope of things, within the project. This presumes having an active understanding of how the rest of the parts work, first in collaboration with your own role, and then between themselves. You should always have a core understanding of how most of everything else works. Don’t be afraid to be inquisitive about why it works that way. When you’re looking from the outside in, you usually come up with the most poignant questions (just ask any generalist). By doing that, you’ll not only gain a valuable insight about your collaborators’ work, but it could provide you with very useful feedback regarding your own work as well.

Another option can be delving into the unknown. This approach is sometimes referred to as forming T-shaped skills, where you have a deep understanding of one field (your specialty) and employing a more basic-level approach to others. Trying out different fields, which are essential or relevant to your own, will help you obtain a more rounded understanding of how all the puzzle pieces fit together. Further specialization in those fields as well isn’t necessarily the takeaway here. For example, a developer trying out basic 3d modelling skills, can open up a host of possibilities when developing a project. Keep in mind that you can’t easily assess your own limits, until you know what your teammates can and can’t do, in their respective specialties.

Generalist or specialist?

As is often the case, this is a pseudo-dilemma for most. Each one of us is either one or the other (or in some cases a little bit of both); your brain wiring can rarely help you make the switch between them anyway, so there’s no point in “opting” for one over the other. 

The key takeaway here is that, as in nature, the coexistence of generalists and specialists in an environment is mutually beneficial for the evolution of both [as proven by biological and genetic studies (Bono et al., Evolvability Costs of Niche Expansion, Trends in Genetics (2019)]

Especially in an environment as complex and ever changing as the XR sector, being able to team up with people of different specialties, backgrounds and experiences is key for the evolution of the industry as a whole. 

About the author:

Panos is a classically trained architect-turned-designer. After a brief passage from the International and European Studies department at the University of Macedonia, in Thessaloniki (Greece), he ended up in Italy studying Architecture at the University IUAV of Venice. He worked as a member of the greek architecture firm Mal-Vi Architects and assumed the role of Creative Director during the company’s transition to the design studio Malvi, in 2013.
Panos has been working with brands and companies for the past decade, starting with personalized experiences in the fields of interior design, architecture and branding, shifting gears mid-way to re-establish the studio as a 360o design and communication agency, incorporating every part of a brand's needs; from space to visual design, marketing and advertising, content creation, product design and strategy consulting, the agency helps companies grow and evolve with design in mind.
He sees design as a way of thinking and he believes that it shouldn’t be confined into small, meaningless categories.

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