When it comes to achieving success in any creative pursuit, it’s important to understand your skill set, what you do well, and where you can add value. This process can be called finding a niche or defining your specialism, and it’s a crucial step in terms of working out your goals and progressing towards them. The phrase ‘find your niche’ has, however, become overused and clichéd in regard to creativity, business and general skills. While it’s important to have a clear idea of what your expertise is and how you can maximise its potential both professionally and personally, there is a danger of ‘specialism’ becoming ‘restriction’.
So how can we strike the balance between being a jack-of-all-trades and limiting opportunities by specialising to the extreme? Here are some tips to help you think differently about your skills, and focus on developing them in the right way to find your creative niche.
Work out what a niche means to you
How you define a specialism can vary depending on your discipline, ambitions, or way of thinking. Understanding how a niche can benefit you is the first step towards finding one and using it to reach your goals effectively. For years, I wrestled with the concept of defining my niche as a writer; there was no single subject I knew enough about to write solely on, and with fairly broad interests, the idea of limiting myself to one topic wasn’t appealing. But a niche doesn’t have to be thematic, or restricted to an interest if that’s not what suits you. The technicality of any domain can be your specialism within it – so whether that’s colour in photography, clarity of writing, or use of space in graphic design, all you need is the confidence to own that skill, and the dedication to improve it.
Leeds-based copywriter, Chris Kenworthy, believes in specialising, but only to a point. “Do specialise, but do it in your art, rather than its application,” he advises, “my art is a fiery obsession with honesty and clarity. I love making complicated things simpler. Now I take that very specific skill and share it in all sorts of different subjects and sectors. My options are, and remain, open.” For him, it’s all about being as happy and as true to yourself as possible, and always being able to engage in what interests you – coincidentally, a state that’s likely to engender more creativity in and of itself. In a Harvard Business School study, results showed that people were happiest when they had a creative idea, but also more likely to come up with one if they had been happy the day before, firming up the link between positive emotions and creativity.
Sharing and collaboration
If you’re finding it difficult to pin down your specialism and align your skills to meet it, don’t forget the value of a general skill set. As the creative world takes off in every direction from digital and tech to new ways of working and evermore out-there styles, those with all-round skills are finding themselves in demand. Take copywriting for example. Here, while it’s possible to specialise in a particular subject, such as ‘food and drink’, or a technicality, such as ‘SEO’, remaining willing and able to tackle any topic and any style allows you to discover new potential skills, and access more creative opportunities. Freelance copywriter, Alastaire Allday describes the joy and success that variety has brought to his creative career, highlighting how taking the time to work out his expertise through writing on every topic and in a wide range of styles has boosted his creativity, skills and earnings overall.
Alastaire’s experience highlights the increasing demand for solutions and creativity that do everything. General skills are clearly valuable, provided you polish every aspect of your skill set, but specialising has value too, as long as you collaborate and share your expertise. This idea of collaboration is key to refining what you do and learning from others along the way. Claire Osbaldeston, Account Director at Leeds creative agency, Round Creative, highlights how working together is essential in achieving the best creative results. “There shouldn’t be any fear around collaboration,” she says, “for ages we thought that if a client wanted a certain thing we should just do it ourselves, but the sensible thing to do is to reach out to experts. We shouldn’t be scared – it’s education for us as well.”
It’s clear that the skill sets of specialists and generalists can also work productively together, with generalists often having a larger breadth of knowledge and a stronger ability to step back and gain perspective, and specialists more able to solve specific problems in the best way. Being a good person to work with and always looking to learn from others are some of the most important things in creativity: whether you specialise today, tomorrow or in 20 years’ time – and no matter how you choose to do it – sharing knowledge will strengthen your creative process.
Don’t rush it
If the idea of finding and pursuing a specialism scares you, don’t rush it, and don’t assume that everyone’s got it sussed. Feeling like you don’t know enough about anything to be an expert in a particular field is a common experience; if this is the case for you, try taking the advice of creative agency and consultancy, Braid, and thinking of your niche as a ‘higher purpose’. This means figuring out why you do what you do, before you get bogged down in the nitty-gritty. For example, your higher purpose or value might be to instil authentic creativity in all your work – and then skills like writing, graphic design or musicianship become the tools you need to reach this goal. Once you’ve identified your reasons for being creative and the things that really make you tick, it’s easier to think about your craft on these terms, and work out what makes you different.
So when it comes to the problem of ‘how to find your niche’, remember that these things take time. Time to build up knowledge, learn from others, meet the right people, and decide not just what you’re good at, but what really interests and engages you. Whether or not you buy into the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become an expert at what you do, it’s clear that working out how best to channel your skills and refining them to proficiency takes time and motivation. “After four years, I’m slowly finding my niche.” says Alastaire “It’s B2C, it’s conceptual, it’s digital. But I’m glad I can write about a ton of other products in a myriad of different styles, too.”
Finding your creative niche should be natural and painless – it’s just about striking the right balance of keeping your options open, doing what you love, and sticking at it for as long as it takes.