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Why Designers Need to Be ‘Specialized Generalists’

Being ‘T-shaped’ will make you more effective and more valuable

Should you be a generalist or a specialist designer?

You don’t have to choose. It turns out neither of them alone is enough. A combination of both makes you more valuable, employable, collaborative, and flexible. A great designer needs to know a lot about multiple things.

Some call it being T-shaped, a deep generalist, a specialized generalist, or even multi-hyphenate. If you want to succeed in the modern design world, this is what you have to become.

Time to move past two deficient labels

Generalists are thought of as jacks of all trades, masters of none. Their wide range of transferable skills makes them flexible to evolve their careers over time, but they trade breadth for a lack of depth, and most never achieve enough mastery in any one subject to be seen as experts or thought leaders. Generalists make good team players because their broad experience helps them talk across boundaries, but when it comes time for the nitty-gritty work they might find themselves drowning in the deep end.

Specialists are seen as experts in their field; the extra training and work experience they’ve gained has allowed them to attain deep mastery. They can command higher salaries and rise to more powerful positions. But a specialist’s narrow gamut of experience comes at a price. They have a smaller range of opportunities and are less flexible to pivot over time. A specialist might find it more difficult to collaborate because they lack understanding of their team member’s disciplines and challenges.

For centuries both generalists and specialists have found ways to thrive (although, as we’ll discuss later, the most innovative people in history have always been masters of more than one discipline).

But now A.I. and machines are coming to replace our jobs. Companies are demanding more creativity and efficiency from cross-disciplinary teams. Today’s workers can no longer operate in the same way they always have. Work is changing. Fast.

In short, designers need the expertise of specialists with the breadth and collaborative skills of generalists. Anything less isn’t good enough anymore.

Enter the T-shaped specialized generalist

IDEO’s Tim Brown talks about how they only hire T-shaped designers. Other companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google are following suit. Rather than requiring four-year degrees, they now put more emphasis on hiring well-rounded designers with cross-functional range, and they’re reaping the rewards of more effective problem solving on teams.

It’s not just employees that need to be T-shaped. The freelance career choice is growing like wildfire, and indie workers like me have found a distinct advantage in being specialized generalists.

It gives us the power to offer turnkey solutions to small business, where others would only be able to provide one piece of the puzzle. Specialized expertise helps us attract top-quality clients who want only the best, while generalist range provides a foundation of broad skills and cross-functional understanding that lets us think strategically, collaborate effectively, and grow our services to meet clients’ evolving needs.

What does “T-shaped” mean?

Imagine an uppercase T. The vertical line is your area of specialization. It represents depth or mastery of a discipline. People are generally recognized and employed for their specialization, and teams are built around people whose mastery of different disciplines complement each other.

The horizontal line of the T is your broad range of other complementary skills. This may include neighboring fields that crossover with your core discipline. It also includes soft skills that help you work better.

An interface designer may look like this:

If you develop great skill or mastery in more than one speciality, your T might start looking like an M as your peripheral experience deepens.

Empathy is a word often thrown around by modern designers, but it usually refers to empathy with the users of your designs. What makes T-shaped designers so powerful is a different kind of empathy: an understanding of the language and challenges of your collaborators and stakeholders. It’s empathy across the horizontal axis of your T.

This facilitates common connections and bridges of understanding between T-shaped team members across disciplines.

Designers who can stretch across a wide range of a project’s life cycle are sometimes referred to as unicorn designers. I can assure you that these unicorns do exist because I’m one of them.

I’ve written about how finding your niche is bullshit. It’s lazy and over-simplistic to advise that you must pick just one thing to specialize in if you want to stand out and excel. There’s plenty of time in life to become a master at multiple skills. Unicorns aren’t as difficult to catch as you think.

What makes T-shaped designers so powerful is a different kind of empathy. It’s an understanding of the language and challenges of your collaborators and stakeholders. It’s empathy across the horizontal axis of your T.

You can (and should!) master more than one thing

In The Case for Being a Multi-Hyphenate, author Ryan Holiday describes how the most successful people in history were masters of multiple disciplines, which he calls multi-hyphenate.

“Posidonius made breakthroughs in natural history, astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, geography, geology, seismology, ethnography, mathematics, geometry, logic, history, and ethics… in addition to working as a political advisor and military strategist at the highest levels.

