Homo Universalis

January 10, 2010

Let me get straight to the point: it would be great if all of us, somehow connected to design, aimed at being Homo Universalis, or as it’s commonly referred to today a “Jack of all trades”. To go a little further, many of us already are. As much as we regard ourselves specialists in some field, I think that various interests and every day activities show that we are not specialists at all. But, let’s go back a little.

A story from the 15th century

To explain and corroborate my claim, I’d like to go back some 500 years to renaissance Italy. In the time of humanism and renaissance in Italy, a thought emerged that “a man can do all things if he will”. The chief idea was that men have the potential for immense education and improvement in various areas. Ideally, this would encompass all known areas of arts and science. This is where we get the terms Polymath, Renaissance man or Homo Universalis. Today, a more accepted term is Generalist or Jack of all trades, even though these terms are often used in the wrong context, sometimes even negative one. You can read about Renaissance Man and Renaissance humanism on Wikipedia.

Leonardo da VinciTypical representatives of that movement are Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo Buonarotti. The first association to da Vinci is the picture of Mona Lisa, but it is definitely not his most significant work. He wasn’t only a painter but a sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist and writer. And he was good at most of these. If this sounds incredible, then you will be amazed by the fact that his inventions were hundreds of years ahead of his time. He drew blueprints for airplanes, helicopters, submarines, tanks, even concentrated solar power! It would take 500 years for his ideas to see the light of day.

Another “giant” of that time was Michaelangelo Buonarotti. According to Wikipedia, he was a painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer. Those, a little more versed in Michaelangelo’s life, will know that this is a sin he would never forgive – to call him a painter before sculptor. Michaelangelo, apparently, hated painting, publicly criticized and deprecated it. The irony is that he is mostly known for his painting and one of the greatest painting feats in the history of mankind – the painted walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was, however, an excellent sculptor. His works are the pinnacle of sculpting world wide. Also, he was a very successful architect, just look at the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Although these two are the most famous, they are certainly not an exception, which is the point of my story. Almost every artist of that time had the same idea and aimed at achieving universal knowledge. Some had more success than others, but the want and craving existed which affected the art of the period and left tremendous heritage to posterity.

Back to 2010

So, what does this have to do with today? Everything. Rennaissance Humanism is based on rebirth of Latin and ancient Greek values, which are the foundation of modern civilization. People like da Vinci and Michaelangelo have left us not only the greatest works and ideas but also a model where “universal knowledge” is undoubtedly possible.

However, universal knowledge must be put in today’s context. Although, during the Renaissance the Polymath had knowledge in arts and sciences, today it is a very large set of areas which is impossible to master. Industrial, technological and later information revolution have expanded the man’s complete knowledge to unthinkable limits. Therefore, a Polymath of today would be a man (or a woman) possessing the knowledge of related fields. Da Vinci of today would, apart from web design, have the skills in UI design, interaction design, UX design, usability, front-end development and so on.

Diversification of knowledge helps, not obstructs

It certainly doesn’t mean that a Polymath should be an expert in all fields, just as it wasn’t the case with renaissance Italy artists. He could be a top UI designer, web designer and front-end developer and also have solid knowledge in other areas. This is how I look at this:

I believe that many can draw a similar diagram of their knowledge. How ever subjective, it will contain several specialties which you work with and possess a certain amount of knowledge in them. Secondary skills, summed up, can be greater than one primary area. I know what you are about to say, that someone’s knowledge in total is not a simple sum of skills from other areas. And you’re right. Someone’s total knowledge is actually a synergy of their co-effects, meaning that by leaving out secondary skills you lose the big picture of someone’s actual knowledge. Therefore, if you have other skills, don’t discard them in fear of being characterized as “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

Master of one or none?

