Becoming a T-Shaped Designer

Some years ago, Tim Brown of IDEO introduced the term "T-shaped" to describe people who have depth of skill and experience in one discipline, represented by the vertical stroke, while also having breadth via skills and experience across other disciplines, represented by the horizontal stroke. He argued that the latter provided empathy for other disciplines and, in turn, fostered greater collaboration.  

I think the concept is key to the creation of amazing products and the term perfectly captures the essence of the concept. I've been thinking a lot about our design disciplines and what designers should do to make themselves optimally effective given current trends.

It is often the case that user research specialists go off and carry out ethnographic observations, interviews, surveys, and other user studies. Interaction designers write personas, stories, and create wireframes. Visual designers create high fidelity mockups, graphics, and blueprints. Design developers build working prototypes. However, the visual designer may have no knowledge of writing code, the interaction designer may have no visual design skills, the user research specialist may not know anything about interaction design, and the design developer may know nothing about doing user research. That isn't healthy. It limits the empathy one team member will have with the others and, in turn, limits the quality of the collaboration with those other team members.   

I share Tim Brown's view that everyone should strive to be more T-shaped but I've also come to believe that designers of different disciplines should minimally be familiar with but optimally develop a working level of skill in the other design disciplines. A good test of whether different types of designers are becoming more T-shaped in my experience is to look at the presentations they create. Some would argue that you should only expect to see a visually engaging and highly effective presentation coming from the visual designer. I disagree. I see no reason why any of the other disciplines involved in design can't be expected to do the same. I've been reviewing a lot of portfolios of designers from various disciplines and again have an expectation for all of them to appropriately understand what their users want from the site, to have an information architecture and navigation that is sound, be effective and engaging visually, and be implemented well. Of course, it makes sense for designers to have deep skills in one of those areas but to still have a reasonable level of skills in the others too.  

I argue that the need to become more T-shaped for designers goes beyond optimizing for collaboration. I think it is critical as a design professional to have some level of skill in all other design disciplines. I would also argue that all design schools should teach and give students experience in the full range of disciplines. Of course, it would be expected that the quality of work wouldn't be as high for the non-specialist but it should be passible. 

So what should practicing designers do? I would suggest three things. First, recognize and internalize the need to be more T-shaped. Consider the benefits of developing a broader set of skills. Second, start to acquire those additional skills by leveraging online or even classroom resources and also look to develop a mentoring relationship with a colleague or friend who is a specialist in the discipline you're interested in. Third, broaden your skill set not only to include other discipline skills but also a variety of interpersonal communication and collaboration skills as well. One source is my own Life Habits podcast series which is available in iTunes and on the shownotes site at In particular, I would suggest listening to episodes on topics such as authentic listening, leadership, relationships, working remotely, presentations, effective meetings, teamwork, difficult people, assertiveness, taking things personally, confirmation bias, mastering gratitude, growth mindset, and workplace challenges.     

I'd appreciate any thoughts you may have on this topic communicated via the social networks I post this on as I no longer turn on commenting on this site. The social networks I've posted this on include the User Experience Group in LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.