As you probably already know—I'm a big fan of the "T-shaped" mindset. So much so, that I dedicated the notion of it on my personal Website. The first time I read about this was in an Article in Fast Company written by IDEO's Tim Brown. The article is called "Strategy By Design". It's a must read. Here's a snippet of how Tim describes a "T-Shaped" individual.
"We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them "T-shaped people." They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T -- they're mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That's what you're after at this point -- patterns that yield ideas."
This notion instantly connected with me. I approach creativity as a "generalist"—blending skills in multiple areas. Recently I thought about what my "T" would look like if I visualized it. I put my "principal skill" in the vertical leg as "design". I've always been one kind of designer or another. Then I put my "branches" in the areas of brand strategy and user experience. These seemed to be the best labels I could come up with regarding how I approach my work (or at least try to).
But lately I've been wondering—is there another way to look at this? What if we took a more basic human truth. Most of us have some kind of passion in a specific area. For some—it's a hobby or interest. For others, it's directly related to our work. I fall into the latter category. If you were to ask me what my "passion is"—I would probably say that at the core, it's creative problem solving. This is pretty broad and incorporates a lot of disciplines that can relate to it. But that's the point. What if we start with our passions regardless of discipline, and look at the skills which radiate out from it the same way we think about how rays from the sun radiate warmth?
OK, I know I'm getting a bit literal here. And I'm not proposing another way to bucket ourselves. But it was interesting to try this. Once I started doing the second visual here—when I began with my core passion vs. competency, it was easy for the "rays" to flow out from the center. I learned something about myself while doing this. More importantly it makes me think about the bigger implications of being a "passionate professional". I wonder how individuals like this fare in risk-averse corporate settings where the focus is primarily "the bottom line". Most corporations will tell you that they want passionate people who think differently. But what happens when they get one? What do they do with these types of individuals?
How does a company like Google operate behind the scenes? I don't know since I don't work there, but I wonder if it's different from companies who seem to be averse to taking risks and experimenting. And who are the Sun-shaped people out there anyway? Are they designers? Are they businesspeople? Are they entrepreneurs? Are they the ones doing all the "2.0" stuff out there?
Labels. It's a double edged sword. Who is a designer exclusively these days anyway? Who is an "Ad guy/gal"? Who's still making widgets? (in the economic sense) Are you? Call it T-shaped—call it Sun-shaped. How has your job description changed in the past 6 years? I hear a lot about information Architects doing storyboards and incorporating storytelling into the process—I don't remember this 7 or 8 years ago. I see Art Directors concerned about usability. I see designers writing. I see Planners being part of the creative process—part of the solutions.
I don't see this all the time—but I often wonder if we'll be seeing this more or less frequently in the years to come. What is your job title anyway? Can you narrow it down to one thing? One thing that I like about the Sun-shaped model is that, metaphorically speaking—it's about shining and radiating. It's about sharing warmth vs. keeping it to yourself. And like the actual Sun, people—just like planets tend to gather 'round it.
Food for thought.