Square pegs, dodecahedral holes (part 1)

9696636726_7ca973a595_zBy Louisa Heinrich (cross-posted from my personal blog – the original is here.

How did you get the job you’ve got? What other kinds of jobs could you get? I’ve had cause to think about this again lately, since I’ve been invited to participate here in i4j. That happened just as a totally arbitrary reminder came up that I was going to write something about T-shaped vs. Q-shaped vs. Square vs. Dodecahedral (I made that last one up) people.

My perspective on this stuff is perhaps a bit unusual – the field I studied isn’t the field I work in. But the skills I learned are applicable on a daily basis. So whenever I’m writing a job spec, I find it really difficult to fill in the bit about Educational Requirements – I’m honestly far less interested in the degree a person has than how well they are able to think about whatever they’re going to need to think about. Moreover, I think when we look for a 1:1 relationship between degree and job title, we miss out on a lot of opportunities, both candidates and employers.

A lot of what I consider a good education is to do with learning how to think rather than how to apply the thinking. If you know how to think critically, think creatively, think laterally, that’s a solid foundation. You can learn new ways to apply that thinking throughout your career, as well as honing the core skills by using them in various ways.

A few years ago I had a conversation with the dean of a highly regarded UK University on this topic – she was asking me what kinds of people I generally looked for (I was with Fjord at the time), with an eye to how she might adjust her curricula within the design disciplines. I think she might have found the conversation somewhat frustrating – I was less interested in talking about software packages and specific prototyping methods than I was in things like negotiation skills, conceptual translation, lateral thinking, psychology and so forth. When pushed, I was adamant that the more different aspects of design (interaction, information architecture, visual design, front-end development) an individual at least understood – not to say I’d expect equivalent expertise in all of them, but at least a basic knowledge of how they all work and the processes involved – the better, as far as I was concerned. Teams work better when the team members understand each other’s work.

This opinion is of course influenced by my background. I have a degree in Theatre, along with strong studies in Anthropology and Literary Criticism. In my Theatre programme, we were all required to learn everything, at least for one semester. Whether you wanted to be an Actor, Scene Designer, Costumer, Playwright, Director, Stage Manager, Choreographer or anything else, you had to take at least one course in every discipline. You also had to do the practical work in the Scene and Costume shops, to get a really solid understanding of how it all came together. This made us all able to work together far better – not only did we all understand and respect what everyone did, but we were usually able to pitch in and help in a pinch. It made us more employable, but more importantly it made us all better company members. We were also encouraged to study Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology – anything that helped us understand audiences, the thinking went, would make us better storytellers.

In my career, I’ve held a lot of different titles and learned a whole load of different skills – when I started, there was no such thing as Interaction Design. We all figured it out as we went along, and many of us had backgrounds in seemingly ‘useless’ areas – Philosophy, Theatre, etc.

In some ways, I think my background has served me better than one in, e.g., Interaction Design might have – not that there was any such thing when I was at University. I got a very rich background in pattern spotting and translation, thinking about concepts from various angles (the director, the actor, the audience, the critic); how people think and why they think that way (ethnography and sociology, the evolution of thought, behaviour and cognition). I use these skills every day, and they are a big part of what make me good at what I do. But I’m pretty sure that if I walked out of University today with the same degree, I’d have a very hard time getting a job in my industry.

I have no idea what ‘shape’ I would be in the eyes of the average recruiter, and I’m pretty glad I don’t have to go through that process again. I’m interested in how we could shift these attitudes from forcing people – students, candidates, employees – to shove themselves into boxes that might not be the right shape for them, to shaping roles around what people can bring to the table. I think there’s a chance we all might come out ahead.

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