Michaelangelo BuonarottiThe point is not to be a master of none. But, neither is it to be the master of one. The point is to expand your skills to become richer, more experienced and better because you have the ability to see the bigger picture. So, you can be a master in some areas and very good in others. Is there a law of nature that says that you can be a master of only one? Where’s the limit? What’s stopping you? Living in the fast lane? Lack of time? Social guidelines? Money? Commercializing all values? Think again as to what are the real obstacles and what are the excuses?

In the end, isn’t it human nature to research and expand one’s skills? Wasn’t exactly that that allowed us to become who we are now – sensible, rational beings? Many species which have specialized in one area of life or nutrition have become extinct and, even today, are an easy prey of the evolution. We are where we are, the ultimate surviving machines.

You don’t agree?

I know that many will not agree with what I’m saying and that for some specialization is the right choice. There were attempts to stand in defense of the jack of all trades. Still, my impression is that the predominant opinion is that specialization is the only right choice. And it’s ok if you think so. However, I know that most of us can do it. If you have taken the Design something every day challenge, it’s a good start. You could also learn something every day. Buy a book. If you are, for example a designer, learn usability. If you are a graphic designer, learn web design.

Why don’t we renew these values lost somewhere along the road of universal human progress? What’s stopping us?

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  • Alard Weisscher (January 11, 2010)

    I personally wholeheartedly agree with your point of view. I think you become a better designer by knowing as much as possible: if you know more about users (and how to research them) and front end implementation (by actually building your own stuff you know what works and is easy to implement). It obviously comes at the cost of becoming really good at one thing in particular.

    What happens in practice I think has more to do with the team composition and personal interest.

    If you are solely responsible for logo design, user requirements, ix design, graphic design and front end implementation there is no other way than becoming a homo universalis. In a bigger team every will look at their own bits (but even then it is think it’s great to do things at least partly together). So your choice of employer (and thus team) may determine whether you can work as a homo universalis or not.

    I personally like to try out different things, but some people just prefer to stick with one thing and become in champion in that.

  • Design Informer (January 11, 2010)

    Well said Janko. You make a great case for all of us Homo Universalis. That term sounds kinda wierd to me though, so I’ll stick with Jack of All Trades.

    It is very true that the men and women of the past have been very talented at many things. One of the main reasons why that is true is because they didn’t have all the entertainment / fun / pleasure / luxuries that we have today. That is why if you study the past, these people have learned 5-10 languages and are fluent in them, and most of them graduate from college at the age of 14.

    I think somewhere down the road, we’ve lost that. We have been caught up with so many distractions. I personally want to be and like to be a Jack of All Trades. I think to some extent, we all are, but it would be better to say that we are and realize it so we can work on the areas were we aren’t very strong and we can learn new skills that will be relevant in whatever field we work in.

    Nowadays, I think you don’t have much of a choice but to be a Jack of all Trades. You can say that you are just a graphic designer, but truth of the matter is, you are a business man / marketer / copywriter, all of the above.

    After reading this article, I will definitely try my best to improve my skills in areas where they are lacking and I will make it my goal in 2010 to be more well-rounded in the areas of web design and graphic design. Thanks for the great article Janko!

  • oVan (January 11, 2010)

    Thanks Janko, for your positive post! For years I automatically added "…master of none" to the Jack-of-all-trades I know I am, but your post makes me realize it is a gift to have such broad interests and knowledge.

  • Carl (January 11, 2010)

    Very nice article. Straight to the point. I’m 100% with you. I’m also enjoying different fields of work. I like doing web design, front-end WordPress development, logo design, internet marketing etc. Sometimes it feels just overwhelming, but i’m getting better everyday in all of those areas.
    Thaknks for the article.

  • Janko (January 11, 2010)

    Alard: Great that you mentioned working in teams. I think that teams should be cross-functional (as seen in agile concepts). This means that team should consist of people with different skills end expertise which are able to take other roles, other that their primary roles. As far as I can see, this is a huge advantage for such teams.

    Jad: This is totally true. Technology had a great impact on all of us which, among many good things, unfortunately led to loosing one’s desire to learn more and more, and ultimately become homo universalis.

