While I was researching Glimmer
, I came across the phenomenon of “T-shaped people,” as originally explained to me by Tim Brown
, head of the renowned design firm IDEO.
A T-shaped person, as Brown explains it, is someone who starts out with a deep interest and expertise in one skill (that’s the vertical base of the T) but then keeps branching out to gain new expertise in many different areas of knowledge (that’s the top of the T).
Brown says a T-shaped person tends to make for a good designer, because that willingness to learn and to keep branching out into new areas allows a designer to take on all kinds of challenges and adapt to any working situation. “To respond to the complexity of design problems today,” Brown says, “we’ve found that if someone has an enthusiasm or curiosity about many different subjects and disciplines, then they can be more flexible, more empathetic, and more engaged with the world.” Brown adds that both parts of the T should keep growing together as one’s career advances—the core expertise should get deeper and stronger, while new skills and knowledge are always being added to expand the T-top. “So ideally, people might come to IDEO as, say, an 8-point T and gradually become a 64-point T,” Brown says.
T T T
Of course, you don’t have to be a designer to be a T-shaped person. There are lots of us out there in many different fields: People who are incurably curious, who like picking up new skills and crossing disciplines, and whose interests seem to venture far and wide. But T-shaped people aren’t always appreciated—particularly in traditional academic and corporate settings, where specialization is prized. John Maeda
, president of The Rhode Island School of Design and a renowned designer himself, told me that all through college and his early career, “I was doing so many different things”—Maeda was interested in graphic design, computer science, physics—“my teachers would say, ‘John, just do one thing.’ It’s the curse of the curious. It’s seen as being wrong somehow.”
Actually, it’s anything but wrong: One could argue that living the T-shaped life is the only sensible way to go. It exposes you to more ideas, fresh possibilities and new opportunities. It keeps you from being pigeonholed. And it keeps things interesting.
The designer Bruce Mau told me he believes that the key to finding satisfaction, both personally and professionally, is to intentionally and constantly “keep moving away from what you know.” Which is kind of counter-intuitive: Most people tend to design their lives and careers so that they are usually on firm, familiar turf, intellectually speaking. They go with what they know, and try to increase their expertise. But Mau and many other designers take a different approach, venturing wide as well as deep.
If you continue to do this over time—continually venturing wide and then burrowing deep in one area of knowledge, and then going wide and deep again in a new area, and so on—your life becomes not just one T but more like a series of T’s linked together. The horizontal line traces your continued movement into new areas of knowledge, while the vertical drop-down lines represent each deep dig into a subject before you move onto the next one.
By designing your life as a series of connected T’s, you’re building a broad base of knowledge, which is, apparently, a very Eastern thing to do, according to RISD’s Maeda. He told me that back in those days when he was struggling to understand why he was so “unfocused” and as he was beginning to doubt himself, “one of my teachers in Japan said, ‘No John, it’s actually quite simple. There are two ways of life. In the Eastern way, you’re building a broad base, while the Western way is focused and you’re building straight up, and you get much higher, more quickly.’”
It struck Maeda that the higher, faster approach seemed more productive, and his professor said it was—in the short run. “But he explained that when you get older, the beauty of the ‘broad’ method is you’ve built this great, grand symmetrical heap, kind of like Mount Fuji, that is solid and cannot be moved. Whereas in the Western approach, the one thing you’ve made keeps going up and up, but it’s thin and fragile. And if something goes wrong, the whole thing falls over.”
For a classical example of someone who has designed life as a series of T’s—constantly learning and mastering a new subject before moving on to the next—check out this interview with Richard Saul Wurman
, one of the featured designers in Glimmer
, best known for creating the immensely successful TED Conference. Wurman maintains that the greatest design project for any of us is designing one’s own life—and doing it in such a way that “every day is interesting.” And the best way to do that, he advises, is to keep moving away from what you know, and immersing yourself in what you don’t know. In other words, live life to a T.
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.