When considering the skills that today’s designers need to
be successful in today’s job market, we often focus on job requirements, which
are listed in tidy bullet points on recruitment requests:
Beyond these catchall job listings, what are today’s
creative directors and designers really looking for from their hires? To find out, I carved some time out of my work as a senior art director and user experience strategist to conduct some research. I sent out surveys to designers, creative directors and creative leaders in the American design community whom I felt could provide an informed perspective. Specifically, I wanted to know what today’s creative
directors and designers sought in students emerging from today’s top design
schools, and what skills designers weren’t learning that could be infused back
into their course curriculum.
The questions in the survey were open-ended, such as, “When
working with or managing other designers, what skills do you most actively
cultivate?” I also asked for anecdotes regarding how they overcame a difficult
design challenge, thereby stretching their talent and growing a practical
design skill. The answers I received back were surprisingly consistent, and
distressingly integral to the success of any designer working today. The
majority of them fell into the following four categories:
Strong conceptual thinking is the
root of any well-crafted design execution—and the skill of creating concepts
through focused brainstorming is often learned through mentorship or brute
repetition on the job. Additionally, most designers discover that an idea is
meaningless if it isn’t delivered on time and executed well. So effective
ideation requires strict time management and structure. Otherwise, we’re just
creating napkin sketches.
My experience working with young
designers is that they are excited and interested in presenting a technique.
Often there is little thought behind it other than it looks cool. I prefer to
have the cool as the topping for a carefully planned design. —Wendy
Quesinberry, creative director and principal of Quesinberry & Associates
Idea generation has become
increasingly important to me. That means no computer! Just sketches and notes
and scribbles and mood boards. These all help keep ideas from becoming too
precious, and encourages exploration of ideas. There's something about sitting
down and finessing an idea on the computer that can make it harder to let go of
an idea that's just not working. Even when you know it's not! —Michel Vrana,
Even for solo designers,
collaboration is the lifeblood of any professional creative endeavor—with your
clients, with fellow designers and with vendors that support fulfilling your
work. But to collaborate well, you have to squelch your ego, speak your mind,
bring in partners from other disciplines beyond design and know the business
problems you’re trying to solve.
Sharing your thoughts isn’t a
risk, it’s an asset. Creative kinships with people from a wide variety of skill
sets serve to expand your views of what’s possible. Whether designers,
programmers, motion graphics artists, illustrators, copywriters or
photographers, the result will be a mix of cultural, economic and creative
energy that can offer true originality while testing your assumptions of how
things are done… I love to watch the sparks fly when creative individuals meet,
match wits and inspire each other. I also thoroughly enjoy participating in
these exchanges myself. These relationships require honesty and a lack of ego
combined with a willingness to share and help each other… It just doesn't feel
like work when you’re doing it right. —Duane King, principal of BBDK and
creator of the design blog Thinking for a Living
Trust is by far the most important
thing. It’s fragile and takes time to build, but only with trust can there be
collaboration. And only with collaboration will people help each other to make
the best ideas in the group surface. —Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of
Innovation and Making Things Happen
Out of all the tools available to a
working designer, the humble pencil is often the quickest method to access
one’s intuition. It’s often not listed as a requirement in a job listing, but
creative directors and designers looking to hire you will listen not only to
what comes out of your mouth, but also the quality of thought that you render
through design sketching, then in increasing fidelity through the appropriate
medium that you’ve mastered—whether Photoshop, code or egg tempera paint.
The ability to sketch an idea
before executing it is fundamental to any work environment and to any economy.
Sketching affords designers the ability to suggest without committing to marks
or grids or any element of design. By quickly sketching out ideas, the poor
ones fade quickly from priority without wasting precious time to execute them.
The discerning designer uses sketching to rule out as well as rule in dominant
ideas about the formal elements of any communication. It is the domain of the
sketch where the concept is nailed down as well, instead of massaging more
aesthetic details, which don’t matter one iota if the big idea doesn’t work.
—Carrie Byrne, creative director at Worktank
Technology and tools should not
get in the way of your ideas. The second this happens you're screwed. —David
Conrad, studio director at Design Commission
To quote Scott Berkun: “There is
nothing like the impossible and the unfair to stretch your talents.” Designers
that focus their energies on untangling extraordinary and seemingly intractable
problems learn design fundamentals more quickly, while exposing new domains for
future exploration. However, these kinds of “stretch” projects must be balanced
with time for reflection, or designers will burn out.
There was a time in my career when
I worked for an individual who directed a department of a well-known agency.
This was a person of questionable character who overstepped boundaries in every
way possible. This devil wore Prada. The years spent at that place were my
second college education. My buttons were pushed. My ego was battered and
bruised. Because of this, my creativity/problem solving was stretched to new
levels. This was the most tortuous yet rewarding experience of my career.
Although it may not seem like it at the time, being pushed beyond what you
think is possible is the best education available. —Jon Lindstrand, designer
I had been studying how to design
and develop web pages without using tables for layout, instead using divs and
CSS entirely, but found it quite difficult. I always had to abandon my effort
and go back to table-layout as I butted up against my knowledge and skill
limitations. Shortly after starting my first job at an agency, I had a client
discovery session where I looked across the table and told the client that
‘this site will be designed and developed with a modern, CSS-based
format.’ I had no clue if I’d be able to pull it off. With the added pressure
of having given my word I threw myself into the project and succeeded where
before I had not. I’ve never gone back to table-based work since. Pressure and
fear is an excellent motivator. —Andy Rutledge, principal and chief design
strategist at Unit Interactive
Why aren’t more students graduating with these skills from
design school? And can they be taught in that setting at all? These
fundamentals are difficult to impart via lecture or long-form class project, as
they are gleaned from tacit knowledge—which only comes about through moving
through the creative process over and over again, through a range of different
types of design problems, testing out different methods and tools along the
way (and probably under extreme deadlines). This can take years, depending on
how many client engagements a designer can manage in a healthy manner. It’s why
designers like Andy Rutledge say, “Education is not something you’re given.