    I know that nowdays everything seems so hard to all of us, but we can turn it into an advantage, especially in this time of crisis.

  • Janko (January 11, 2010)

    oVan, Carl: thanks for your comments! It’s nice to see that we share opinions.

  • Donnie Bachan (January 11, 2010)

    Janko, great post. I agree totally with this concept (as can be seen from the About Me section on my blog). I think that it is very necessary for everyone to broaden our horizons. One of the things I was frustrated with a few years ago was my lack of business training. I understand the technical concepts but being able to relate on a business level was never my strong point. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading business concepts on my own. Venturing outside your comfort zone not only gives you knowledge but it also strengthens team relationships by allowing you to understand the other people’s views.

  • Adit Gupta (January 11, 2010)

    Great article Janko!! First of all, I would agree with Jad that there are way too many distractions which prevent you from becoming a Homo Universalis. Secondly, we have advanced so much in various fields that it”s really not easy to catch up with all that we have achieved. We can make a significant contribution only after having a complete understanding of all the things related to a field. I would like to elaborate on this point by taking my personal example. Other than web design, I have deep interests in astrophysics, science fictions, computer science, art, math and music. Astrophysics is now much more than just Kepler’s laws and gravitation. It has extended into complexities of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Similarly, there are so many algorithms in computer science that you first need to master then before you can even think of coming with a new one. And so much has been done in math that you can get overwhelmed by just reading through Wikipedia pages, let alone the thought of reading each and every textbook. A single article on discrete mathematics on Wikipedia can take you into mathematical depths of logic, information theory, number theory and combinatorics. I am still trying to learn a lot in all these fields, but I think it’s extremely tough to make a significant contribution in each of them. Nevertheless, your article has motivated me to continue my learning in all these fields. Thanks for that! :)

  • Janko (January 11, 2010)

    Donnie: [quote]Venturing outside your comfort zone not only gives you knowledge but it also strengthens team relationships by allowing you to understand the other people’s views[/quote] – This is one of the huge advantages, totally agree.

    Adit: Looking at your interests I can say that we have a lot in common :) I agree with you – there is so much to learn that one won’t be able to learn it for the lifetime. However, broadening your knowledge in a controlled manner, and that is, only to those areas that relate to your primary area(s) and that can influence your work is the most important thing. It is highly unlikely that, today, one could achieve the same level of knowledge as da Vinci, but one could gain enviable level of knowledge in various aspects of design, from web design to graphic design to ux design (for example).

  • Free Cursors (January 12, 2010)

    I think today’s world is all about having a competitive advantage so I agree – don’t be a master of none. ie Don’t try to dabble on everything and have no focus or plan, desires or goals. Specialise and spend the time to master one thing you like. Then we you have reached a level of mastery / competence, move on to the next. Slow and steady wins the race.

  • Josh (January 12, 2010)

    This is a beautifully written post Janko. Personally, I feel that specialization is more beneficial to the state of the design community as a whole. I guess it all boils to down to finding ones "identity" through design; possessing an intricate skill and acknowledging one’s own technical capabilities/prowess is in many ways an active development of personal style and essence.

  • Dmitry (January 12, 2010)

    I’d go further and say that not only should you try to master different fields, these fields need not be related to each other. Mastery of unrelated fields will give you the chance to make new connections between ideas that nobody else has thought of before. Isolating yourself in one field, or related fields, gives you a form of association bias for each concept — when you approach a problem, you’ll tend to try and solve it from a certain angle — an angle familiar to your discipline. If you’re a master of unrelated fields you may see more unique angles from which the problem can be tackled — you might even fuse some of these angles together and create a groundbreaking solution.

    There’s a great book on the subject called "The Medici Effect" by Frans Johansson that talks about this method of coming up with "intersectional" ideas — ideas created from seemingly unrelated concepts.

