Why Designer's Shouldn't Code & The T Shaped Designer

When I began my career as a designer, I was eager, motivated, and energetic. I was ready to be a part of the next big thing. I spent long nights and weekends improving my craft, preparing myself for the hot new projects that I just knew I would be assigned to. I created countless prototypes, design systems, and UX assets, eager to show executives that I was worthy of being part of the team.

Before I knew it, months had flown by and despite all my work and all my energy, I hadn’t been selected for anything. I was feeling increasingly frustrated, confused, and inadequate. Why hadn’t I landed a project yet? Why didn’t these managers, decision-makers, and executives recognize the value I could bring to their projects?

I did eventually find projects, but it took years in the design business for me to understand what had stymied my first aspirations. There had been no shortage of opportunities to apply my design skills to meaningful projects, and no shortage of executives who might have been receptive to my ideas. It wasn’t them. It was me. What was I doing wrong as a novice designer? The things I was doing, the skill-building, the personal projects — these were fine. The problem was that I didn’t have the right perspective. I was missing the big picture. As it happens, this problem of perspective is one that a lot of designers are burdened by today.

As designers, we have the skills and the knowledge base to contribute crucial insights and solutions to countless strategic problems on both the local and global levels. Too often, however, we are too focused on our own discipline to identify and articulate these problems and solutions from the broader perspectives of the people we work with and the people we are building solutions for. While we are busy debating the value of new design tools and job titles, we find ourselves talking past the other stakeholders in our projects — the engineers, the managers, the executives — everyone from the support service staff to the shareholders.

Designers, like many technology professionals, have developed an internal process of continual reflection, self-improvement, and self-definition. This is far from a bad thing — it greatly enhances our collective and individual skills and improves the quality and applicability of our day-to-day work. You’ll never hear me criticize continual self-improvement! At the same time, putting all our energy into improving our own craft can actually hinder our ability to make an amazing impact in the world. Designers don’t operate alone, and we can lose track of the fact that the end result of our design process is to help other people achieve their own goals.

Whether we call ourselves UX Designers, Product Designers, Visual Designers, or Full Stack Designers — and no matter how much knowledge we may have of tools like Sketch, Omnigraffle, Invision, and Axure — we have a common end in mind: we all yearn for our work to have a tremendous impact on the world for good. For that to happen, we have to deepen our ability to collaborate. If designers are going to be truly effective, it is vital that we build a broader range of skills and perspectives.

If you have the latest hot job title, know the best tools, and are insatiably passionate, then why aren’t you sitting at the table making important decisions? I learned the answer to this question the hard way, but you don’t have to. After I had been passed over for several projects, I started asking leaders why this was happening. Through these conversations and my subsequent years of experience, I came to an important realization about my early career and the mistakes I was making. Sadly, these are mistakes that a lot of designers — even experienced designers — are still making today. There were three critical areas where I was falling down:

  1. I pitched design solutions without first identifying, understanding, and articulating the problem from the perspective of leaders, team members, and stakeholders.

  2. I exclusively spoke the language of design rather than learning and speaking the language of other disciplines.

  3. I neglected the nuances of my work relationships, failing to recognize the differing needs of engineers, managers, marketers, and other team members.

To fix these problems, I needed to do three things:

  1. I needed to shift my focus from solving the problem to defining and communicating the problem — from solely developing designs to fully understanding and articulating the need for them.

  2. I needed to understand the languages of other fields, both so that I could understand what they were saying to me, and so that I could express my own ideas and insights effectively to them.​

  3. I needed to develop empathy for the needs of the other people in my professional environment.

These skills are outside the scope of the craft of design, yet the development of these skills is critical to becoming more effective as a designer.

The T Shaped Designer A good designer is a master of design processes and tools. A great designer applies those skills to solve broader problems through informed empathy with the complete range of stakeholders. Tim Brown, the noted CEO of IDEO and a strong advocate of the value of design in solving all kinds of problems, calls a leader who has both these abilities “T-shaped”.

T-shaped people have two important characteristics, which Brown represents as the two strokes forming the letter “T”. The vertical stroke of the “T” represents one’s depth of skill or expertise in a single discipline, whether that be design, computer programming, culinary arts, or whatever one’s primary discipline may be. The horizontal stroke of the “T” represents the breadth of one’s ability to collaborate across disciplines. This collaborative ability requires both empathy (the capacity to imagine a problem from another person’s perspective) and curiosity, an enthusiastic drive to learn about other disciplines — even to begin practicing those disciplines.

It isn’t difficult to see how this combination of attributes — excellence in one’s chosen field and the power to collaborate with people in other fields — can make a designer far more effective in their work. As designers, being T-shaped means we bring design thinking and skills to bear on projects drawing from a wide range of disciplines. We work with professionals in a wide variety of fields and together we frame problems from multiple alternative perspectives, allowing us to view problems as a whole rather than in only one narrow and confining frame. We collaborate to find creative solutions to strategic and global problems.

Understanding how these outside disciplines come together is crucial to maximizing the impact you have as a designer. 

Business: Understand how to foster cross-disciplinary relationships to make your organization run more effectively. Discover how systems thinking gives you and your team a deeper and more insightful perspective on the way things work.

Strategy: Comprehend how economy of force limits what your organization can do and how you must optimize the way you use your resources to optimize your outcomes. Use Occam’s Razor to reduce analysis paralysis and focus in on what’s truly critical. Learn how to use competitive advantage to develop economies of scale and thrive when competition builds.

Economics: Determine how to use the Pareto Principle to learn where to focus most of your efforts for any task or project. Understand how the Law of Diminishing Returns determines your overall productivity and how to make sure you’re investing your resources optimally.​

Psychology: Understand psychological principles that are useful when pitching a new idea, communicating to a team or just working with your coworkers.​

Product: Discover how the “adoption lifecycle” plays a major role in knowing when to launch new products for maximum uptake and why socioeconomic status play a role in knowing how fast new technologies will be adapted throughout a society. Understand how creating product-market fit can turn an OK product idea into a world-sweeping game-changer.

Technology: Understand how innovation can both disrupt and rebuild product markets, and where new technological revolutions are likely to originate. In the next articles, I will discuss each section in more depth. 

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