Should designers aim to be T-shaped?

Hiring “T-shaped” designers is one way Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, builds a collaborative culture at his design and innovation firm. The term prompts us to answer the question of whether designers should be generalists, specialists, or somewhere in the middle. I feel it depends on what companies want, what teams/projects need, and what the common skill sets are among designers. Plus, designers come from all different backgrounds and studies. In my experience, there is not one traditional type of background for designers. Some of the best designers I’ve hired had degrees in Biology, History, and Literature.

“Designers come from all different backgrounds and studies.” [Tweet this]

When I first started designing, UX was not a common term or practice. This is a time Jared Spool refers to as the “Dark Ages”. I would have considered myself skilled in UI, Flash, and HTML/CSS with general knowledge of other disciplines. I was specialized in a couple areas. At the time, many companies expected designers to be skilled in web design and print design. I found myself adapting and expanding my skill set. Eventually, I was doing more of everything! I started doing graphic design, UX, IA, writing, motion graphics, usability testing, and more! If we look at the evolution of UX design, we can see that specialists became more common as our field grew and as the value of design was recognized. With my background in various disciplines, I empathize with others and appreciate their craft. It’s extremely important in working well with a multidisciplinary team.

Regardless of whether you see yourself as a generalist or specialist, what’s important is your ability to adapt. If you are specialized in one discipline, you should continue to stay current in other disciplines. This will help you adapt to new projects, jobs, and companies where demands will vary. In John Maeda’s Design In Tech Report, Maeda finds that coding skills can be useful for designers.

“Regardless of whether you see yourself as a generalist or specialist, what’s important is your ability to adapt.” [Tweet this]

When I hire, I look for the skills and experience that will fit the company, team, and current/upcoming projects. This helps to scale the design team as the company grows. I encourage the team to always learn and grow in areas they would like to improve or expand their knowledge in. Plus, when team members are out, another can jump in and help out. When you work in a well-rounded team composed of different backgrounds, you naturally learn from each other too! The most senior team member can learn from juniors and vice versa. It also takes people from various disciplines to create a great product together. I’ve seen some great, collaborative work with multidisciplinary teams.

“It takes people from various disciplines to create a great product together.” [Tweet this]

What do companies want?
If you are looking to work at a startup or currently at one, you may want to focus on being a generalist. At an enterprise company, you may need to be more specialized. Regardless, keep the ideas above in mind. Look for trends in postings. If there is a gap within your team or at your company, be the one to introduce the discipline to management.

What do teams/projects need?
Teams are formed around projects. Projects determine what disciplines are needed. Some may need more visual design, others may need more research. One solution doesn’t fit all. If you work at a company where visual design is important, you could find yourself being a specialist.

What are the common skill sets among designers?
Staying current with industry trends helps you adapt to changes in our field. When the term, “UX” first surfaced, job postings popped up looking for “UI/UX Designers”. Web designers needed to adapt. They had to apply user-centered design practices and research to meet this demand.

Should designers aim to be “T-shaped”? 
It definitely has its benefits. But, you must be able to adjust and adapt to various situations and move along the spectrum. Make learning and self-development a priority. Every company, team, and project is different. Something that works well in one situation may not work as well in another.