Product design teams are more effective and produce higher quality output if they have deep expertise in each design discipline, while they also need generalist designers in each product team. A team of T-shaped designers resolves these twin goals.

Happy T-rex taking a walk on a playground digital detailed by Andy Warhol, generated with DiffusionBee
Happy T-rex taking a walk on a playground digital detailed by Andy Warhol, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Teams of T-shaped designers

Product teams are at the core of modern product development, and their structure is mostly established. Each one should have a product manager, engineers, and a product designer. As the product team does discovery, the PM, the designer, and an engineer collaborate as a product trio. Sometimes there are other experts joining, but this product trio within a product team setup proved to be an effective way of creating products.

Product design teams are set up in a distributed fashion to accommodate the product team structure, having one product designer in each. As part of a product team, a product designer will do all kinds of design things. For example, user research, facilitating workshops, creating concepts, iteratively designing solutions, usability testing, and UI design. Sometimes designers also do other things depending on the team and the product’s needs, like service design, UX writing, illustrations, and marketing materials - whatever an end-to-end product development process needs.

For all these different activities, the designer needs to have proficiency in multiple disciplines. To get a high-quality design, this means being exceptional in both knowledge and experience in each of these skills. It’s no wonder such designers are called unicorns, as having a high level of skills in all these fields is rare.

Hiring a team of unicorns is next to impossible. A better approach is to hire people who are good generalists and to make sure that the whole team possesses a deep knowledge of all relevant disciplines. The product team can progress with the generalist designer on board, who can reach out to the broader product team if deeper expertise is needed.

This type of generalist designer is described as being T-shaped. The top (horizontal) arm of the T represents the generalist knowledge - what’s needed for most projects in a product team throughout the process of research, discovery, delivery, and go to market. Everyone from the design team needs to be able to do the general activities on a reasonable level. The T’s (vertical) stem represents an individual’s specialization, may it be research, prototyping, storytelling, or anything that comes from experience or personal interest. The specialization not only helps in the designer’s projects but also levels up the whole team.

The T-shaped designers come together to collaborate when there is a project in another product team, where their specialization makes the work more efficient or of higher quality. This is how a design team composed of T-shaped designers can be more impactful.

This idea also guides hiring - as we look for new team members, we also need to find somebody who not only fits into their respective product team but also adds another T to the design team, enhancing what the team is capable of.

The T-shape also applies to the more specialist members of the team. If there is a research team, it’s better to have one person more experienced in qualitative and another more experienced in mixed-methods or quantitative methods than to have 2 persons with the same skillset.

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🍪 Things to snack on

The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled by Farnam Street is a good primer on the differences between generalists and specialists. Generalists are a sort of jack of all trades, while a specialist is a master of a single area. As the article describes while they are the opposite, it’s a spectrum with people excelling in the middle by building a specialization on their generalist knowledge.

Our craft changes a lot with both the changing expectations towards to role of designers and the changing technological landscape. Eva Schicker’s The amazing T-shaped UX designer describes how being a T-shaped designer helps in dealing with these changes. A generalist horizontal arm contains all the different activities designers do in teams: research, UI design, prototyping, writing, visual design, and information architecture. The specialist vertical arm deepens the design expertise in one particular area, up to very specific expertise in a niche field.

The Spotify team has two articles showing two sides of the coin, how both specialists and generalists need to find their T-shape, Finding your T-Shape as a Generalist Designer and Finding your T-Shape as a Specialist Designer. Both feature cool stories on the designers’ personal journeys. Generalists need to have a basis specialty to anchor their breadth, and to get better as generalists they should build on their specialization. While specialists should look for adjacent generalist skills to balance their specialist skills.

One counterargument to having one specialty in being T-shaped is how difficult it is to be the best or at least at the top with also having the skills on the horizontal arm. A way around this is stacking skills, as Tomas Pueyo describes in How to Become the Best in the World at Something. In essence it means to not only get good enough (top 10%) in one skill, but in two or more, thereby having a unique and therefor valuable skillset that allows for solving particular sets of problems.

Being T-shaped becomes important if we are to build effective teams. Jason Yip writes about this in Why T-shaped people?. Generalists help teams to respond more quickly as everyone can pick up incoming tasks. Specialists meanwhile can clear bottlenecks quickly as they are more efficient in a particular area. Generalist skills also help in team communication, as people have some understanding of each other’s specialties. The article also describes a few alternative formulations for T-shapedness: icicle-shaped, paint drip, pi-shaped, m-shaped, and broken comb shape.

In T-shaped skills in every area of your life Blaz Kos introduces how being T-shaped skills are more important than ever, as they support the execution, something that is even more important than to just to have an idea about what to do. For example, just having good knowledge is not enough, broader knowledge of the context and soft skills (such as time management and collaboration skills) are also needed to get things done.

An alternative view and formulation to the T-shapedness is Kent Beck’s Paint Drip People. As he argues, skills are sometimes much more detached to form a meaningful T, and this metaphor is also not great to show changes over time. The Paint drip model of skills is better since it’s a clearer visual metaphor of how skills get developed over time.