The Designer as Generalist

I recently attended a luncheon during GDC thrown by Crystal Dynamics, and one of the designers from Crystal D said something that struck a chord with me. She said that a designer has to do a lot of living, just like a professional writer. Because you have to know about a lot of things, understand many different ways of thinking, to design well. This might seem really self-evident to many, it does to me. But, to some this is somehow not intuitive.

I think it goes to something Jason Vandenberghe mentioned during his GDC talk (Applying the 5 Domains of Play: Acting like Players) and that is this concept of “design empathy”. Now, he was talking about understanding different player types, and why they play so that you could have a better understanding of how to effectively design for them. However, I mean this in a broader sense, I mean understanding people and what motivates them. Life learning, learning in general adds to your understanding of people. Jesse Shell, in his second class of Game Design every semester, talks about how design is at it’s core intuitive. You think something might be fun, then you build it and see if it is, then improve on it until you run out of time or money. But, to get that honed intuition; to have good design empathy from the word “go” I think you need two things. One is life experience, and the other is general knowledge.

As a designer I have always been working to improve on my general knowledge and abilities. I have learned Maya and Max, I’ve learned to do some scripting in LUA, XML, Javascript, and even a little C#. I’ve made tools for Unity and character art for game prototypes. But, how much of that can I show? The answer is, pretty much none of it. Not because it isn’t good. Some of it is, some of it isn’t (for example I won’t claim to be more than a dilettante when it comes to programming).  I can’t show it because it confuses people. If I fill my portfolio with examples of icon packs, UI/UX wireframes and documentation, 3D character models and animation, VFX tools, and web applications people start asking, “What does he do?” Well, I’m a designer, isn’t it obvious? No, the designer needs to understand all the disciplines and embrace them, but he can’t BE them. If he shows that he is them to any degree he starts muddying the waters.

I seek to be a generalist; that is what I am and what I will continue to try to be. Because, I’m convinced that, the greater my breadth becomes, the greater my design depth becomes. I think this is the best thing you can be as a designer. It allows you to work more easily with others because you know what their disciplines require, and it allows for greater design empathy. It’s the modern equivalent of trying to become a Renaissance Man. But, I won’t go posting my environment art in my design portfolio any time soon. But, if you want to see some of my art, you can follow the link above to my art portfolio.

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