Eclectic Generalists and Pi-Shaped People

Here’s food for thought for all designers, UX or otherwise:1

Not long ago, designers were eclectic generalists. They studied art, science, and religion in order to understand the basic workings of nature, and then applied what they learned to solve the problems of the day. Over time, the quantity and complexity of accumulated knowledge led to increased specialization among designers, and breadth of knowledge was increasingly traded for depth of knowledge. This trend continues today. As designers become more specialized, awareness of advances and discoveries in other areas of specialization diminishes. This is inevitable and unfortunate, since much can be learned from progress in other design principles.

I like this quote, if only for the elegant validation of “eclectic generalists” everywhere. It brings to mind Emily Wapnick’s concept of a multipotentialite, someone possessed by “a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime.” Leonard da Vinci was a such a man, perhaps the Platonic ideal of a multipotentialite; as Wikipedia summarizes, his “areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.” Not only was he possessed by all these interests, he was good at the them too.

And there’s the rub: the challenge with generalists is they can be useless. “A jack of all trades, master of none,” as the saying goes. It’s a real problem, especially in our distracted world with our darting attention spans. But generalizing can be good, and that’s embodied in the original version of the quote just given:

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one

And that brings me to what I’ve been thinking about: the letters T and I, and the number π (pi).

  • An I-shaped person is a specialist. They’re good at one thing, and they do that one thing well. But they lack breadth. This might apply to a designer who is frustrated because they don’t understand the constraints of a developer, or a businessman who lacks any knowledge of the liberal arts. They’re the “master of one.”
  • A T-shaped person is possesses both breadth and depth. Their interests go wide (hence the top part of the “T”) but they have at least one specialty (hence the vertical line of the “T”). They can wear many hats, like a designer who can also code a working prototype, or a developer who has knowledge of some design, or a businessman who has read widely across marketing, sales, design, product management, and perhaps letters, history, and the sciences too!
  • A Pi-shaped person is someone with at least two specialties. This is the designer who can code, or the coder who can design. This is also the Information Technology specialist who can easily be promoted, because he also understands the business side and can manage people. This is the unicorn, the term for the rare player: the guy who can play great offense and defense in basketball, or (as mentioned just now) the guy who can do strategy, design, code, and QA. It’s the person who can not just wear many hats, but make it look good.

Specialty is important. We need a strong technical background. But so is holism, the ability to think deeply and broadly; to approach a problem from many angles. This in itself is critical to critical thinking. I frequently find that my best insights come from making a connection between politics and biology, or design and astronomy, or simply between UX and instructional design, or voice interface and graphical interface design. These multidisciplinary efforts yield new insights. They can also prevent great harm or unintended consequences, by considering a problem from many angles.2

I don’t have any advice on how to become a t- or pi-shaped person, except perhaps “read a lot” and “talk to a lot of people about interesting things.” I tend to mentally ricochet across many subjects, coming back to each often enough that over time, I develop expertise. It’s not, I grant you, the most efficient method. But for me, it’s tremendously effective, in large measure because it’s tremendously enjoyable. More systematic approaches–tackling one area and working on it for weeks or months or even years–before moving are also recommended, and this discipline of attention and thought can be tremendously important.

But I’ll end with this note: being a t- or pi-shaped person is exciting. I heard one religious scholar, referencing the Biblical myth of Genesis and Fall of mankind in Christian thought, say “the adventure lies outside the garden.” I like the thought, and I think the insight applies to the gardens of our own professions, or our own disciplines. There is much to do within our own areas, but exciting things and terrific adventures come as we collaborate. Designers must collaborate with developers, QA, strategists, and businessman to develop a great product and make it successful. Listen to David Christian give his famous TED talk, “The history of the world in 18 minutes." He began as a Russian historian (and a pre-eminent expert on the history of vodka in Russia!), and then branched out to find a narrative that absorbed not just Russian history, but human history, the evolution of life, the formation of stars, and the Big Bang. And while describing this, he is visibly excited, and passionate about his project to unite the sciences and humanities and history.

A breadth of knowledge can be thrilling, as can the pleasure of honing your craft and specialty. Obviously, we seek both. Be a t- or pi-shaped person!

  1. This is from Universal Principles of Design, by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. ↩︎

  2. Sheryl Cababa tackles this brilliantly in her book Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers↩︎