Cross skill development and why it improved our creative output

As the old adage goes, to become an expert in something you have to spend 10,000 hours practising it. Although this is certainly true, I often wonder: is our obsessive desire to become experts in a specific field, meaning we’re closing the door on a broader understanding of it? Sometimes to truly understand something, you need to step back and see it from different perspectives – and that could well be exploring alternative sets of skills.

Here are just a few of the reasons I think it’s time to extend our interests and influences and give being ‘well-rounded’ a go.

Why creativity should never be restricted

I’ve always dabbled in different creative fields (some more successfully than others) and I’ve loved every second of the learning and experimenting process. Yet, all too often I was ‘helpfully’ warned that if I didn’t choose an area to specialise in, I wouldn't become an expert or reach my full potential.

Thankfully I’m not one to blindly follow advice, however well-intentioned. Over a decade or so later, I’m still blurring the lines between skills and there's no doubt in my mind that it’s made me better at what I do. My typography skills learnt through working in print have given me a much better attention to detail; my design skills have enabled me to play with interactivity in web development; and the user experience knowledge I’ve acquired across multiple mediums along the way, helps me to see other perspectives. As the founder of Function & Form, I’ve also developed skills in sales and client services, which puts me perfectly placed to get under the skin of our client's problems and understand them better than ever before. This was something I noticed designers in larger agencies, who are more distanced from the client, often lack. As a result, I’m not even sure whether to call myself: a designer? A developer? A digital strategist? — it leaves me wondering, is there any real benefit in being pigeonholed by what we ‘do’?

Shared principles, different perspectives

Todd Padwick – Creative Director at Function & Form
keep experimenting, keep learning, and keep broadening your horizons. I call this Professional Hobbyism.

Todd PadwickCreative Director

A beautiful truth I’ve learnt over the years is that the principles of good design and usability are the same, no matter what the medium – I even wrote a blog about it 5 years ago. And that developing skills in different areas can only help us to understand these varying mediums better. So for anyone out there like me who also enjoys dabbling in different fields or acquiring new hobbies, I want to say: keep experimenting, keep learning, and keep broadening your horizons. This is what I like to call: ‘Professional Hobbyism’.

I’m so passionate about creative boundary-pushing that it’s become one of our core values and a big part of everyday life at Function & Form. We believe ‘professional hobbyism’ helps prevent segmented workflows, enables us to look at problems from different perspectives, empathise with the roles of our colleagues, and ultimately, develop richer ideas and concepts for our clients.

Embrace slow motion multi-tasking

So, if working on tasks that sit outside our comfort zone and require a different set of skills makes us better at what we do, could it be that using these new skills alongside our ‘hired for’ talents actually helps us to improve our skills even more?

Cautionary Tales presenter and a true source of inspiration for me, Tim Harford, certainly thinks so. In his inspiring Ted Talk, he coined the phrase ‘slow motion multi-tasking’ and points out that some of the world's most innovative and renowned creatives juggle multiple projects at the same time, switching back and forth as the mood strikes. Contrary to the commonly held belief that you need to ‘finish what you started’ before taking on something new, this constant change of perspective can actually trigger new ideas and prevent the brain from becoming too caught up and closed off with one problem.

Creativity often comes when you take an idea from its original context to somewhere else. Consider the original eureka moment. Archimedes is wrestling with a difficult problem. And he realises in a flash, he can solve it using the displacement of water. And if you believe the story, this idea comes to him not when he is working on it, but as he’s taking a bath, lowering himself in and he’s watching the water rise and fall.”

Tim HarfordTed Talk Daily

My two key takeaways from Tim Harford’s talk:

  • Embrace cross training and juggling multiple projects
  • Ensure no one feels too much pressure, and that people are given room to breathe, reflect and bounce between skills

And while we must stress that it’s not all creative freedom and playtime (we have a lot of clients and deadlines to juggle too, and they always come first), we have found that by not promising our clients unrealistic deadlines, and allowing our creatives to bounce between multiple projects and ideas ‘as the mood strikes’, we create far better work and we’re more creatively fulfilled. And if that doesn’t count as a good day in the office, I don’t know what does…