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On Being a T-Shaped, Squiggly, Design Thinking Engineer

If Bresslergroup were a product to be opened up and analyzed, you’d find a lot of creative, dedicated, skillful people inside.

On our engineering team, we have a director who’s also a jazz musician. Another engineer is a juggler, and a third is an avid artist. In my case, before entering product development, I did freelance photography, graphic design, and web development on the side. At times in the past, we may have felt like square pegs pressed into round holes without the opportunity to flex our creative muscles in our careers.

For me personally, I was five years into my career when I realized I was literally exercising the analytical left half of my brain during the day and the creative right half at night. This was fun, but exhausting at the same time. I decided to retool my career path and seek a way to merge day-to-day technical work with the freelance design work I enjoyed in my spare time.

I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to use my whole brain in my career?

 

 

I Did It My Way

I decided to head down this path and see where it led. First, I enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s MIIPS program because I knew I would be able to work on real-world problems alongside industrial designers and business people and learn some of their language and skills.

After graduating, I landed a decent job in product development. However, I still had a lot of questions about this new way of thinking that felt unanswered. With an intensity that was comparable to that of the focus I put into pursuing my master’s, I read a lot of books and had a lot of conversations to try to develop a perspective and vernacular to describe this new way of thinking. You can read more about my story in this article,”Breaking Down Silos To Innovate Products,” on CMU’s website.

During this journey I landed on a few identifiers that I found very helpful and descriptive of what I was feeling and where I wanted to go.  “T-shape,” “Design Thinking,” and “Squiggle” remain relevant to me. Now that I’m a hiring manager, recognizing other T-shaped, squiggly design thinkers is part of my job. I can usually recognize one by his or her portfolio, personality, and passion.

Here’s how to recognize and cultivate these qualities in yourself if you’re feeling like a square peg pressed into a round hole:

1. Grow Your “T”

Whether in design or engineering, your education, skill, and experience define your core technical depth. Our team at Bresslergroup has great expertise in our core disciplines of industrial design, interaction design, user research, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. For me, my engineering depth grew during my years of experience at engineering (only) consultancies. In terms of a “T” shape, this core expertise is the vertical pole of your “T”.

At the same time, our engineering team is creative, innovative, and passionate.  As mentioned at the top of this post, we have a breadth of creative pursuits we enjoy in our spare time, as I did early in my career. We’re also credentialed in many professional areas, having earned degrees in industrial design, robotics and mechatronics, biomedical, biomimicry, and interdisciplinary product development like the one I was enrolled in. This is the horizontal portion of our “T” shape.

This “T” shaped characteristic is crucial. It allows us to collaborate and communicate effectively with the other disciplines we have in-house. In brainstorming sessions, ideas come from unexpected places. Engineers can help clients navigate the fuzzy front end, and implement designs as intended. Industrial designers understand manufacturing processes and thus design with the end in mind. Our cross-functional, interdisciplinary teams ensure the products we design are considered and cohesive, the development process is seamless, and design intent is carried faithfully from initial concepts through to production.

EXPAND YOUR DEPTH AND BREADTH: Remember that your foundation is critical and needs to grow in depth.  At the same time, look for opportunities to learn a new skill. Find something you enjoy and invest your time in it. Many of the best ideas come at the intersections, so grow your breadth and fill gaps where they exist between departments and people in your organization.

2. Practice Design Thinking

During my career transition, there were three questions lodged in my brain: 1) Where do great ideas come from? 2) How do you create amazing product experiences? 3) How do you get people to love your brand?

I knew that the answers to these questions would begin to unlock the secrets of innovation, product design, and company success.  I found a clue in the words of Steve Jobs: “Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation.”

In the words of Steve Jobs, “Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation.”

Design. What is design? Is a lone designer laboring in his studio the only person who can unlock the magic of great product experience and inspired brands? Or can “the rest of us” contribute to the process as well? If the latter, how can you think like a designer?

Most of us are trained to think and solve problems analytically, but the creative play and focus on art that we enjoyed in our youth was brushed aside at some point. Why?  And what was lost in the process? According to Bill Moggridge, using the analogy of an iceberg:

“Rigorous explicit thinking, of the kind encouraged in institutions of higher learning, limits people to conscious thinking and hence to using just a tiny proportion of the potential in their minds — like the ice above the water. The design thinking process allows us to follow our intuition, valuing the sensibilities and insights that are buried in our subconscious — like the ice below the water.”

 

 

Design thinking seeks to answer the question of “what could be,” and promises to unlock new ideas and insights. Those great ideas can add up to become excellent product experiences and beloved brands.

PUT ON YOUR DESIGN THINKING CAP: There is much more that could be said about design thinking, and there are many resources available to learn more about it and begin practicing what you’ve learned. Dive in.  Remember to relate, play, create, imagine, and have fun. Let intuition have a seat at the table.  It’s a powerful part of who we are as humans.

3. Be Your Squiggly Self

Perhaps the least familiar of these three characteristics, “squiggles” are a unique personality set.  While everyone can work to grow the depth and breadth of their T-shape, or adopt more designing thinking tools, the squiggle is different. This personality trait is more nature than nurture.

Unlike “squares” who are dependable and detail-oriented; “circles” who are social and fun-loving; or “triangles” who are driven, confident leaders, squiggles like myself (and perhaps you, if you’re reading this) are harder to pin down. We are idea people. We love learning new things and taking on new challenges. We are passionate and energetic. We defy stereotyping (or at least think we do). We are unpretentious. We like to move the needle, and do so for a purpose greater than ourselves.

The squiggle description really resonated when I presented on the topic to Carnegie Mellon University’s MIIPS students. Many had wondered about their place in the world, why they didn’t fit in, and what direction their career would take.  As this is a core part of our identity, we have sometimes felt like misfits since there aren’t degrees designed specifically for our squiggly selves. Then again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise since we inherently march to the beat of a drum that is uniquely our own!

We have sometimes felt like misfits since there aren’t degrees designed specifically for our squiggly selves.

Squiggles can view hierarchy, rules, and procedures as unnecessary and cumbersome. These tend to get in the way of the creative process, of problem-solving, of speed and progress.  At Bresslergroup, squiggles are welcome. Even as we’ve grown to nearly 70 employees, we have kept our company hierarchy flat.

Along with being flat, we are collaborative and non-siloed, with interns brainstorming alongside partners, and design researchers problem-solving alongside electrical engineers. We follow “best practices” (not procedures). We love learning and taking on new challenges.

EMBRACE THE SQUIGGLE: Be yourself and follow your heart.  The U.S. educational system is designed to be like an assembly line, for better or worse.  Recognizing this, leverage its benefits, but take initiative to grow yourself in the directions that align with your interests and talent.  You alone own your future.

Does this sound like you? If it does, or even if it doesn’t, I hope it has made you think and get a little closer to understanding who you are – and how you’re shaped!