  • Janko (January 12, 2010)

    Josh, although I don’t believe that specialization is more beneficial, I agree with the second part of your comment to some extent. I think that by mastering many areas, one can increase one’s skills more efficiently and get richer influence to style and essence.

    Dmitry, very good point you made. Versatility affect perception and enriches horizons. And by versatility I mean knowledge in unrelated fields. I think that is an ideal, at least for me. Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll make sure to read it!

    Thanks for the great comments!

  • Amanda (January 13, 2010)

    An inspiring read for anyone who struggles with the sometimes troubling reaction to being a Renaissance Soul. It’s disheartening to hear people tell you to just pick something and go with it. I mean, what if you want to learn and practice it all?

    To me, a well-rounded creative professional is far more desirable than anything else. So thank you for writing this post as it pertains to design. It gave me hope and food for thought.

  • Zachary McInchak (January 13, 2010)

    I think that it’s important to have at least one area in which you are well-versed, and that you remain up to date and consistent with. Having another is possible, but I personally couldn’t dive deeply in more than two areas.

    I think that the knowledge of a subject depends heavily on how well you’re able to keep up with its changes, especially these days. If you’re a Web specialist, then you’re going to have a full plate. This stuff changes SO fast.

  • Steven Fauconnier (January 13, 2010)

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    -Robert A. Heinlein

  • Kuldeep (January 13, 2010)

    Totally Agree with this Great Article

    Thanks A Lot……..

  • Marcus (January 13, 2010)

    I’m with you here. I have been simultaneously and independently employed as PHP guy, email guy, DBA, web designer, video guy, copywriter, sysadmin, network architect (not to mention ski guide, plumber and daddy!) by various clients, successfully taking on lead roles in most of these areas.
    The big problem is when to stop given finite time, patience and a non-work life. The only thing I can specifically point to that I’ve deliberately steered clear of is Java – it’s a big can of worms I just don’t want to open (oh, and Windows sysadmin!). Another problem is that when you know lots, you can get paralysed by the myriad possibilities available to you. When you only know one way to do something, you just go ahead and do it. It might not be perfect, but will probably get the job done. In this context PHP is perhaps the perfect ‘hammer’ tool, hence its ubiquity. A little quote from Douglas Adams’ "Meaning of Liff":

    ABOYNE (vb.): To beat an expert at a game of skill by playing so appallingly that
    none of his clever tactics or strategies are of any use to him.

  • Ted Goas (January 13, 2010)

    Agree… but here’ another way of thinking about it:

    [b]Jack of all trades[/b] – caters well to small companies and freelance projects. Might not be an expert on any one thing, but he/she can see a project through from start to finish, wearing different hats as needed.

    [b]expert[/b] – caters well to teams in large organizations or consulting in their niche. Does one thing really well, but often times it’s just one part of a project. He/she needs a team of others to help in other facets.

  • Brian Cody (January 13, 2010)

    Great article! I totally agree! I’m not happy if I haven’t used almost all of the CS4 tools in the Master collection every day.

  • Janko (January 14, 2010)

    Thank you all for comments!

    Amanda: I am glad that you liked it, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Zachary: It is indeed important to have at least one are, I agree. But the more important is to have other as well. I totally agree with Dmitry here.

    Steven: I read somewhere this quote :)

    Marcus: [quote]When you only know one way to do something, you just go ahead and do it[/quote] – I agree on this one, but isn’t it so limiting?

    Ted: It might be true for many cases, but certainly not for all. I’ve worked mostly in large companies and large teams and saw many versatile people who fit well.

  • Mainostoimisto (January 16, 2010)

    Renaissance man would my choice. I have allways been told to focus on one thing but I refuce to go that line. I´m a photographer, graphic designer, teacher, writer and a painter. And I get money for all of those thing so I´m going to stick with my way for now. There is a saying in finnish language called "jokapaikanhöylä" witch means that you do just about anything… let say I´m a Design Handyman…

  • Denny (January 21, 2010)

    Excellent article. Though I notice white lines when reading due the contrasting colors of the text and the background.

