I, X, and T-Shaped Designers: What’s the Difference?
Skill shapes are typically used by recruiters to categorize a person’s skill levels and ability to work within a team setting. Designers can come from varying degrees of backgrounds and shapes but the most common skill shapes are T, X, and I. An effective team will need to have a mix of different skill shapes, so as a designer, you’ll want to understand what those shapes are and consider them as a model for growth.
Imagine, you’re a UX beginner who’s recently transitioned into the design industry. In order to progress and, of course, to increase your income, you need something beyond the “basic” UX/UI skills. Even if you’re not brand new to the design world, you’ve probably already encountered the dilemma choosing your specialty. So rather than seeing these shapes as development formulas, you can see them as adding to your growing toolkit or finding that niche you love.
T-shaped Designers: “I’m capable in a lot of things and am pretty good at one of them.”
IDEO Chief Executive Tim Brown popularized the term “T-shaped person” that is commonly ingrained into lessons at bootcamps and by industry professionals. He gave an interview with Chief Executive Magazine saying,
The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer.
The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective — to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.
An alternative name for a t-shaped person is a “generalizing specialist”. Many new designers start here to get their foot through the doors of a company. For example, if you are a t-shaped in content strategy, you will understand how to perform research, be able to explain information architecture, can create visual designs, know some technical coding, and have experience with usability testing but excel in UX writing, content design, style guides, content ecosystem mapping, and content audits.
The highly versatile skill set makes a designer great at their job because they have a solid understanding of impact among other disciplines beyond than the tasks within their own team. However, understanding why a t-shaped skill set matters is pretty easy — building on it is much harder. You can get pigeonholed into being a “jack-of-all-trades” and not be able to find that sweet-spot to become an expert in.
I-Shaped Designers: “I’m great at one thing.”
I-shaped designers are specialists. Specialists have a particular focus and do not know much about different disciplines, and sometimes have a preference to work in one single job type. Morten T. Hansen, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Great by Choice describes i-shaped as a “lone star”, a person who performs really well in their job and doesn’t ask for the help of others. In comparison to other shapes, an I-shaped person lacks the breadth of experience that a T-shaped person has and does not have the ability to communicate very well across teams.
While being a specialist might seem confined, if you are an expert in one field, there might be huge demand for you. For example, 3D graphic designers have been climbing to popularity 3D has a new Renaissance.
X-Shaped Designers: “I inspire and help progress toward a goal.”
X-shaped designers are… 🦄 unicorns. Heather McGowan refers to x-shaped persons as having inter-disciplinarity with a participatory approach and a more holistic focus on a common goal. Say you’re working on a problem with your super creative team but notice that you’re missing something. Perhaps there could be multiple outliers here but what you might be missing is an x-shaped person who inspires and drives progress toward a goal: a leader. In UX, sometimes this individual is comparable to a rare creature, a so-called unicorn because they have proven their worth by mastering leadership in addition to everything else that comes in the UX package.
Okay, fine. X-shaped designers are actually not that unrealistic. David Clifford argues that we all embody this x-shaped person but have yet to unlock that potential whether it is through design bias or lack of confidence. If you want to become an x-shaped designer, think more about strategy and team management, rather than just the design work that a project entails.
BONUS: Pi-shaped Designers: “I’m solid in 2 adjacent skills and functional with other things too.”
Pi-shaped designers (sometimes referred to as the ’n’ or ‘m’-shaped, or combed-shaped designer too depending on number of desirable skills) are the new hot “T”. Instead of having only one depth of expertise, a pi-shaped person has two in something like both design and content. Another desirable combo is having strong visual design paired with front-end development skills. What makes having a pi-shaped designer on the team so great is the efficiency and seamless progression they have in a project.
If you’re already a t-shaped designer, adding another leg to become a pi wouldn’t be too bad. To start, pick an area that you’ve been wanting to learn more in and developing depth in it. Having multiple areas of expertise can increase your likelihood of creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills, not to mention standing out within a pool of applicants.
Fitting a shape to the ‘T’
T-shaped designers are great for working cross-teams and i-shaped designers are experts in their field. X-shaped designers are highly desirable unicorns with leadership capabilities and pi-shaped designers are making the flow more efficient by making connections between two or more disciplines.
Are you an I, a T, an X, or a Pi designer?
Sure, you might be a certain shape right now but there’s nothing stopping you from evolving into a different one. Start small and check on The 1% Designer to learn how you can start compounding your UX knowledge a little bit everyday!