When you're more of a line shape than a T-shape
Where do I belong?
Some companies say they love generalists. And they do, to an extent. What they usually mean is someone that is "T-shaped" and has exposure to a number of tangential fields, but can go in depth into one. My MFA program at Products of Design can generate T-shaped individuals, but most often for someone previous background in design, such as industrial or graphic design. For the rest of us, who come from anything from engineering to ceramics to millinery, that isn't necessarily the case.
As someone who fits in the latter category without a clear understanding of the different design disciplines, I was relieved to have exposure to a number of options. It's a great way to find yourself, but not as great if you're looking to jump right in to a corporate job. Being versed in a number of design fields means we're well-suited for start-ups where the expectation is to do a little bit of everything, as needed. For a more traditional role? Finding the right box to check is a challenge on all sides.
you could call it networking
Or you could call it primary research.
My MFA graduation ceremony was a little over one month ago, which has given me some time to grapple with where my program leaves me in terms of prospective jobs. I've had coffee meetings with alumni, instructors, people in industry, and subsequent connections. Coffee meetings combine a few of my favorite things - coffee and talking to people I admire, but I like them even more when I think of them as going through interviews in the design process (for designing my future).
Here's what I've learned.
I spoke to one of the program alumni who chose a similar thesis topic on education. I'd met with him once during in the semester to help me find my footing, but this time I wanted to think about whether I saw myself going into the education field, or go more broadly into design consulting. He works for an educational start-up, and wound up working there in the midst of networking to further his thesis work post-graduation.
He told me that no one is quite sure where we fit in. In a lot of ways, we learn to do the work of a full consulting agency, but that doesn't fit neatly into one role. For him, that meant creating a role that was needed but didn't exist yet. It's not an easy process, or a quick one. There may be a time where they want to let you go because they aren't sure where your true value lies.
Throughout the program, I've been drawn more to systems thinking, user research, user experience, and user testing over more traditional product roles. Role-wise, that means I've gravitated toward design strategy and more broadly, user experience (UX). I was never quite sure how to distinguish design research and design strategy, because my impression was that it differed from company to company. I asked one of my instructors from the first year, who taught our systems class, if we could discuss design strategy.
Design strategy is a spectrum. For example, if a company, such as Cadillac, goes to a consulting firm asking for what to do for their next car, there are three approaches a strategy firm can take.
My interpretation was the following:
Tier 1: Business
Tier 2: Design Thinking
Tier 3: Vision
On one level (tier 1), there's the business analysis - what is happening in the market, the competitive landscape, and trend forecasting. The result is likely to be a hybrid car based on what other people are working on or already doing. At the next level (tier 2), there's asking what problems aren't being solved through current designs. This is the level that is most tailored to our program, and where you see the philosophies of design firms such as Frog or IDEO. The end result may be designing for a customer segment that is underserved, or designing for a certain experience, such as a road trip. The final level (tier 3) is about the company vision. While the business analysis or problem reframing happens at a brand level, corporate vision is a tier higher, working with CEO's and executives. Instead of looking at what's trending, or what certain problem areas may be, the questions becomes about how the company sees itself, and where it wants to be in the future. That's not to say that the tiers are mutually exclusive, but depending on the priority, you can imagine the results will be very different. An approach that is more dependent on what other companies are already doing is likely to be more reactive than one set on creating a new vision for itself.
What was interesting about this conversation in particular was how I fit into the strategy equation. Based on my background in engineering, my instructor indicated that while it would be seen as a plus in some companies, he imagined it wouldn't be a great fit for the strategy firm that he had worked for - rather, that the engineering training would be something to move beyond. I can see the concern. Coming from engineering and having several peers that did likewise, the ideas and thought process can be stiff - when you're too rooted in the practicalities creativity can be stifled.
I spoke to a senior strategist that works for the same firm. I'd met him through the job fair at my school, and he has given me everything from book recommendations to advice on troubleshooting an experience design project. We talked about a number of things, but when it came to my previous degree, his opinion was contradictory to my instructor. Rather, he thought my engineering background was something to play up, because of the way it is likely to inform my design process. The rigor and roots in practicality can be seen as a positive, an indication of systems thinking and implementable solutions.
We also talked about the difficulties in graduating from a generalist program. His wife went through something similar (but a decade before), and encountered a similar situation - companies would be intrigued by the projects but, depending on the role would say "we're looking more for a designer" or "we're looking more for a strategist." His company, who has hired an alum in the past, has a similar perspective. The skills we come out with are not at the level that their company expects for incoming strategists, yet are too high for a pure production role. There's no clear answer with what to do with people who lie in the middle (other than not hire them?). If a company doesn't know if you can meet the required core competencies, they won't hire you, even if you have other skill sets that would be beneficial.
Connections are great because the people that get back to you are most likely to have some form of interest in either project work or a job - the connector will be looking for a good fit, and the connection is unlikely to get back to someone that isn't a potential match. I met with a founder of an education-based start up through an introduction from an instructor, and left with project leads and further introductions.
Takeaways for Generalists
Talk to people in fields you might be interested in
Sometimes you don't know where to start looking. A lot of the companies and resources were things I would have never found on my own, or thought to consider. You don't know what you don't know, which is when someone who has a better understanding of the landscape and what specific people are looking for can be invariably insightful. I wasn't sure if I wanted to work in education, but now I've discovered a start-up with a vision with striking similarities to my thesis work, and there's a new sense of excitement to work with individuals who share a common objective.
Talk to people working in your "dream position"
One of the benefits of our program is that we know people in industry through our instructors and the job fair. If that's not the case, it's probably more like cold calling, but hey, do what you have to do.
My "dream position" meant talking to strategists from a company I highly admire. Find out what the core competencies are, and how you fit into those. With a varied body of work, you'll have to tailor your portfolio to make sure it showcases those skills. From my conversation, that meant focusing on the process of framing the problem, interviewing, and generating insights.
They may tell you their company might not be the best fit for you, but can often offer leads to a field or suite of companies that are a better fit.
Find your "Superpower" and showcase it
Framing your work around your design superpower makes it clear what your strengths are, and don't leave others (or yourself) guessing where you belong. But figuring out your design superpower on your own can be daunting. It's easy to second-guess yourself. As a work around, you can ask someone you've worked with, such as a peer, what they would come ask you for help with (if they couldn't ask themselves).