Jack of All Trades, Master of One

By in Community Stories May 17, 2018


Two things have helped shaped this article. Originally this was very simple. But it has evolved because of what has occured since I began it in my head a few weeks ago.

Firstly, I was asked about what is involved in making a great portfolio. My answer was…networking and showcasing distinct and unique skills, mostly on a person to person level. The portfolio doesn’t meet clients and pay for lunch.

Secondly, I just got myself a Macbook Air. Which made me think about the last time I used a Mac – things got real interesting from there :

Almost thirty years ago (Hell’s teeth and a bucket of blood)!

In the early 1990’s. Studying Graphic Design. We were taught that rendering (Magic Markers, Copic Markers, watercolors, airbrush etc), flat color (gouache, ink etc) and typography (Letraset, MasterType etc) were the accepted physical “tools” or “skills” of this thing called Design. All done by hand, on various types of paper.

The expectation was to be proficient in all three skills, but we were encouraged to find a speciality in at least one. A jack of all trades, master of one. Mostly for our portfolio, a tangible showcase of these specific skills.

This meant that designers who could draw/paint, focused on becoming experts in rendering and illustration. Those with a very steady hand found their place in flat color with logos, calligraphy and the like. Typography specialists were negative space gurus who discussed scalpels way too much. Also, they were into dry transfer caused by furious rubbing, so they were…deviants. But because of the scalpels, respected deviants.

Magic Marker / Copic Mockup

Logo Design

Typography (Dry Transfer)

Although identified by our “speciality”. We were all unified as hunters. We ran in packs through the concrete jungles, hunting the weaker and slower “artists”. Great with their hands but too easily frozen in place if shown Pantone Color Swatches (colors not in tubes!). With those three skills, one could function, even become wildly successful as a designer.

We could eat, nay, feast!

Interested? Watch this video…

Extinction Level Event

Then in 1992, suddenly, the Apple Macintosh/Photoshop Extinction happened. Instead of being 2 miles wide and hitting the planet surface. It was the unchallenged apex predator in its field… Even worse it quickly became faster and catastrophically. It became affordable.

The etymology of “catastrophe” is interesting because it means a sudden turn or overturning.

And what a sudden turn it was for Design. Or, to the ecosystem of Design. All had to evolve, or, die. Those that couldn’t do that fast enough, were the first to go. Because everything we could do with years of skill on paper could be done much, much quicker and by that I mean cheaper on a Mac. Especially when billing by the hour…thus a catastrophe.

Amongst those that didn’t make it, or suffered the most, were the highly specialized Designer subspecialties and tradecrafts like typesetting, type design, airbrushing, sign writing, illustration, colorers… I could go on but it gets depressing.

Twenty Years In A Flash

As the Mac destroyed, it also reshaped and recreated Design. PCs joined the fray and surpassed the Macintosh in purchases/adoption (it was even more affordable). PCs relentlessly pushed progress. Design Developments and features became linked to processor power, RAM and hard disk space. Version by version, year by year. So much so that they gave up versioning naming for Photoshop, twice! It was an unstoppable monster.


Anyone could then (as in now) become a Designer. You didn’t have to be an expert or specialist in any of those three primary skills anymore. Entry level proficiency is/was accepted.

Everyone could eat. Something.

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

During the mid-late 1990’s to early-mid 2000’s, new skill sets had evolved, but let’s look carefully at those, as they are today. Pixel manipulation/rendering seems very much like illustration if you squint at it long enough.There is some manual skill present. Vectors for logos are still just flat color, deceptively simple but still requiring a steady hand. Layout and typography may have put away their scalpels. But now have all the respect. How that happened…still confuses me. Pretty sure it has something to do with skills garnered from all those “dry transfers”. Or that internet bubble thing. Maybe both.

So we now have pixels, vectors and typography layout. Where we had illustration, flat color and typography.

And are spoiled for choice in tools for each skill:

Pixels: Adobe Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, Gimp…
Vectors: Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, Inkscape …
Layout: Sketch, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign…

Design. Here. Now.

With all those programs you can compete at Topcoder. You can WIN!

Yet, Topcoder is it’s own specific and unique ecosystem. And what Topcoder carves out as a target market for themselves in the cut throat industry of outsourcing and beyond, is our (Designers) medium. Straight up, cause and effect there. Right now the layout designer is the apex predator inside the Topcoder ecosystem, primarily because of the greater percentage of the competitions offered are layout based.

