Death of the Generalist

The Generalist is dead. It pains me to say it, because I am one. I want to know about everything; I want to be good at everything. But there isn’t enough time and there is too much, way too much, information. This has really hit home since I’ve started my new design career. Taking a building or an interior relocation from start to finish is extraordinarily complex and the sheer volume of expertise and information required is astonishing. As much as I want to learn it all, I’m beginning to realize it may not be possible.

Take Thursday, for example. In the morning I did some occupancy calculations for a client who needs to obtain permission from the city for an unusual buildout. This required me to understand several sections of the International Building Code, a document not known for its clarity, to say the least. It took me hours to parse the code language until I was satisfied I’d done the calculations correctly. People build careers doing nothing but interpreting the IBC. Later, I walked through a construction site where I was involved in discussions about fire alarm wiring, carpet laying, the proper use of plastic laminate, and the lighting levels in a corridor. Each of these involved a different trade, represented on the job site by a team working only in its single trade. In the afternoon I reviewed some specifications for office cubicles. There are those whose entire job is to understand the intricacies of systems furniture. In the evening, I went to a reception at a high-end furniture showroom that employs a pack of salespeople who do nothing but deal in this furniture.

All these specialists. It makes me, the generalist, want to cry. Not because I don’t appreciate the depth of knowledge that these specialists command, but because I know I can never learn everything that all of them know.

We need all these guys. No one of us can ever learn everything all the specialists involved in a design project know and we could never build a building or refurbish an office floor without all that knowledge. Architecture and design is a business of specialists and I’d better get used to it.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to cave in and become one of them. The design business also needs people who know enough about all these different specialties to see the big picture – people who may not have the depth of knowledge that the specialists do, but who understand the various processes well enough to ensure that the results really do resolve the client’s problem or need.

The difficulty, of course, is managing the overload of information that’s available. New designers have to learn a lifetime of information in a really short time to be even passably competent, even at one specialty. Becoming a semi-expert at all the aspects of a design project is one big challenge. Bring it on! Maybe the Generalist isn’t dead after all.

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