Work / Graphic Design

Should designers specialise early, or have a “portfolio career”?

The question of whether it’s better to specialise early or have a “portfolio career” – like your friend the graphic designer/writer/stylist/DJ/model/horticulturalist, seems to go round and round. At Typo Berlin, it was discussed by everyone from Nils Frahm to Sarah Illenberger, Jonathan Barnbrook, Catherine Dixon and Field.

Catherine Dixon, a designer, writer and teacher, addressed the problem of the role of designer and strategist crossing over in a way that establishes a way of working that eliminates skill; and particularly in the context of typography, how “the progressive possibilities of tradition” must continue to be taken into account.

The emphasis on specialism, skill and understanding continued through to the importance of having an appreciation for and understanding of context, or rather the root of the work you are referencing or creating. Now that “generalism” has in many instances usurped “specialism”, students and practitioners alike are expected to have and value a “general reflexive critical faculty rather than discipline-specific skills”, as Catherine quoted from Stuart Bailey’s Towards a Critical Faculty. She went on to identify the ways in which a general curriculum is much cheaper to deliver than the technicians and equipment required to develop specialist practice; and that rather than “a wholesale clear-out, it’s a re-ordering of priorities that is required” in the context of design education. What we can and should do is “unmake mediocrity.”

Typo Berlin 2016 heralded the formal launch of Süpergrüp; a collective of German graphic designers including Mirko Borsche, Sarah Illenberger, Eike König and Erik Spiekermann. Featuring halfway through their bill, the musician Nils Frahm spoke about the crossovers between graphic design and music and their equal reliance on “rhythm and melody.” He spoke about the importance of understanding your capacity to manipulate in both contexts and the need to master your instrument or craft.

Nils described how in working with the classic formal language of design, whether it’s of a typeface or a piano, you are able to dismantle the parts and understand how and why something works – and with that knowledge maintain and improve your instrument, while using it as a tool for improvisation.


Norman Posselt: Typo Berlin


Thorsten Wulff: Typo Audience
c. Thorsten Wulff