However a proficiency in all fields is expected. Above normal to good is when a competitive edge on other competitors does come in. But it is not as dramatic as you might believe. Layout expertise and good practice is suggested as your evolution to success in Topcoder. As it unifies Pixels and Vectors into a deliverable. Important word that. Deliverable.


Layout, as a skill, is governed by formula, ratio, weighting and balance. More, some would argue than any of the other skills. There is a substantial amount of science and math happening under the hood than most truly appreciate or wish to acknowledge. An important thing to note is that the principles haven’t really changed for the last 100 years. The maths and formulae are rehashed, reused and regurgitated for new devices and how humans interact with them. Of all the skills, layout is also the least resilient against the zeitgeist (spirit of the time). Which makes it prone to reduction. Wherever there is maths, one can insert a process. Once one inserts a process, one can insert a processor. And this is where things get very interesting.

And yes, there are already services that offer hand crafted, premade/template layout solutions. Have been for years. Nothing new there, the huge and heavily saturated market that it is, makes my argument more than detracts from it…Removal of the numerous Design professionals by one designer is industrialization made manifest.

What is new is Machine Learning and the potential new muscle behind it, Blockchain. Samuel Slater (industrialization) is being supplanted by Nikola Tesla (automation). User interaction metrics, eye tracking for generating attention/retention statistics, trend analysis… are a few amongst a myriad of tools being reduced into simple formulae. Too easily leveraged towards determining what makes a layout “successful”. Or worse, creating a layout from scratch…

Design In The Future

We have passed the event horizon (point of no return) to how feasible it is to train a machine generated approach to design. It is very feasible, it is happening. Machine Learning as a quality assurance phase is already making a huge impact on Design. Blockchain (the unexplored potential thereof) or Cloud Processing makes it all faster and affordable. Industrial/Structural Engineers, our not so distant cousins in the Design family are currently experiencing massive reverberations in their respective fields and subspecialties. All development is pointing at potentially, ultimately and almost assuredly making Design Layout/Specialists a very likely target of an extinction level event.

25 odd years ago, a huge change happened to Design, Graphic Design. The Apple Macintosh and Photoshop were just one combined source, led by one ragtag team of shaggy startups. They have even admitted that they weren’t aware of the impact their product would have and just wanted to try solve that pesky font/layout issue. At one stage DTP/Design literally saved Apple. Look at Apple now.

Currently there is a whole community of bright, ambitious and less than “ragtag” teams racing, and I do mean racing to solve these same structural bottleneck. But the impact ripples out and touches the whole of Design. From Industrial to Jewellery to Interior to Architectural Design…

I won’t go into what 3D did to frame by frame animation.

Technology itself is also a potential source of massive disruptions. Digital Cameras uprooted Photography as a profession and industry in its entirety. Leading to the ubiquity of “stock photography” as we know it today. Disruption is not too far removed from catastrophe. Things will be overturned. Things are being overturned. On two fronts.

Fair Warning

If you proclaim yourself as purely and only a Layout Designer or Layout Specialist. I can assure you that your current position is safe.

For now.

But, for how long?

If you have put off learning how to photo manipulate/edit or work with vectors because it wasn’t really needed. i.e. Get good with your hands. I just wanted to inform you that the designers making huge strides out there are the type designers, air brushers, letterers, illustrators, and colorers…Physical Designers. Experts with their hands.

In Conclusion

Always look at what is in demand from a cynical or critical point of view. Definitely give it as much respect as it gives you in return. Nothing. Do not let your guard down when you hear “Renaissance” or “3rd Industrial Revolution”.

Maybe it is time to embrace keeping all three of your skills up to date? Pixel, vector and layout. Even revisiting illustration, flat color and typography, with your hands, on paper. If they are up to date, great! Now maintain them!

Creating unique icons and tailored graphics may be difficult in the short term. But could learning new skills be fantastic for the long term?

Is the ease and availability of services like icons8 and others, actually working against you? Both now and potentially in the immediate future?

Is now the time to be complacent with what you know? Even if it pays the bills?

Is the danger here being trapped inside the adage: Jack of all trades, master of none?