Rethinking the T-Shaped Designer

Kevin McCullagh’s piece at core77 last week on T-Shaped Designers is worth exploring. It hinges around Geoff Mulgan’s critique* of social designers at a recent DMI conference. McCullagh emphasizes the need for designers to strengthen their vertical competencies in particular domains by focusing on deeper knowledge, craft skills and methods. His article is essentially a call for increased specialization.

I don’t know if I buy his wholesale dismissal of design generalists but his critique of the T-shape reminded me of Nick Marsh’s 2007 presentation where he introduced the idea of “bridge-shaped” design teams with multiple verticals [p74]. Service design leverages the deep verticals of the client organization itself through a co-design approach.

The core77 piece sparked a nice response over at Design Dialogues by Peter Jones. He considers the Optimal Geometry of Social Design and comes to an interesting conclusion:

So allow me to suggest the geometry of a wheel to replace the T-shape. A wheel with spokes — deep rounded Ts surrounding a hub in the center. The hub is the shared concern of the situation. Each member, joined at left and right around the wheel’s edge, represents one stakeholder in a collective social system. If you remove one member, you no longer have a wheel. If you remove the hub, the center or focus, you no longer have traction.

The wheel is essentially Nick’s bridge model, but wrapped around a common hub; a common focus. I like the implications for service design teams.

Note:* I haven’t read the substance of Mulgan’s critique of social design agencies and though McCullagh doesn’t seem inclined to share any examples I can only imagine they’re talking about RED, or maybe Participle. I’d be interested in hearing from other attendees about the validity of this critique.

Update: I dug up some fantastic visual notes on the DMI conference from Jonathan Hey. Mulgan’s talk is on the first spread, upper right quadrant.




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