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Who is On the Ideal Design Thinking Team? Part I

Knowing the Shapes of Your Members May Enhance Your Team

While most of us already know what “T-shaped” means, it is disputed if “T-shaped people” really make the best design thinking team members. And what about all of those who aren’t “T-shaped”?

This scenario might be familiar. You find yourself constantly confronted with the latest recruiting and design thinking buzzwords. They’ve have been flying around in your office, but you are not exactly sure what they actually mean.

Sometimes you might even leave meetings scratching your head and asking yourself rather strange questions like, “I have been working out 3 times a week for several months now, am I “T-shaped” yet?” or “What does it even mean to be a Pi-shaped (π) person, and why should I care about them?  I’m getting hungry!”

All too often we hear terms we are not familiar with but we don’t dare to interrupt meetings and ask what they mean, because we’d rather not “look stupid” in front of our colleagues and clients.  But with so many of us asking ourselves such peculiar questions, a reality check is long overdue. (Especially when Google can’t even give you a clear answer in less than 30 seconds!)

Even without any knowledge of the latest jargon, one thing is certain: People do, in fact, come in all shapes and sizes. But can there really be people shaped like letters?

Where did all of these letter people come from?

The origin of the term “T-shaped” is unclear. Some sources credit Dave Roberts of IBM with coining it in 2001, while others claim it was, Bill Moggridge, the co-founder of IDEO, who came up with the phrase T-shaped people.

Regardless of where it originated, IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, is largely credited for popularizing and advocating it in his interview with Chief

In the interview, Brown explains that T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics. One, represented by the Source: Pierre Phaneuf vertical bar of the T, is their expertise in a certain field. The other, depicted by the horizontal bar, is their disposition for collaboration across disciplines. The horizontal bar itself consists of two important aspects: empathy, which describes each person’s ability to imagine him or herself in the customer’s shoes, and the amount of enthusiasm that each person has about the various kinds of expertise of the others.

Countless people and companies have latched onto the term “T-shaped” and entire theories and systems have been built based upon it. These theories and methods now include letters from almost the entire Latin alphabet and even some Greek letters and random characters.

In the following list, which is by no means exhaustive, we would like to try to sort out the difference between some of the most common letters used to describe people on design thinking teams for you.

The Most Common Shapes

Understanding the Basics: Vertical and Horizontal Bars

In general, the vertical bar(s) stand(s) for expertise or knowledge while the horizontal bar(s) stand(s) for soft skills related to teamwork abilities and the levels of interest, enthusiasm and empathy a team member has for ideas and knowledge from people with other specializations.

  • I-Shaped: People who have deep expertise in one field only.Source: Shutterstock
  • Hyphen-Shaped (-): These people have some expertise in many fields, but cannot be considered experts in any of them. They have empathy for and interest in others’ expertise and great social skills. In other words, they are generalists.
  • T-Shaped: People who have in-depth knowledge in one field as well as empathy and enthusiasm about others people’s expertise.
  • Pi-Shaped (π): Have two, normally separated areas of expertise and the capability to connect these two areas of expertise in a meaningful way.
  • H-Shaped: Act as bridge builders, having the ability to interconnect two experts of otherwise unrelated categories. These are similar to hyphen-shaped people, but they might dive deeper into the details.

Shapes That Intersect

In general those shapes depict people with two different areas of expertise which naturally benefit each other.

  • V-shaped: The most basic form of a cross shape. This person has two areas of expertise which are naturally connected to each other.
  • Y-shaped: An advanced form of the V-shape.  This type of person has two separate areas of expertise which naturally overlap and are extended by a third skill or combined into one.

Another Interesting One


The E stands for four E’s rather than having 3 horizontal components. They are:

  • Experience
  • Expertise
  • Execution
  • Exploration

The most important one here might be execution because, according to Sarah Davanzo,
“People (workers) today also need to be able to execute.  As they say, ideas are like noses, everyone has one. I’m tired of people coming to me with a great idea or invention, but with no clue how to bring it fruition. Real genius is being able to execute ideas.”

We hope this blog post has cleared a few things up for you when it comes to letter-shaped people and what these terms all mean. If you liked it, please share it with your friends or post it on LinkedIn or Twitter.

So, now that we’ve got you wondering what shape you are and what all of these shapes mean for your design thinking team, we’d like to invite you to keep checking openPDA for our next blog post directly related to this topic entitled, “How to Assemble Your Team and Utilize Their Full Potential”.

This post was originally posted on openPDA, the ressource platform for Design Thinkers.

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Nice article

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel

      nice blog - keep them coming Simon Posch 🙂