he first ever product I was hired to design was a professional woodworking machine for Wadkin Bursgreen, a venerable British company. The challenge was a simple oneto make the machine a bit easier to use and more modern without being more expensive to make. I brought the traditional skills of the industrial designer to the tasksketching, modeling, mechanical drawings (there were no CAD systems in the North East of England in those days), a bit of user observation and some time spent on the factory floor learning how the machine was made. I think I did a pretty good job and you can still find the results of my work in factories and woodshops over twenty-five years later. Unfortunately you won't find the company itself. They went out of business just a few years later. I hadn't realized that the problem wasn't so much woodworking machines as the future of the woodworking industry.
Today, if I was to be invited by a company like Wadkin to look at their product line I would ask a very different set of questions than simply what should their future products look like. I would look for opportunities to innovate, for them to be more competitive, to satisfy the latent needs of customers, to supplement products with services and knowledge, perhaps even to move to an entirely different industry. Needless to say, as a twenty year-old, still wet-behind-the-ears industrial designer, I was woefully unqualified to ask (or answer) any of these questions. I knew nothing about innovation, business models, service frameworks, or competitive analysis, and I lacked the strategy and storytelling skills to convince the client of the merits of my point of view even if I had a good idea.
This is not a new problem. The management consultants long ago realized that only certain kinds of people thrived in the unpredictable world where clients might ask an almost infinite set of questions. McKinsey and Company came up with the idea of hiring what they termed 'T-shaped' people. People with deep analytical skills (the vertical stroke of the T) but also broad empathy toward those other skills and disciplines encountered in business (the horizontal stroke of the T). These highly adaptable, rapid learners turned out to be ideal management consultants.
I have been arguing for quite some time that the same is true for designers. All successful designers need deep skills in the divergent, synthetic processes that make up design thinking, but equally they need the 'empathy gene' that allows them to learn about and work with the many disciplines that lie behind successful design and innovation. Of course this is far easier to preach than to practice, and I have just a little bit of advice to offer the designer struggling to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of change.
For starters, nothing beats working with interdisciplinary teams when it comes to strengthening the empathy gene. It reduces the mystery of other crafts and it helps build a common language. It also has the added advantage that over time, you win converts to the design cause, as engineers, marketing and finance folks begin to see the potential of applying their skills to creative pursuits.
Personally, I found the two biggest challenges to being really T-shaped came in the form of the mechanics and politics of business. Early in my career I found myself confounded by how business seemed designed to make innovation hard. It was only as I learnt to think of business as a design problem that I found myself thinking of the challenges of cost and efficiency, or of organizational politics, simply as more constraints to the design problem; I stopped seeing them as the enemy and instead as materials to be thrown into the mix. They can still be frustrating of course, but at least now I am able to see them as factors I can affect with creative thinking.
As the design problems we are being asked to tackle get ever more complex, we can no longer operate under the false assumption that we as individual designers can craft appropriate solutions. Rather than aspiring to be polymaths or modern day Leonardo's, it is being T-shaped that is the key to success in the expansive landscape of modern design.
Tim Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO, a design consultancy that contributed to such standard-setting innovations as the first mouse for Apple, the Palm V, and Bank of America's "Keep the Change" account service. Tim speaks regularly on the value of design thinking and innovation to business and design audiences around the world. His book Change By Design details how design thinking transforms organizations and will be published at the end of September by HarperBusiness.