Interdisciplinarianism

People argue about the boundaries between subfields. Is this the domain of UX? Content Strategy? Is it really IA? Does this problem belong to a front-end developer or a designer? Can a usability person do design? Should a developer know CSS? Should a designer know PHP?

We all want to stake out our territories. We want to know where the edges are, for a variety of reasons. Is this my job? Do I own this space? How much do I need to know?

Maybe in a huge organization it’s easier to claim vast swaths of territory for a single specialty. Maybe not, because people do seem to keep arguing.

In a small organization, the roles blur, because they have to: we add to our stated roles because the work still needs to get done. I’ve been the Webmaster and bounced in a single day between strategy and debugging, writing promotional copy and writing code, planning an email campaign and cleaning up the mailing list for the campaign. It’s probably too much for one person, but you do what you can with what you have.

There’s another way to approach the problem of confusing boundaries. Recognize that the world itself is blurry, overlapped, and nuanced. Discover and embrace your curiosity.

When I was in college I never settled on a minor1)I knew my major going in: I was going to be a famous novelist, so I was an English major with an emphasis in creative writing. If I hadn’t had an overarching love for writing, I don’t know what I would’ve done. because everything was interesting. My alma mater had lists of required subjects, and I ranged across them all without ever finding a single thread to tie them together: philosophy, geology, psychology, astronomy, history. My favorite moments were always places where the fields crossed.

Twenty years later, I’m working at the college I should have gone to. There’s no majors or minors here, just the idea of an area of emphasis that sometimes appears in retrospect: how did my studies connect? And most classes cover different fields held together with a theme. Once I knew what it was, I knew its ethos matched mine.

I never had a minor, and I never planned on being a web developer. I had a series of experiences that let me explore and combine things I cared about. I wanted to express myself in public, so I learned how to make web pages. When I got a job making web pages, I realized I cared about clean code; I wanted to understand how to make sustainable useful design; I wanted to build things that real people could use to make their own lives better.

There wasn’t a plan, and more than that, it didn’t matter to me when something crossed an invisible boundary. If I had to learn how to do usability testing, I was going to learn it. If making something better meant picking up design theory or Drupal, I’d do that, too.

Even now, on a team with some more defined roles, we find that problems cross over our specialties. Is a user’s ticket a problem in CSS or JS? A simple text edit? A glitch, and on whose end? A “simple” question turns into a discussion across our whole team of usability, information architecture, language, marketing…or even what the college itself is or should be. The work continues to cross disciplines.

When you find yourself trying to draw a line between what is your discipline and what is their discipline, I hope you will pause to appreciate and enjoy the blurring instead. Celebrate that you’ve found something interesting to explore together.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I knew my major going in: I was going to be a famous novelist, so I was an English major with an emphasis in creative writing. If I hadn’t had an overarching love for writing, I don’t know what I would’ve done.

Author: Elaine Nelson

Elaine Nelson was directionless with an English degree in the late 90s and then: GODDAMN INTERNET. In her current gig, she wrangles content and content management systems, but her last job was Webmaster, so she's dabbled in all sorts of web work. She's an editor at The Interconnected, previously published in The Pastry Box, and once had a poem published in an anthology of GenX writing, when that was the big new thing.