Against T-shaped people

Consider this my plea for the design community to stop using the term “T-shaped people”. It’s demeaning, over-simplistic, misleading, and dangerously-influential, which combined with the prior three traits makes for trouble–that starts with “T”.

For those not familiar with the term, consider exhibit A: [IDEO]( A great design firm based in Palo Alto, with a penchant for coining viral phrases of design language. They have a hold of the business press that far outweighs their tiny size, and their latest popularized term is “T-shaped people” (actually though Tom Kelley and Tim Brown talk about it like its their own invention, it [has roots back to writer David Guest in 1991](

A “T-shaped person” is supposedly someone who has both deep expertise in one area (the leg of the T), plus a variety of experiences in other, often unrelated areas (the broad top of the T). This complexity supposedly allows them design super-powers, including unmatched creativity.

There are two problems with this phrase: T-shaped people don’t exist, and having T-shaped traits does not indicate design success.

Sure, plenty of people have both deep and broad experiences, including many great designers. But I’ve never met someone who is actually “shaped” this way. “Shape” is a defining term, referring to the actual form of a person. All the great designers I know (including several IDEO-ites) are much more than “T-shaped”–and they’re all shaped differently. Some do have both deep and broad experiences, but they’re a whole range of other things as well–passionate, objective, spiritual, literal, and dozens of other traits ranging all over and beyond Csikszentmihalyi’s “[ten dimensions of creativity](”. To refer to them as “T-shaped” ignores all these other essential parts of each designer. That is why I say that calling someone “T-shaped” is demeaning and over-simplistic. People shaped like “T”s just don’t exist.

[Unhappy Meals](, a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, discussed the way diets and the food industry focus on nutrients rather than on whole items of food.

> More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really?

Concentrating a marketing campaign or package design on a single “special” nutrient–e.g. ginseng, hoodia, carbs–is attractive to people seeking a magic bullet for their dietary needs. This is the way food fads grow, and fade, as the ingredient du jour is disproven and people flock to the next one. The article, by the author of the recent bestseller _[The Omnivore’s Dilemma](, concluded that the full mix of nutrients included in real foods–remember apples, carrots and tomatoes?–is the only thing that can truly satisfy our bodies’ needs. Similarly, design success comes only from the combination of a vast multitude of traits, people, and circumstances–it can’t be reduced to a single indicator.

So maybe what “T-shaped” could refer to is merely the possession of these two “nutrients”, whether or not there are other things involved. But even that would be misleading. I know all sorts of “T-shaped people”, those who are geeks by day and extreme sports nuts by night, who have PhDs in science and practice Buddhism. Some of them are creative and great designers–and many, many are not. Being “T-shaped” is simply not enough to indicate that someone is creative–it just means they might be mildly interesting at cocktail parties.

And if “T-shaped people” as a term is flawed, then its use to describe successful designers is flawed too. Real, complex, talented, experienced designers deserve more respect than this alphabetic-reductionism.

Want to find someone who is creative? Look at what they’ve created. But don’t call them “T-shaped”.