It’s something that you take. You steal it.”
Tacit knowledge is something that must be stolen. It can be
just as hard to effectively learn these skills in two- and four-year design
schools as it is in the workplace. But not all of this knowledge must come from
doing graphic design projects. I’ve been following ongoing discussions on the
Interaction Design Association’s website regarding this subject. Diversion
Media, when queried by a graduating student about work experience requirements
for being an entry-level interaction designer, said this: “The only way to
acquire all these skills is to do projects…However they don’t all need to be
UX projects. If you’ve been a carpenter, short order cook or theater designer
you probably have a lot of them already. Plus, of course, you need to demonstrate
killer deliverables, mastery of several software programs and familiarity with
the development process. I’d also like to know that you’ve been on at least one
successful software project through the full lifecycle (from whiteboard to
launch). All of the above is much more important than an arbitrary number of
So, every student must master new software technologies,
old-school design theory and production methodologies, while fulfilling more
projects. But I think the dirty secret is not in that a designer should spend
weeks or months on those projects. The projects should be unfair in their
construction, and limited to an hour or two, not days or weeks. To prove this theory, I taught two quarter-long classes—one sponsored by Seattle Central Creative Academy—in which recent graduates from design school were tasked with solving 80 creative challenges across all disciplines of design. Many of these challenges were of extraordinary complexity and difficulty, pushing far beyond the limits of even the instructor. Most of the people
in the class were also working full-time as designers and had a full plate of
project work or freelance work churning on the side. Most of them had
tool-based skills with the latest and greatest software. My only stipulation
was that for each challenge in the class, they would need to turn in a
pencil-based sketch of their solution, unless a computer execution was
required. By repeating this process over and over again—sometimes in as little
as 20 to 30 minutes—my students had a chance not only to exercise their own
talents under pressure, but also gained an appreciation of the various ways
that fellow classmates and designers solved the same problems, thereby
enlarging their understanding of the problem space they were in.
Needless to say, during the first few weeks the students
struggled. They were putting in sleepless nights perfecting design executions
instead of following the provided class instruction and focusing just on simple
pencil sketches of their ideas. By the end of the class, however, they were
exploring strong design ideas from sketchbooks filled with possible design
directions and spending less time sweating under their deadlines in class and
at work. They learned to collaborate with each other effectively—with such
short deadlines, there wasn’t time for ego. And, most importantly, they
explored domains of design they had never experienced before, which redirected
many of their career paths dramatically. One student moved from packaging
design to explore the wilds of user experience and mobile application design.
Another student realized that he was stunningly good at design sketching and
brand. And one realized that she was more interested in arts administration
than chasing a career as a full-time designer.
Now, it would be impossible for me to profess expertise in
many of the focus areas we tackled in class. In many cases, constructing a
challenge and placing it in the hands of multiple designers had been a leap of
faith: sometimes leading to highly successful and exciting design ideas, and
sometimes fizzling into a muted failure. (Though the failures we often learned
from just as much, if not more so than the successes.) But in all cases, I
noticed that as the class—and by extension, the teacher—settled into not
knowing what would happen, we became more creative and more willing to take risks.
I also noticed that we reached better ideas more quickly as the class
progressed because we stripped away a layer of attachment, letting latent ideas
and tendencies emerge as the material for design after design. The class became
more willing to jump in with little resistance and see what would happen in
each experiment, just like how it feels when working with a great client, and
doing our best work. I am often afraid, when embarking on a project, that the
strategy is wrong and that I'll have to start over. Or that I haven’t explored
enough ideas to find one that’s truly great. Or that I won’t have enough time
to really steep myself in the process of making to achieve flow and maybe even
enjoy the design process. Or that I don’t understand the production processes
necessary to make my ideas real. But flipping that fear into a desire to
experiment and take risks is what I think our students’ employers truly desire
in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing design community. Which means that we
should be more agile in how we cultivate these next generations of designers
with the right thinking tools. This requires us to surprise ourselves, and by
extension our students and co-workers.
If we want students to be employable and successful in their first
roles out of school, time spent teaching tools and craft must be balanced with
the time necessary for students to gain tacit knowledge in ideation,
collaboration, sketching, and remaining nimble and creative under pressure.
Author note: This piece was co-authored by Mary Paynter Sherwin, who was my collaborator on the Creative Workshop class, book and teacher’s guide.
David Sherwin is an Interaction Design Director at frog, a global innovation firm, where helps to lead teams in the research, strategy, and design of novel products and services for some of today's leading companies and nonprofit organizations. He is the
author of Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers
and Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills. He is a Senior Lecturer in the BFA in Interaction Design program at California College of the Arts, and regularly
speaks, and teaches on subjects such as creativity, design business, and interaction design. He lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife, the poet and writer Mary Paynter Sherwin. When not working as a designer, he plays drums, does yoga, rock climbs, and continues
his quest for finding the best dark chocolate.
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