Seven key skills of great designers

I have led more creative teams than I care to remember and during this time have had lots of heartache and fun. Thankfully, because of the amazing designers I have had the pleasure of working with, there has been more fun than heartache! I recently spoke to a group of young designers and was asked to give them some insights for their design future, which got me thinking about the qualities that I think are vital to being a great designer … here are the seven key skills that I believe designers need if they’re going to stop being ‘good’ and start being ‘great’:

1. Seek to understand business
Typically, when we design it is for businesses; businesses need revenue and the work we do should contribute to the process of creating it. Ultimately, a designer’s job is to creatively solve business problems and to be successful you need to be better at it than other designers. Start by asking questions: how does your client make money? What are the challenges they are currently facing? How is the project you are working on going to help these aspects of their business? Are your design solutions going to increase your client’s bottom line or just eat into their profit?

2. Be able to communicate
As a designer it is your job to make complex concepts clear and to help your client get their message out in a way that makes sense to the target audience. This means you need to be able to communicate, and you must be able to use language to your advantage. Design is more than just graphical elements, great designers use words just as much as images to bring a design to life.

3. Be able to sell
Every designer should be able to sell – it is a vital part of your job. You need to sell your ideas, and you need to be able to sell yourself or your business. You will need to sell these things almost every day and the better you are at it, the more successful you will be. Your job is not just to develop great ideas and create exceptional design concepts; you need to be able to effectively explain why your idea is the right one.

4. Experiment and fail
Good designers experiment, but the great ones fail too. Because our job is to understand and then develop ideas, it’s important to push forward with experiments even when you’re not sure that everything will work. It’s okay to get things wrong as long as you’re being brave and trying new things, but you also need to be able to communicate with your client about why the risk is worth taking. Experiment, push your boundaries – the best ideas are often found right at the edge.

5. Experience life
I believe great designers are well travelled and have life experiences they can use. This is a great excuse to get out there and see the world, your country, your city or even just your suburb. See what is going on: watch, listen, hear, taste and feel the world around you. The more interactive you are (not digital) the more you can bring to life in your designs. Just because you have a Mac in front of you doesn’t mean you need to live your life through it. Get out there, design your next idea in the park, on a plane, or in the library and learn to use a pencil again.

6. Practise your art (your passion)
If you work for yourself or a studio it would be safe to say you are a commercial artist, however most of us give up the ‘art’ side very quickly. I believe the art is a major focus of great designers, as they actively pursue their passion. For some it’s illustration or painting, for others it’s photography, letterpress printing or poetry. It doesn’t really matter what your art is, just actively keep doing it. Working with another medium makes you think differently, broadens your skills, and ensures that you keep looking at the world through a filter other than your Mac. And remember, if you are good at your art it can be another revenue source for you or your employer.

7. Be a nerd
Stay with me here … I know that it’s not cool to be a nerd at school, but look what happens to most nerds after school (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs … need I say more?). Design nerds are cool; they go beyond what other designers are willing to do to make their work special. Their ‘behind the scenes’ labours are not often obvious, but the results speak for themselves and their designs just feel ‘right’ – all of the elements work in harmony, and they become a beautiful work of art that people can connect with. Being a design nerd will make you stand out from the crowd, for all the right reasons.

Becoming a great designer takes more than just technical skill. Design is a very ‘human’ industry, and your success will be determined by how you interact with the people around you, and how your designs impact them. Follow the steps, hone your skills and above everything else have fun, smile lots and be nice to each other.

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