Is the T-shape evolving?

Are designers evolving from just UX designers or just visual designers into multi-disciplinary generalists? There seems to be higher-quality design all-rounders coming back into vogue.

Jack-of-all-trades

When I was a freelancer it was in my best interest to be a generalist. To do everything. Being able to do more meant I could win more business. Front-end dev? Sure. Design? You got it. CMS implementation? Of course!

Saying yes to new clients because I could do the work was great in theory, but terrible in practice. I got stretched like pizza dough. I longed for the opportunity to slow things down, and specialise in just one thing(*). As they say, being a jack-of-all-trades makes you a master-of-none. So when I went agency-side full-time, I dropped most of the other things and focussed on specialising in one discipline only. I wanted to work on that stem in my ’T-shape’.

The 'T-Shape'

I was introduced to the concept of the T-shape from Andy, and it was one of the main drivers for joining Clearleft. Dropping all those other skills let me focus on a single craft and sharpen it. In retrospect it was - and continues to be - one of the best moves I’ve made to-date.

The T-shape concept was coined by Tim Brown of IDEO when describing IDEO’s hiring policy for collaborative designers. The vertical stroke (stem) of the T refers to the deep expertise a person has in one discipline. The horizontal stroke (arms) refers to that person’s understanding of other disciplines across the creative process. The stronger the shape, the stronger their ability to collaborate across multi-discipline teams.

This means a visual designer might specialise in visual design, but can understand and work with colleagues who specialise in other disciplines. This cross-disciplinary collaboration is the DNA of Clearleft and many other agencies like it. Specialists are able to produce high-quality work by focusing on their core competencies. Clients get people who have honed their skill and craft and return the best value on their investment.

A shifting

I’ve noticed a shift recently, first-hand. At Clearleft we’ve been on a bit of a hiring spree for both visual and UX designers. While we’re always looking for that T-shape, there’s an overwhelming number of what I’d call ‘Generalists’: people who are producing fantastic quality work across a wide range of disciplines. The lines are becoming blurry. In some cases it’s not abundantly clear what role the candidates are actually applying for (or which they’re better fitted to).

Some of the candidates we spoke to effortlessly danced between product design and UX research methodologies. And they designed lovely UIs to a high standard. And some even built their own products. Is this a growing trend? Is it happening on a large enough scale that the ’T’ shape for designers is evolving? Is that shape still applicable, or is it turning into something else altogether? An M? H? A dodecahedron?

The Generalist designer might be more prevalent within in-house product teams. The rate at which design moves is slower than in an agency, so a designer can span multiple disciplines without the pressure of time or delivery. By comparison agencies (and the clients who hire them) are predicated on fast execution and delivery, which is where Specialists come into their own. But Generalists seem to be on the up, and it’s only a good thing.

What next?

I’m not suggesting Generalists are taking over. And I’m not suggesting that doing everything always equates to quality. It takes a certain type of designer to span multiple disciplines and execute at a consistently high level.

Back in my freelance days I might have spread myself too thinly across a spectrum that was far too wide and disparate. Development, admin, business development and design are far too different to tackle at an equally high level. Today’s Generalist designer has focused on just design, but gone both deep and wide across it.

Digital designers - and digital design - are evolving. With the industry maturing it’s arguably easier than ever to learn and hone many skills versus just one. Our industry’s penchant for sharing knowledge, processes, ideas and lessons has made the learning curve easier and more accessible to more designers than ever before. The more I see designers able to tackle thorny problems and execute solutions right through the gamut of UX design methodologies, visual design, production and implementation, the more I’m confident that this is the direction the industry is headed.

So, which type are you?