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Finding your T-Shape as a Generalist Designer

September 2022

Article

Article credits
Siri Johansson
Casey Cavanagh
Faith McAllister

“So, what kind of designer are you?” It’s a question all designers will encounter during their careers, whether it’s from someone you meet for the first time, an inquisitive family member, or fellow industry folk. Hey, you may have even asked yourself the question, in an existential sort of way. (We’ve all been there.)

In order to make sense of the complex web of design roles, it can be helpful to think of a generalist-specialist spectrum. While few designers would describe themselves as a “generalist” or a “specialist” at the first point of call – and the language is rather binary for the nuanced nature of the field – we can appreciate the essence of this scale in the view that every designer, with their unique skill set, falls somewhere on it. You may prefer to identify as a T-shaped designer though. In fact, every designer has some sort of T-shape!

At Spotify, we have a community of more than 400 designers and each band member possesses their own set of skills. Like an actual band, some people can play many instruments equally well, while others are virtuoso at one. Even the so-called specialists have multiple layers of knowledge and skill, though. So, what really makes a generalist or a specialist?

In this two-part series, we’ll talk to generalist and specialist designers at Spotify who identify themselves as such. We’ll dig into what they get up to on a daily basis, why they chose their path, what their skill set brings to a team, and what their T-shape – their design DNA – looks like. First up, we hear from two generalists, Siri Johansson and Casey Cavanagh, who share their T-shaped journey.

Siri Johansson, Staff Designer

As a generalist, what does your role at Spotify entail?

I typically work in the earlier stages of projects, on design strategy. Sometimes I follow through to delivery but this is rare. To me, the classic problem setting versus problem solving contrast is helpful when defining what sets generalists apart from specialists. If you put these on a scale, I’m further towards the problem-setting space and figuring out what we should do next. 

This means I combine what we know about user behavior and their needs, with the needs of the organization and its stakeholders. From there, I set direction and project tactics, ideally in close collaboration with product and tech partners. Sometimes I proactively propose new workstreams unasked, if a potential opportunity or problem has gone unnoticed. I use classic UI/UX prototyping skills and craft narratives to tell a convincing story of what we should do, and why.

I still care deeply about the quality of execution, but I’m the first to admit that it’s not where I excel. ‘Building the right thing’ and ‘building the thing right’ are equally important, so I leave decisions on how we achieve quality in delivery to colleagues who are specialists in design systems, accessibility etc.

What's your advice for people considering following a generalist path?

Don’t start out as a generalist. The way to be confident in a generalist role is to first put in the time to develop specialist skills. That might sound counterintuitive but the trick is to take specialist knowledge and be able to generalize it in other domains. You do that by following a path you’re passionate about, staying open-minded and absorbing tangential knowledge and skills along the way. Know that most design methodologies are applicable to any type of design. The material is where the specialist knowledge comes in. I’m initially trained in how to design for aluminum extrusion, plastic moldings, porcelain etc. as an industrial designer. Needless to say, that’s not something I have much use for in my day-to-day as a digital product designer. The materials change but the approaches and methods of need-finding, sketching, ideation, prototyping and so on – they’re the same. 

Having specialist skills is also (usually) what gets you hired as a junior designer, in my experience. You start a design career answering simpler, predefined questions and progress towards detangling more complicated ones – if you want to. A simple question, e.g. “What can we sit on?” can be solved in a multitude of ways (stools, chairs, sofas, etc.). Harder problems with many, and often conflicting, needs mean many possible ways of asking the question (What is our manufacturing capacity? What are markets that we want to break into? Who are our competitors? What constraints do our suppliers have? How do we monetize?), and the answers multiply to the power of X.

There’s a need for great specialists to answer questions easy and hard, but the latter kind benefits from generalists with an ability to pull from a big (and shallow) toolbox. You can work to own the question definition, or you keep honing your craft of solving predefined questions. That’s kind of how I see it. That’s the reason I moved on from industrial design. I thought the briefs were too set when they reached my table.

If you don’t specialize in a design discipline, how do you stand out?

Think about what design skills are detached from materiality, and applicable to any domain. Collect methods and experience that helps you tackle uncertainty and make you more comfortable working in foggy terrain. Become the expert of and go-to person for that. There’s more inertia in the generalist methodologies compared to a specialist who’s working with ever-evolving material technology, whether it be photo editing, pixel pushing or 3D printing. I don’t see problem definition and solutionizing in the intersection of people/business/technology being automated any time soon so there’s real longevity in that ability.

