By Marty Neumeier
You already have design skills, or you wouldn’t be making a living in a highly creative profession. But there’s a difference between design skills and design leadership skills. To be a design leader, you need to be slightly ahead of the curve, so you can articulate, apply and share new ideas. But you also need to be what I call an “X-shaped person.”
Allow me to explain.
Today there’s an increasing amount of talk in creative circles about the value of the “T-shaped person.” A T-shaped person is one who has deep expertise in one discipline (the vertical stroke of the T), and wide knowledge of related disciplines (the crossbar of the T). A good example is someone who not only excels in interior design, but also understands the related concerns of the architect, the construction boss, the client and developer. If you’ve mastered only interior design, no matter how deep your knowledge, you’re still an “I-shaped person” — someone with a great depth of talent, but perhaps lacking the ability to work seamlessly across disciplines.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the X-shaped person. An X-shaped person is someone who not only has T-shaped skills, but also the ability to lead a cross-disciplinary group — a kind of connector. An X-shaped person might be a great motivator, an inspiring coach, a practical dreamer, an empathetic manager or a revered practitioner. Most X-shaped people start out as I-people, grow into T-people, and finally become X-people. No one is born that way. It’s a journey.
Why are X-people valuable? Because today’s projects are increasingly complex, requiring a wider range of experts who can collaborate and think together. Anyone who can pull together the efforts of a group can transform it from a collection of egos to a fully functioning team, where the sum is greater than the parts.
Unfortunately, this is a subject that none of us was taught in school. We have to learn it on the job.
The Five Talents We Need Now
My book, Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age, explores this emerging need by introducing the five key talents, or master skills, of feeling, seeing, dreaming, making and learning.
Feeling is the talent of empathy and intuition. Seeing is the talent of systems thinking, or “seeing the big picture.” Dreaming is the skill of applied imagination. Making is design and design thinking. And learning is autodidacticism, or the ability to direct your own personal growth. These are the five talents that can turn great designers into great design leaders.
What makes metaskills important right now is the enormous wave of change brought on by accelerating technology. Call it metachange, or an increase in the rate of change. Across all creative professions, technology is rapidly automating or replacing many of the activities that have made designers valuable. Software is replacing hand illustration, online stores are replacing shops and ateliers, computers are replacing entire studios, and websites are offering free design advice to clients.
The “Robot Curve,” as I call it, is a constant waterfall of obsolescence and opportunity that puts downward pressure on the value and cost of work.
It goes like this: As soon as any aspect of creative work is understood well enough, it gets turned into skilled work. Skilled work then turns into rote work, which can be outsourced or reduced to a routine. Soon rote work turns into robotic work — work that can be done better or cheaper by software, computers, or actual robots.
To stay relevant, creative people need to stay ahead of the curve. Those who become complacent will find their value eroding as parts of their skill sets are selected out by technology. But those who can get ahead of the curve will find that automation works in their favor.
For example, if you were able to turn part of your knowledge into an iPhone app, you might be able to productize your skills and make an extra profit. Or, if you could help develop a piece of software that would automate the sourcing of design materials, you could out-maneuver your competition or charge a premium for your services. On a more mundane level, you could simply design a more cost-efficient process for collaborating with clients. These are all ways that the Robot Curve lowers the value and cost of work, while raising the profits of those who harness the curve.
How Are You Talented?
Everyone has a different capacity for developing his or her metaskills. There’s no right or wrong combination of talents, but it pays to know what your “go to” skills are. When you’re faced with a creative challenge, do you rely on your intuition or head right to your bookshelf? Do you sketch your way through a problem or close your eyes and imagine a solution? Do you listen to the ideas of others or start looking through fabric swatches or catalog views. Any of these approaches can work, but they’ll work best if you develop them according to a personal theory of creativity.
These are the things I want to talk about at the Design to Lead Summit, Presented by ASID. But you can start now by taking the Metaskills Quiz at www.metaskillsbook.com. After answering a few simple questions, you’ll be presented with your “talent handprint,” a chart that shows you which metaskills you rely on most. From there you can read the book to find out how to make the most of your personal talents. Bring your handprint to the Summit so I can see how you came out. Keep in mind that your talent handprint doesn’t assess how talented you are, but how you’re talented. It’s relative, not absolute.
Today’s creative professionals find themselves caught between two paradigms: the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, multivalent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge, whereas the new one turns on the axis of creativity. To cross the gap we’ll need a generation of designers and thinkers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed leaders who can inspire, surprise and connect with others to do what no individual can do alone. The opportunity is clear. Metachange needs metaskills, and design needs new leaders.
Marty Neumeier, director of Transformation at Liquid Agency, is a designer, strategic innovator and author of Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age, a manifesto for navigating the 21st century that provides a creative framework for designers and a compass for visionary leaders.