Defining the “T-Shaped Designer” January 27, 2011. By Dan Zollman.
While catching up on blog-reading, I came across Jack Moffett’s thoughts on the idea of the “T-shaped designer”. I began to write a comment, but after reviewing the articles he linked to one by Tim Brown, the other by Kevin McCullagh, I realized I had to take a step back.The metaphor of the T-shaped designer is the suggestion that a manager should want to hire a designer with great depth in one sense the vertical stroke of the T and breadth in another sense the horizontal stroke.But I realized that there are two very different ways of understanding this metaphor. First, Brown describes a designer with “deep analytical skills…but also broad empathy toward those other skills and disciplines encountered in business.” Similarly, Moffett describes the vertical stroke as a “specialization” and the horizontal as “a broader appreciation of the landscape in which the specialization fits.”However, McCullagh emphasized the word “generalist” in his explanation of breadth. This leans towards the version of the “T-shaped designer” that I’ve heard in lectures and talks elsewhere: in that version, the designer has depth in one domain but knows a little bit about every other domain.There is a small but important distinction between having empathy towards other disciplines and having skills in those disciplines. Empathy enables one to work alongside those disciplines, to understand their languages, to build upon ideas from those disciplines, and to succeed within the systems that bring those disciplines together. Having skills or knowledge in other disciplines can also enrich one’s own work, but this is different than having that empathy because technical skills and knowledge can be disconnected from their original disciplinary and professional contexts.If we stick with the T and, as Moffett suggests, the m metaphor, it is important to remember that this means going beyond breadth of skill and knowledge towards a broad understanding of the environments of design practice. A skill set based on “a little bit of everything,” while it always comes in handy, is decreasingly useful in specialized situations hence McCullagh’s concerns. But a good understanding of multiple disciplines themselves—which could even be achieved by developing practical skills to a greater depth—provides great flexibility, not to mention new ways of thinking about problems and systems.With that, I’ll return to my starting point. I like Moffett’s suggestion that the T shape should be followed by a second and a third vertical: the m shape. I would even take that a step further and say that we could replace the model of horizontals and verticals with a model that consists of many verticals of different lengths. Throughout my own life, I have moved between interests and hobbies, exploring them to different depths, at different rates, and at different times; in other words, my breadth is composed of a range of specialties growing together. I’ll make a cheesy comparison: accumulated experience is not the acreage of a garden but the plants in the garden, their number, their diversity, and their respective heights. So perhaps it would be productive and, in the context of schooling, happier to approach education not as a process of covering ground but as a process of growing a garden.