Depending on the design maturity of a company, a generalist might have a harder time explaining or showcasing their skills to the teams they work with, so be ready to lean in and initiate things without being asked to. People might not know what to come to you for at first.

What do generalists bring to a team? I think the crux here is, even as a generalist, you will have things you specialize in. But what I’d generally expect from someone in that role is the ability to effortlessly switch perspective between an ecosystem and vision level, by way of user flows, down to detailed design, and to understand how each decision affects the next level down.

Ultimately the way I think about my role, it’s about sense-making: helping others think better, together.

Casey Cavanagh, Senior Product Designer

To what extent do you consider yourself a generalist? Today I consider myself a product designer, full stop. That means I take a holistic approach to solving problems. Depending on the project, phase and need, I could be tackling multiple areas of speciality over the course of the work. 

This full-stack approach to product design has made it easier for me to grow in my career and also solve problems at the outset. I don't think I'd ever move back to a specialist role. As you'll see in my T-shape diagram, I do go deeper with my expertise in some areas than others and I like that. I like being someone that can be called upon for visual design and systems design work while still being able to tackle UX, content strategy, research, etc.

How did you know you wanted to go in this direction? What was the journey like? For the longest time, I considered myself a visual designer exclusively. Early in my career, I poured my energy into becoming the strongest visual designer and interface designer that I could be. I still care a ton about the craft and speciality of UI design but have since discovered the value in owning the design process from end-to-end. 

While it was great for people to come to me with those types of challenges, I felt like I was only solving a piece of a bigger puzzle in our work. 

At a former job, I had the chance to change roles and move to a small, startup-like project within the larger enterprise. Our design team was a small but mighty group of four passionate designers tackling a big problem. Because of that, it required us to flex to other areas. For me, that meant diving deeper into IA/UX work and learning the mechanics of research. When I later changed roles to another team, I was ready to become a design lead and own an entire workstream. That's when I feel like I officially started seeing myself as a generalist. I never looked back. Today, I still love the craft and skew toward visual design but I’ll never see myself through that singular lens again.

What types of work do you do as a generalist?

It depends on the work, really. Some days it's running a service design workshop and creating a journey map or blueprint; other days it's getting pixel-perfect prototypes ready for our engineers to build against. I'm also doing a lot more of my own research these days.

Right now, I’m working on improving our Spotify Advertising website experience. In the past few months, I’ve run a service design workshop, led usability research, helped write web copy, mocked up some brand imagery, built hi-fidelity prototypes and helped our engineers QA the components. If my role was more specialized, I maybe would have only touched a fraction of that work.

Being a generalist means that nothing is off limits in what you tackle in your role. I wouldn't have this confidence and expertise as a generalist if it wasn't for generous peers over the years who have given me the runway to learn and grow into these subject areas.

What's a benefit of being a generalist that people might not expect? Removing the barriers of "role" makes it easier to come to the table as a problem-solver.

It's easy to delineate work and roles once the problem is fully defined, but in the early stages, being a generalist means that you can bring all of your hats to the table. 

Another benefit is that there is an infinite amount of things to learn and grow in the craft. I'm always finding something new to go deep and learn about. Right now, for me, it's learning more advanced prototyping and motion design with tools like Framer and Protopie.

As a generalist, you’re invited to work across multiple elements of a project; use all the instruments you’ve learned how to play, and keep adding more strings to your T-shaped bow. But for Siri, being confident in a generalist role came from developing specialist skills first; for Casey, honing his craft as a visual designer helped him cast a wider net.  So, do all generalists have some degree of specialism? Some may argue that it depends on where you are in your career. Naturally, junior designers will have fewer specialist skills than their experienced counterparts, yet every designer – no matter their level of experience – will gravitate towards certain areas of the field more than others. Ultimately, it’s about finding out what kind of problems you enjoy solving and using this self-knowledge to guide the way.

Do you consider yourself a generalist? Have a go at answering the same questions we asked our designers and see what surfaces in your reflections. 

Stay tuned for part two, where we dig into the lives of two specialists at Spotify Design.

Credits

Siri Johansson

Staff Designer

Siri focuses on uncovering opportunities and leading early-stage ideation for the mobile experience. She likes choirs, thermos coffee, to make and to mend.

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Casey Cavanagh

Senior Product Designer

By day, Casey solves complex problems for advertisers. By night, he's an aspiring mixologist and singer-songwriter. He lives in Virginia with his wife, daughter, and rescue pup.

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Faith McAllister

Content Strategist

Faith supports the Spotify Design community by editing, writing, and curating stories on the blog. When she's not geeking out over grammar or adding to her list of favorite words, Faith leads vinyasa classes and sound baths across London.

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