Only God is T-Shaped

I have been thinking about T-Shaped Designers for a long time now. How to be one, what does being one really mean and how effective can one be. Made popular sometime in 2005 by IDEO’s Tim Brown, T-Shape Designers are defined as:

…people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. ~ Fast Company

I touch on this topic again in 2007, by calling these T-Shape Designers “Renaissance Designers” in my blog series: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Designers.

However after almost 5 years contemplating the existence of such T-Shaped designers and observing the many designers I know, I have to admit that such a personality trait is a myth. Honestly, to date I have never seen or met any designer that I would truly qualify as T-shaped, including myself.

I actually spoke to Chris Bangle about this and tried to tap into his vast experience as someone who hires talent. He agrees that while it was big in 2005, on one talks about this anymore probably because it was never true.

I postulated that such a personality trait is impossible simply because humans are just not wired to multi-task well, or to wear different hats for that matter. Even if a designer has the capability, he or she will lack the time or opportunity.

Therefore the reality is, instead of being a big “T”, you will find designers that are either a little “t” or a “T” with a short vertical stick.

Little “t-shape” designers are essentially most of who we are. Despite many of us feeling that we are “Jacks of all trades and masters of none” after our 4 years of design school. We eventually settle into a specialty of design and designing.

Stunted “T-Shaped” designers are often the senior creatives, the design managers, team leaders and entrepreneurs. Many deal with all the different touch points in the design development cycle, but do not have the opportunity to dive into detail. Some, like the entrepreneurs, may be in the position to do it all, but often will have to either accept work of lesser quality or learn to delegate and outsource.


So at the end of the day, being a T-Shaped is just a nice story for designers to aspire to. While the value of a T-Shaped team is undeniable, it is probably more realistic to build a multi-disciplinary team of experts to work on complex (or wicked?) problems. Now that is something that has withstood the test of time.

What do you think? I’m looking forward to hearing your comments.

. . . . . .

Brian Ling

Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.

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15 Comments on "Only God is T-Shaped"

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[…] to have both (thinking and craft), and I think think is wrong. I don’t think the much lauded “T shaped” designer is necessarily the answer but we do need to facilitate a greater blend of creativity and control in […]

Lloyd Pennington
I’m a ’t’ shaped designer when I stand with my arms held out horizontal. Other than that, I draw on all of my experiences and try to draw on the experiences of others to help drive a well rounded product. Call it holistic, big picture, homogenous… whatever. Really I think we are simply trying to satisfy the human need to categorise. Other times we have an idea of how to describe something, which others pick up on and feel they just witnessed an epiphany. There will always be debate about ‘t’ shaped this, design thinking that, blue sky the other.… Read more »

Interesting observation. However, what I find interesting isn’t so much the “T”, but how the “T” argument is framed. What happens when the vertical leg is a “finance”? What “tangible” output does a finance person produce which is something other than woefully inadequate “spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks”?

Looking back on this piece, I’m seeing it riddled with potential logic errors. Yet for so many, it’s gospel.

Categorization and labeling always result in big conversations. As soon as you apply a label, everyone realizes that they have a slightly different take on it. I find labels to be useful as a starting point in understanding someone, but they become stretched and deformed if you try to apply the label absolutely or literally. This is why so many people are responding that they are not T-shaped, but are pi-shaped, +-shaped, X-shaped, or what have you. I think that the important point here is that creatives are generally not linear beings — they tend to branch out and have… Read more »
Daniel Christadoss
Very interesting subject and many interesting comments. All of us are T shaped in various forms. The T changes shape over the phases of our career. There is harmony when the T’s mesh a Team is formed and the Project is successful. Sometimes we may modulate our T’s to make the Team successful. Sometimes we see other T’s and emulate. No man can be a really a big T and no man is a small T. But all of us should strive to be more of a T. Particularly in today’s economy. By the way I heard the is an… Read more »

I guess I am a multi pi shape, 4 legs and 3 wavy cross bars. I offer in support of this statement my abridged portfolio . I think if your a “T” your unstable, you need more than one leg, designer and builder, engineer and artist, graphics and pottery. This is just a process of being fearless and curious, don’t be afraid to ask questions and never be afraid of failure.

George I

Sweet observation man, DITTO! Totally agree it’s a myth from the standpoint that with VERY few exceptions (i.e. start with Leonardo), if anyone pretends to be that serious “Jack of all trades” they are lying to us, themselves, and live with wishful thinking. It is possible to balance those disciplines to a degree, but in my experience not to what Brown described as a true “t-shaped” one.

William Sutton

hmmm…I’ve never heard of this before (I didn’t go to school to be a designer), but it describes my career to a capital T


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