Beyond Craft and Tools: The Skills Design Students Must Master

By David Sherwin

March 14, 2012

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:

  • Experience working in Adobe Creative Suite version du jour
  • Knows Flash, Dreamweaver, HTML5/CSS3, Javascript, and more esoteric flavors of scripting languages (and theoretically knows how to create an interactive experience)
  • 3–5+ years of “related” design experience

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:

Big-Picture Ideation & Execution Planning

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, book designer

Collaboration & Communication

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

Sketching Ideas

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


Resilience Under Pressure

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


How Can Students Acquire These Skills More Quickly?

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 years...”

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.

Designing (and Teaching) With Dirty Hands

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, and book.