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Design Defined: Why ‘T-Shaped’ Is the Best Fit for Product Design

(This post is based on the video, “T-Shaped” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

Have you ever heard someone described as “T-shaped”? For those of us in product design, it’s a good shape to be.

It doesn’t have anything to do with how you look. “T-shaped” is a term used to describe someone’s knowledge and skills.

The vertical portion of the “T” describes the depth of expertise in your main area of education and work experience. The horizontal portion of the “T” describes your breadth of skills and experience.

For instance, you may have studied mechanical engineering in college, but over time you’ve developed user research, design thinking, or electromechanical skills through additional studies, work experience, or even hobbies. (Read how I retooled my career path and developed my own T-shape in “On Being a T-Shaped, Squiggly, Design Thinking Engineer.”)

The Origin of ‘T-Shaped’

The term “T-shaped” is believed to have originated at McKinsey & Company in the 1980s. McKinsey used it as a framework to develop consultants who were not only experts in their field of study, but whose breadth of skills and experience would make them effective collaborators and contributors on multidisciplinary teams. IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, later popularized the term in the context of product design.

At Bresslergroup, we’ve also found T-shaped to be an effective paradigm. There are a lot of T-shaped people across our disciplines. In my discipline — mechanical engineering — we all have “mechanical engineer” in our titles, but many of us have training in other areas like industrial design, robotics, or biomedical engineering. And many of us have creative pursuits that foster creative thinking and broaden our “T”, like photography, music, and sketching. (Check out some of our side projects.)

The T-shape paradigm is one lens that helps Bresslergroup identify and develop the kinds of consultants that we and other innovation teams need to succeed. One question I often ask in interviews is for candidates to tell me about their hobbies and passions. If they’re an artist, a hobbyist, or a maker immersed in Arduino code, that tells me something about their T-shape. It often also indicates creativity, passion, and that they are a lifelong learner. (Formal degrees may be nice, but aren’t necessary, for their “T.”)

‘T-Shaped’ People Make Magic

Product design work is fundamentally multidisciplinary. While some projects may only involve one discipline, most are deeply and crucially cross-functional. On a project team, each team member is an expert in their field of expertise and brings that experience to bear on projects.

It is truly amazing — even magical — when a multidisciplinary team of curious, clever, “T-shaped” individuals come together. Ideas flow, innovation is sparked, and the toughest product design riddles are cracked. It still takes effort, but the most elegant solutions come from the collaboration and healthy tension and interplay as T-shaped individuals work together. These innovation teams become more than the sum of their parts.

Ready To Grow Your T?

I’ve heard T-shaped skills framed as a razor that cuts through complexity, and in my experience that’s exactly right. On our multidisciplinary teams, ideas come from unexpected places. Engineers can help clients navigate the “fuzzy front end” of innovation, and effectively fulfill industrial designers’ intent. Industrial designers understand manufacturing processes and thus design with the end in mind. Our cross-functional 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.

I encourage my team, and the students I cross paths with, to keep growing both the depth and breadth of their T-shapes.  As the world becomes more complex, growing your T is more important than ever.

Now that you know what “T-shaped” is, can you begin to identify the components of your T? How might you use the T-shaped framework to direct your education and grow your skills? How can you deepen your specialized expertise and expand your general knowledge by following your interests and curiosity? Growing your T will make you a more valuable member of any design team you’re on.

Download our Design Defined ebooks to learn about more product design principles