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.

  • Lloyd Pennington

    September 29, 2010 at 5:46 pm Reply

    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. What we must try to do individually and collectively is to understand the working principles of these thought processes and use those to accelerate our personal development, which in turn will manifest in our work and not get hung up on adjectives, whose sole purpose is to ease communication through standardized operating procedure, i.e. speak the same language and the course of action will run more smoothly. Onward from that point we must then continue to refine our philosophies both individually and collectively to further improve. Let’s take JIT (Just-In-Time) for example. This was since the mid 1950’s one of the cornerstones of manufacturing business improvement to reduce inventory, yet today we now consider that the supplier holds the inventory and ships this to the OEM, not so good for the sustainability soap box now is it? And what of the cost in both time and money of the logistic operations? Let’s not forget that in some ways JIT actually contradicts the notion of the ‘7 wastes’ discipline of “reduce movement”. Couldn’t we agree then that TQM needs a little redesign? In fact isn’t it the essence of a designer to continually improve upon his surroundings and infrastructure? Isn’t this how we’ve progressed from cave to castle? How we choose to name these ideas and processes is perhaps somewhat less important than just getting the job done.

  • csven

    March 3, 2010 at 12:54 am Reply

    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.

  • Mike

    February 16, 2010 at 1:26 am Reply

    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 multiple interests. This is a good thing, because design is not about itself, but about the things it describes. The more things you understand, the better you can talk about them. Similarly, the more things you understand, the better you can design about them.
    I think that this diversity of interest is at least as important as diversity of skills. Specific skills, such as application knowledge and programming knowledge, help implement design, but a diverse personality helps to foster creativity in communication, which is at the soul of design.

  • Daniel Christadoss

    February 13, 2010 at 5:50 pm Reply

    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 online free course awarding Bachelor of T 🙂 Criteria is to master at least 5 disciplines. Readers get to choose disciplines.

  • zippyflounder

    February 13, 2010 at 4:11 am Reply

    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

    February 13, 2010 at 12:32 am Reply

    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

    February 12, 2010 at 10:12 pm Reply

    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

  • Darrell chung

    February 12, 2010 at 7:29 pm Reply

    Makes sense, nice article.

  • Paul

    February 12, 2010 at 4:21 pm Reply

    I think we have been taking this T quote for a ride it was not meant to go on!
    In basis it is a good idea and meant to stimulate us to keep a wide interest on things while maintaining some core competancy as a strong point. We should not use it literally to every situation, loosing the story in the process.
    Besides, I dare you to take any letter in the alphabet and describe from it how a designer should be. You will find you can find meaning in any letter or symbol!

  • gwen

    February 12, 2010 at 2:53 pm Reply

    I think I am going to get chewed up for my opinion of T shape. I agree in many references of my work and my behavior I am a t-ish. but those two t’s don’t describe me. I would have to get back with you on the actual illustrator shape.
    my opinion: T-shape concept was created to get students with both a ID degree (masters, let’s say) and a liberal arts degree (bachelors)in the states to get a job. *waiting for injustice outcries* why i say this, well think about it: when did Stanford happen? When did the whole T-shape people conversation happen? Who created Stanford connect the dots. And i agree it is not just Stanford but many schools. I also agree that designers go through many different directions of interests, and mostly, why a T? Compare to any other shapes in the alphabet?
    also i realize how one could become a T-shape person. You don’t stick to one job. and I am not talking about going from design firm to design firm doing the same work. I am saying that a great T-shape person can do any job, in all diversity.
    If I had to pick a person who is a T-shape would be this family member i know that has been doing 30 years of 2-4 years jobs (in engineering) at diverse industries. Making him at 60 yrs to just constantly challenge people’s way of thinking about themselves and how they “product”-tively effect others around themselves. (what they buy in terms of products can affect their relationships with others.)
    I wonder what “O” shape people are? oh “X” – the mega x factor – that could be the superdesigners. “Q”? anyone Q? seriously Q the ruler of the galaxy, that is a prime inspirational shape to achieve.

  • steve

    February 12, 2010 at 10:02 am Reply

    T shaped designers are an evolution of the western egalitarian thought process regarding the definition of what a designer can be. Can a T shaped designer have a meaningful conversation with a banker, physicist or politician? Yes!
    In the hierarchical East, this T shaped quality is impossible to achieve due to deep Confucian influences. Can a T shaped designer have a meaningful conversation with a banker, physicist or politician? No!

  • Emilie

    February 12, 2010 at 9:24 am Reply

    T-shaped designers – a mythical creature of IDEO lore… i never understood the whole T analogy because we all have skills and interests of sorts that branch off in all directions, more like * shaped designers with an indefinite number of branches, some longer some shorter.. and haven’t we all agreed that these other interests are rooted in the fact that we are successful designers? Since our default mode by nature and/or training is to take, collect, and use input and synthesize it into something new, be it an insight, product or concept..
    If we were not ‘so inquisitive about the world’ we would not be collecting enough inputs to output something meaningful.. and we all have interests that branch out into non-design related fields.. some of us are physicists some are painters.. some are musicians some are writers… some are comedians, some watch enough discovery health channel to perform open heart surgery with a dremel.. well maybe not that last one, but being multidisciplinary is sort of a given, and i completely agree that to delve deep enough into one area to create that protruding stem of a T you shorten the horizontal because you only have so much time to expand.. perhaps with the passage of time your T can grow longer? 🙂
    i also feel that in typical industry your role is defined to a degree that does not allow you to _professionally_ expand your T. Say if you have a strong interest in research methods or technology & even with a background in such fields previously, you were probably hired to perform a certain and specific skill that may not cross the silo of the other department. To reach beyond that predefined job description is to detract time and effort from your appointed and approved position and/or annoy your coworkers whose job it is you’re attempting to preform (and possibly outperform..)
    Well interesting article, glad to see i’m not the only industrial designer who has sat around contemplating the quality of T-ness with some degree of angst…

  • Emmanuel G.

    February 12, 2010 at 7:02 am Reply

    And a “+” shaped type ?
    Shorter than “t” but more balance and polyvalent shape, able to do the both things ?
    Or connect to other sort of “positives shaped” persons (team?).
    (Just an idea of an always optimistic student searching a third “t” ^^’)
    Maybe we can use a comparison to role playing games ?
    Typically you choose a main class of character, but sometimes if you want, you can make an hybrid.
    Not as efficient as a specialist for a specific thing of course, but with the unique capacity to connect different domain. As designers have transversal knowledges, even if it’s not as well-defined as in the “T-shape myth”, I think this versatility is already here.
    (rereading) Oops if it’s more about the “time/opportunity” than about “skills” , I had written too fast…
    And I imagine indeed the few occasion when we can really make a project from the conception to the final distribution. (except for ponoko-like system, when we are almost at the direct contact to the user ? Or when we work for ourself ? In this second case, can we said the “ideal world” is where everybody are designer and able to make all he need as he want without compromising the ecosystem? (a bit too dreamy)
    Hum, sorry I always like to think about design (and read other reflexion here), could continue for hours (forgot to develop the compromise between execution/delegation or other points) but this comment became long, and I’ll stop here…
    Nonetheless I believe in the “Renaissance Designers” as you name them ^^ (I hope I didn’t made too much mistakes)

  • asango

    February 12, 2010 at 4:16 am Reply


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