  • John (February 3, 2010)

    You probably know that the term "polymath" is Greek and means "he who have learned a lot of things about a lot of things".
    There is a story I think you’d like to know about. It’s about Socrates (he was a polymath person).

    Someday a mathematician accused Socrates, saying:
    – [i]Socrates, you know [b]a litle[/b] about [b]everything[/b]. I believe that this is not the right path for a scientist to take.[/i]

    Then Socrates replied with a question:

    – [i]How can you say that? You know [b]everything[/b] about something [b]too little[/b] but you know nothing about all the rest. So, I believe that you should only talk about mathematics and leave the rest to us.[/i]

  • Janko (February 3, 2010)

    Mainostoimisto: "design handyman" sounds nice :)

    Denny: Thanks for the feedback. A new design is coming soon so that won’t be a problem anymore.

    John: Nice little story, thanks for sharing!

  • Andrew Keir (February 6, 2010)

    I think it’s tough not to be a jack of all trades these days. People expect it and I think are less inclined to see half a dozen people to get something done.

  • olex (February 7, 2010)

    Nowadays world is all about having a competitive advantage so I agree – do not be a master of none. ie do not try to dabble on everything and have no focus or plan, hopes or goals. Specialise and spend the time to master one thing you like. Then we you have achieved a level of mastery / competency, go on to the future. Slow and steady wins the race.

  • Gorkem PACACI (February 10, 2010)

    Robert Heinlein (a great writer) said:
    [quote]A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an
    invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a
    sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the
    dying, take orders, giver orders, cooperate, act alone, solve
    equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a
    computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
    Specialization is for insects.[/quote]

  • Reza Putra (May 8, 2010)

    "Michaelangelo, apparently, hated painting, publicly criticized and deprecated it. The irony is that he is mostly known for his painting and one of the greatest painting feats in the history of mankind – the painted walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel."

    When you love a thing, you may store fear of loss. Kazantzakis said, "Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα, δε φοβάμαι τίποτα, είμαι λέφτερος."–I expect nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.

    In freedom, then great art born.

  • Chris (May 9, 2010)


    Just an observation but did you write all these "great article" comments yourself.

    I have been writing for like 12 years now mostly as a release valve for pent up conditioning and frankly I find you article to be borderline worthless if no just base worthless.

    Take some advice form the suburban tenet "don’t give up the day job"

  • Chris (May 9, 2010)

    Oh and by the way Janko I will monitor the comments to see if you kave the balls to OK this comment.
    See ya

  • Janko (May 9, 2010)

    It is ok Chris if you disagree with the article or find it worthless. I find your cynicism rather worthless and completely unnecessary.

  • Net Age | Web Design (May 15, 2010)

    Homo Universalis does sound much nicer than Jack of All Trades. In days gone by it was much easier to know a lot about pretty much everything (although individuals like Leonardo and Michaelangelo were still rarely and unusually gifted people) than it is today.

    Specialization is a necessary evil in todays world, but also the thing that makes it so unsustainable. If one expert is missing, the whole thing grinds to a halt, with nobody else being able to fulfill the role, because of a lack of expertise or training in the specific field. Quite an uncomfortable scenario, actually….

    To me the ultimate Jack of All Trades must surely be a farmer. From engineer through to mechanic, from veterinarian through to project manager, from fencer to dam builer, from paramedic to barber these people never cease to amaze me. Some of the best equipped workshops I’ve ever encountered has been on farms, and some of the best all round Homo Universalis examples can be seen amongst the ranks of these people.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and feel @Chris should look somewhere else to spew his vitriol….he is obviously angry at life in general and himself in particular…..

  • Lincolnshire wedding photorapher (June 25, 2010)

    Jack of al trades, and master of a few is probrably a better analogy. As our lives, technology and everything else has become amazingly comples, specialisim or ignorance has to be pretty normal