Thoughts by Tim Brown
One of the most important choices I made in my career was one I didn’t even realize I was making.
When I graduated from design school, I was pretty sure about what I wanted to do with my life. I was fascinated with industrial design, and was happily imagining spending the rest of my career developing skills and creating products that would have lasting impact. I hoped to emulate my heroes, iconic designers like Dieter Rams, Ettore Sottsass and Philippe Starck, whose bodies of design work have spanned everything from timeless furniture to spectacular architectural monuments.
While I did stay on a design career track, it followed a path I never anticipated. Rather than diving deep into the single discipline of industrial design, I accidentally discovered the joys of working across disciplines. Thanks to my mentor, the co-founder of IDEO Bill Moggridge, I quickly added other design work to my arsenal: design strategy, user research, interaction design, service design and ultimately, as I took on the role of CEO of IDEO, business design.
The more confident I became in my ability to explore new disciplines and cross boundaries, the more I became intrigued with complex problems, such as designing healthcare or education systems. In fact, I believe these are some of the most compelling creative and business challenges today, and I’m happy with my choice to go wide.
But this is not meant to be an argument in favor of choosing wide over deep. I have many colleagues who took the alternative path and have achieved incredible impact in the world, such as Apple’s Jony Ive or Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa.
Here’s what I’m saying: Although my unplanned career path turned out fine, choosing to go wide versus deep should be made consciously, not accidentally. Each path offers tremendous reward if followed with passion and commitment, but each requires different skills and approaches to be successful.
Going deep requires incredible focus, lifelong commitment to a single cause, a willingness to be patient towards achieving success, and the confidence to follow a path others may not understand or value. Whether it’s as a research scientist, designer, chef or software engineer, committing to a single discipline and pushing it as far as you possibly can holds the potential to make a significant dent on the planet.
Going wide, on the other hand, is about making connections between what you already know and what you’re curious about discovering. It requires systems thinking in order for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It means developing the skills to collaborate for the purpose of learning. It’s about seeing the creative possibilities in breaking down boundaries and describing the world, your organization, the problem in new ways. It probably means having a difficult time describing to your parents what you do.
Taken seriously, though, the interdisciplinary path opens up a host of purposeful challenges that can be approached through the lenses of science, the arts, business or non-profit and, of course, some combination of all of them.
In your career, what choices are you making between going deep or going wide?