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The T-shaped sweet spot for designers

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Editor’s note: We’ve asked a handful of design leaders to respond to prompts each week. This week’s prompt was “Should designers be generalists or specialists?” Below, Nick Schaden responds.

The most compelling designers are often T-shaped.

On the spectrum between pure generalist or specialist, T-shaped designers fall in the middle. Their deep mastery of a select design skill gets them noticed. More surface-level talents elsewhere round them out and help them jell with a team.

That said, in reality, there’s no definitive ‘best’ designer type. It depends on the designer’s personality, career path, and the organization they work for. But the T-shaped model works for most—especially for those early in their career.

“The most compelling designers are often T-shaped.”

Specialization, the vertical stroke of the T, comes naturally to most designers. Many design teams organize their staff around this. They assign designers to a business function, platform, or skill (e.g. research, prototyping, visual design). Even among generalist teams there’s usually a natural work divide. Team members gravitate to what they’re already comfortable with and become go-to resources in the process.

Organizations rally around specialists for good reason. Specialized designers are effective closers on hard projects. They’ll land breakthroughs needed to hit tight deadlines.

And design skill mastery breeds innovation: Experts, not generalists, create the websites, apps, and hardware that win widespread praise and attention.

A specialist skill helps tie your portfolio together and makes it memorable. Maybe it’s beautiful aesthetic design or detailed wireframing. Without it, it’s easy for your portfolio to get lost in a sea of other cookie-cutter designers. Mastery gets you noticed and ultimately hired.

“Design skill mastery breeds innovation.”

That said, hacking away on what we’re already good at isn’t always the right action—generalist skills are still important. On a practical level, it improves your team’s work velocity. And as designers overlap their expertise, there’s more coverage. You can swap designers around as deadlines and priorities shift. 

Learning broader, more generalist skills also has communication benefits, like a shared vocabulary. If you’re an illustrator with basic coding skills, you’ll understand what engineers in the room are talking about. You’ll also give more effective design feedback, having knowledge on a wider range of fields.

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There’s also the empathy factor. As you build up skills in another discipline, you learn that discipline’s view of the world. You’re able to see a project through their eyes, be it engineering, business, research, or support. 

Understanding why a T-shaped skill set matters is pretty easy—building on it is much harder. Your day job can work against your efforts. It’s nothing personal, it’s just inertia. Designers who prove themselves as great generalists or great specialists can get pigeonholed. Your managers see you knocking it out of the park, so it’s natural they want you to continue in the same direction.

“Specialized designers are effective closers on hard projects.”

So speak up. Be proactive and change your patterns. You’re a pro at conducting user research tests, but you’re burned out after doing it for the past 3 months? Ask to pair program with the engineers for a few weeks. Skimming the surface with what feels like 10 different design skills, but not getting much depth? Insist on narrowing down your reach and working on more singular, long-term projects.

And if you keep pushing but you find you aren’t growing to “round out” your T? Then it might be time to find a new place to work.

Only you—not your boss, or company, or coworkers—will make the difference.

This post represents my personal views.

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Write your own response to the prompt “Should designers be generalists or specialists?” on Medium, and submit it to our publication.

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Author

Nick Schaden

Nick is a UI engineer and designer at Square, where he contributes to web initiatives across the company. He was formerly web platform lead at Pocket, a popular save for later service. Prior to Square and Pocket, Nick worked in technology and design at Animoto, Gucci, and Goldman Sachs. He loves coffee, electronic music, and 80s action movies.

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