In the not-so-ancient world, Ben Franklin was an author, publisher, printer, satirist, freemason, postmaster, politician, civic activist, scientist, and inventor. If that wasn’t enough, he happened to be one the world’s foremost meteorologists and experts on tornadoes! Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence… in a swivel chair he invented! (He also designed his own house.) The physicist Marie Curie, who is most famous for her work in radioactivity and developing mobile X-ray units in World War I, also managed to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific fields (physics and chemistry).”

You may try to explain this by the fact that their fields, in their time, were far less advanced than they are today. It was easier to master them because there was simply less to master. The further you go back in time, the easier it is to be a Renaissance man. But this is far too simplistic. There are plenty of multi-hyphenates in modern times, as Holiday points out.

“In truth, many of the greats of our time were or are multi-hyphenates. People forget that Tom Brady was drafted by the Montreal Expos, too — only a few rounds lower than he was in football. Dave Winfield could have gone pro in three different sports. LeBron James is a basketball player and a businessman, film producer, philanthropist, father, and many other things.”

Ask any T-shaped professional or multi-hyphenate, and they’ll tell you that being skilled at many things helped make them great at the one thing they’re known for. Expertise in one domain helps fuel excellence in another. Because, as Holiday says:

“Wisdom is fungible. The more you have of it — regardless of where you got it — the more places you can apply it.”

Multiple studies have shown that the best ideas can emerge from combining insights from fields that don’t seem connected. Only a generalist could make those innovative connections. But a generalist doesn’t have the deep understanding of any one area to follow through with those insights and implement their solutions as well as a specialist would. That’s why a specialized generalist is perfectly placed to lead collaborative projects and push forward innovative work.

David Epstein, author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, explains the benefits of breadth over depth in this interview:

“We miss out on wisdom if we’re too narrow. […] Specialists become so narrow that they actually start developing worse judgment about the world as they accumulate knowledge. […] Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer is your ability to take knowledge and skills and apply them to a problem or situation you have not seen before. And your ability to do that is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced. […] As you get more variety, you’re forced to form these broader conceptual models, which you can then wield flexibly in new situations.”

That right there is the true power of a specialized generalist: Your breadth helps make connections and insights that a narrow specialist wouldn’t have found, and then you can funnel those insights into the depth of your specialties to create really meaningful design decisions. You make discovering innovative solutions seem easy — because you’re seeing connections other people aren’t even looking for.

Where T-shaped designers get ahead

What does this mean for us designers on a practical level? It means our value increases exponentially as we grow the breadth of our knowledge. Here are a few examples.

My experiences as a T-shaped freelance designer

I consider myself an expert at UX and UI design. I’m pretty darn good (that’s an official, technical term) at a wide range of other design skills such as strategy, branding, front-end code, prototyping, CMS web development, and writing. I’m also adequate at things like research, naming, print design, and advertising.

I’m also an expert at the soft skills of running a design business: operating professionally and reliably; communicating effectively and setting expectations; managing projects, feedback, and time; and delivering above and beyond expectations. That’s a set of skills just as important to master as your design craft.

For some of my clients I do just a few of those things, so long as at least one of them overlaps with my deepest areas of expertise. Some make use of nearly all of those skills. I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t have gotten my best clients had I been a specialist in only one thing, or a generalist who hasn’t mastered any one of them.

I’ve even had clients who run their own design studios hire me at considerable extra expense because they couldn’t trust such important work to the one-dimensional designers in their employ.

Clients hiring freelancers don’t have the time to coordinate a team of specialists to get a single project done. They want the cross-disciplinary range and trusted expertise of a full-service agency, but they want it from a single person.

When they find that person, they fall in love and never let go. They latch on to you like The One Ring To Rule Them All, because you take their worries away and make their lives easier.

If you’re employed as part of a design team, the same T-shaped superpowers apply. Specialized generalists make more innovative problem solvers and better collaborative team players no matter where they work.

Unleash your unicorn powers

Are you a generalist whose lack of focused expertise is holding you back from doing exceptional work?

You’re a very reliable horse, but you need to grow a sparkly horn to stand out. Pick one or two of your favorite strengths and commit to mastering them. Become world-class at what you love most.

Are you a specialist who’s missing out on interesting opportunities because of your narrow range?

You’re an impressive horn, but you’re missing most of your horse body. Broaden up your horizontal T-bar by learning new skills that complement and add greater dimension to your specialty. One easy way to do this is to force yourself to learn by accepting design work that’s a bit outside your comfort zone.

A unicorn only achieves magic powers once its body and horn are both fully developed. You may be just one or two new skills away from becoming a truly epic designer.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.