The other day, I started thinking about the designers that I’ve encountered throughout my career. Some of them have impacted me in ways they probably don’t realize. These people inspire(d) me with not just their work, but also by being great people and life mentors. They’re always on top of their game, they balance their lives, and they “own” their careers. More importantly, they are the type of designers that have depth to them. They are built on more than just having great design chops and striving to have great designs that inspire. I started thinking deeper about these industry-leading designers to determine what qualities and attributes they consist of and what qualities I find have worked well in my career.
The goal is that we can all do a self-assessment to see what areas we have covered and what areas we can improve on so that we are pushing every day to become the best we can be. I’ve broken them down into 10 key areas that you can find below. I hope that, after reading these 10 attributes, you’ll have clear steps into what areas you need to work on next. I know I did.
No matter what the problem is, it will affect design in some form, so we must be well rounded enough to solve organizational problems. Whether those problems are related to sales struggles, on-boarding, processes, or marketing. We have to go across departments to learn and connect dots, since everything in business is interlocked – and a designer has the keen ability to take that challenge and visually execute a solution around it, based on the data provided.
How many of us feel like our ideas are never getting noticed or heard? It’s possible that this is due to a lack of communication skills. Clear communication is at the heart of design, whether that’s stripping down an idea to its purest essence so it’s clearly communicated to an end customer, or how we articulate our ideas and pitch them in a meeting. No matter the setting, we have a seat at the table. We should be professional and know how to clearly communicate our thoughts and ideas to stakeholders of all shapes and sizes, not just other designers.
Eeek. How dare I say it. Designers are expected to be salespeople. We must know how to sell our ideas and solutions for ourselves, as well as for our teams and company. People buy from people they like. They buy software from and work with companies who are innovating. Design now has an ROI attached to it, and it’s our job to sell that ROI to our customers and stakeholders. Sometimes, that means we have to learn how to project value, handle objections clearly, stand up, and make deals on everyone’s behalf. Whether that’s for the CEO in the boardroom, or fighting for an idea with another designer on your team. So... When you ask yourself, “How can I shift culture in my company to be more design-focussed?”, learn to sell the value of design to everyone who’s objecting to it.
Most of us have no problem in this department, or we probably wouldn’t have made it this far. Nevertheless, I’ve found that by being visual and having the ability to articulate my ideas through visuals – whether it’s in presentations, on whiteboards, or just using visual examples that are relatable to the “non-designers” – I get much further. That is why storytelling works so well: the visuals are relatable to the listener. So if you’re finding it tough for people to “get” your idea, try breaking it down into more relatable visuals. It’s likely you’re simply talking over their head, or they need some visuals to fully "get" what you're talking about.
This is another no brainer that most of us have no problem with. In fact, most of us are trying to get more out of this area and believe that this is why they are not succeeding in their careers. The truth is, it’s likely that you know enough already, but in your quest to keep up with the trends and skills (not saying you neglect them, the best designers stay educated), you’re limiting your knowledge in other areas. Stop putting too much energy here. Chances are, if you’re winning projects or working in the industry, you’re covered. Focus on staying sharp here, but let’s ensure you have the other areas in this list covered too. Here's some books to help you stay brushed up.
How well you understand business can greatly impact the success you have as a designer. We already know that design has an ROI, but knowing how business relates to design and what a variety of industries need to tick, is crucial as you explore solutions. You don't have to know everything, but you should understand the structure and organizational makeup of businesses, both large and small, so you can have meaningful discussions with key stakeholders about your ideas.
Sorry to say it, but some of the best and most innovative ideas are often created around data and research. You don't have to geek out about data, but you should care enough about how it can drive your ideas forward. I don't believe you should ignore common sense and gut feeling through this process, but you need to welcome data with open arms. It can feel like a limitation sometimes, but the best ideas come down to having limited resources available.
How much confidence do you have in your ideas? How quickly can someone blow a hole into it? I hope the answer is you are super confident and believe that, even when challenged, your idea will hold up. The best designers always believe in their solutions at all times. Even though it may not be the best, in their minds it is presented with authority and with little doubt. They can defend it or shape it into an even better idea when challenged.
Confidence can quickly turn into arrogance and abrasiveness, which is never good – and is not what makes a great designer. The best designers are open to new ideas and ways to make their ideas better. They embrace collaboration with everyone who can contribute to their idea. They are always humble and helpful, no matter how much success they have or how many awards they win. They don't forget the golden rule and where they started.
Too much excess in one area is never good. The best designers in the world know how to exercise balance, both in their work/solutions and in life. They know when to work hard, but also when to play hard. They know that a balanced diet is key to ensuring that they have the energy to keep going. They also know that they need to strategically balance life with work so that they can win in both areas.
Instant gratification does not apply to the best designers. Great solutions that convert take time. It's not done overnight, and it may take several attempts. You have to be willing to exercise patience, and you may need to re-work an idea you already spent hours on, but that's okay – it's for the best. The best designers also know that it takes time for their careers to evolve. Nothing happens overnight – it takes time to build a great body of work, and it takes time for ideas to sometimes show their ROI. For the best designers in the world, it's not a race to the end. It's all about the journey, what you can learn through it, and how you apply it.
So those are the 10 key attributes that make a successful designer, but if I’m being truly honest, I’m sure there’s more like 12-15. I'm not going to say that I have all these boxes checked, because I don't. I can say that this serves as a key reminder for me on a daily basis concerning the things that I need to prioritize. Hopefully, it can do the same for you. This is something that you'll always revisit as you grow. At one point in your career, one of these areas may mean more to you at any given time, and that's okay. It should be something you can jump in and out of and use as a guide, no matter what level of experience you are at.
How do you relate to any of these 10 focuses? Are you struggling with one? Am I missing anything?