That is the question many designers face. You are not alone. I’ve heard arguments for both sides of this dilemma. As a designer of 20+ years, I’ve often persuaded myself one is better than the other, only to swing back the other way again. Mostly I have been in the generalist industry camp, but out of geographic need rather than some profound decision. I live in SW Colorado, and have about half of my clients nearby in the region and then others much further away, but I serve numerous industries including outdoor, bicycle specific, tourism, development, restaurant, specialty food and cannabis. Fairly broad in scope. I’ve even had a client in securities! I had always intended to narrow down and niche, but new projects kept popping up and I never committed to one. I’ve had the benefit of being a part of both through colleagues and close friends. Here’s my thinking on each.
I’ve gone to many bicycle industry trade shows and demo events. I have a few clients in this arena and have worked these shows on their behalf. I have also had the benefit of seeing up close and personal what a tight knit and veryyyy small industry this truly is, and more importantly how challenging it can be to break in to. My beloved has been in this industry practically since he started working and has stayed the course in it for over 25+ years. At this point not only are his many friends those who grew up with him in the industry but they are now running the companies or are the owners of many elite brands. He’s respected, a known entity as it were and his opinions are sought after. It’s humbling to walk through one of the big shows with him and watch how he laughs, shakes hands, jokes around, chats etc etc with someone at almost every booth. He will tell me this gal was PM for this brand then became this for that brand, but she used to work with this guy who is now the CEO of this company. You get the picture. That’s what following your niche does. It creates a close community that you can only get with time. Period. And it’s very cool. I’m always a little combination of inspired and forlorn after these events as it’s a piece of my direction that I truly feel I’ve missed out on. You get to be an expert in the industry and an expert friend to many. Win win. From this advantage, finding work becomes a much easier task. You simply don’t have to work as hard with business development. You have to stay relevant and current, but you have to do this regardless of your business approach.
Focusing your creative efforts in a niche industry creates a close community that you can only get with time.
Let’s cross over and look at the other side of this. In my case, living in a remote part of the state and not close to any major urban area, getting started was effectively taking any and everything I could. I met a lot of people and built a solid reputation for being very creative and excellent and what I do. I have used this to push the referral network out further and over the years have touched quite a variety of types of projects and businesses. I know a lot of people in a lot of different industries that don’t necessarily cross over. This is where being a generalist gets interesting. One core value of my work is the unflinching belief that what I learn and do in one industry can feel very fresh in another. You become a mini expert in a lot of interesting fields, maybe a little bit of a know it all. That’s fun, but you also see something working really well over here and wonder why it’s not being done over there. SO you get to bring that to the table. For example, when you are involved in a conversation about driving tourism in a market and you can speak intelligently about events or things that are happening in a market segment that tourism might want to target, that makes you somewhat of a expert from afar. This helps. Because of my work in the bicycle industry, I can speak knowledgeably to the tourism board about what might appeal to this demographic. Like Camp Niche, this too takes time but gives you a different set of skills that are quite valuable as a creative professional. I don’t have the vast network and therefore biz dev can be challenging at times, but I can honestly say to someone that I’ve design identity systems and marketing materials for almost any industry they throw at me, and for some clients this is important to them. We creatives know that the same principles of design for one industry apply to the next and having direct experience in designing a logo for a realtor without having actually done that prior may not be as challenging as thought if you are good at what you do. Yet it’s helpful sometimes to show that you have, or certainly that you have worked in very corporate fields to very trendy fields and can swing either direction. We are natural thespians after all.
One core value of my work is the unflinching belief that what I learn and do in one industry can feel very fresh in another.
I’m certain that I will continue to swing back and forth as long as I hold a mouse and a pen. There are aspect on each side of this that I really love, and now the challenge becomes how to blend the two. If this has hit a chord with you, please share your thoughts. I would love to hear other opinions from a creative professional POV.