What They Didn’t Teach You in Design School

I’m always talking to young designers, even when there isn’t an opening on my staff. And I always look for that certain spark. I believe there are particular qualities, characteristics, a spirit, whatever you want to call it, that good designers have. Designers who have it are engaging, interesting, lively people—the kind of people you’d like to spend your day with.

After 22 years of running a design firm and 15 as a design educator, I recognize that these intangibles aren’t the standard fare of any design curriculum. Most course listings don’t include cultural breadth or curiosity. But these are the important qualities, the strengths that will make you truly valuable—to your first employers and to the design profession itself.

Remember, it’s what’s inside the person, not the portfolio, that makes you a brilliant hire. Polish these essential qualities as much as you hone your Photoshop skills.

Know Yourself
In interviews, I always ask job seekers, "Why design? How’d you get into this, why are you still interested, what would your ideal design job be?" And I’m surprised how many young designers can’t say what it is about design that interests them. Be able to talk about design and why you care about it. This doesn’t mean some lofty speech about capital-C Communication; just tell why you like it.

Better to Give
Generosity is tough to describe, but in a design firm, it means being truly giving of your ideas, your help, your time. It could mean taking care of a client who calls in a snit, even if he isn’t your client; brainstorming with a coworker; offering to make the late FedEx drop; refining the Illustrator file for someone else’s project. Sounds goofy, but a generous attitude may be the most important personal asset of all. Coworkers, clients and employers prize it, and it brings honor to everything you do.

Sharp Eyes
Design crosses media and culture. Keep your eyes and mind open everywhere you go, just for the pure enjoyment of recognizing visual richness. Film titles, magazines, Shaker chairs, snowboard boots … good designers can’t see or touch anything without a spontaneous mini-critique whizzing through their minds. Browsing the grocery store shelves in another country (or in your nearby ethnic shops) can be a treasure trove. Some of the most compelling posters I’ve ever seen were in Cyrillic—and I can’t read Cyrillic. A heightened awareness of form, impact and detail will sharpen your judgement, broaden your view and inspire your work.

Typography Addiction
You probably did learn this one in school: Know about typography. Revel in the expressive qualities of each typeface, match them to your vision, make them your messengers, keep looking for new faces, revisit classics. The best designers have a never-ending love affair with type.

Play to Your Strong Side
Like being right- or left-brained, most designers are exceptional either creatively or organizationally—I characterize the distinction as "inventors" vs. "discoverers." Inventors pull magical design solutions out of their heads. Discoverers find the way through selection and serendipity. Both kinds of designers are valuable and necessary.

Assess your strengths realistically: Can you crank out a dozen great CD covers? (Inventor.) Can you structure a complex, interactive Web site? (Discoverer.) Be able to describe your strengths convincingly for a prospective employer, be frank about your weaknesses, and look for work that will present the right kind of design challenge. Be prepared to walk away from a job offer if you know the work isn’t a match for your strengths.

Liberal Minds
A liberal-arts mentality matters. The traditional liberal-arts education is an excellent springboard to design: Both require critical thinking, breadth of knowledge, and the ability to reason, to analyze, and to express ideas with clarity and impact. You don’t have to go back to school to achieve this. Broad knowledge comes from a general curiosity about the world and an enthusiastic attitude toward learning. Read constantly; go to movies, lectures, performances, demolition derbies, dog shows. Pursue new directions. Take chances. Eagerness to learn is an invaluable design trait.

Curiouser and Curiouser
Natural curiosity—an insatiable need to bore in with questions until you really get it, a complete lack of inhibition about your need to know—is a critical characteristic of good designers. Truly curious thinkers never guess their way out of the dark; they ask. They might also take an educated crack at finding an answer another way. Curiosity and willingness to experiment are basic equipment for a good designer. Stellar design solutions are well-informed, creative responses to the client’s goals and constraints—but because clients are rarely designers themselves, they may inadvertently neglect to give you complete information. Ask.

Curiosity will assist your job hunt, too. Research prospective employers, find out about their clients and projects, ask teachers or colleagues about them. Know something about the people you go to see, and let them know that you know it.

Answer in Complete Sentences
Clear, grammatically correct writing is a necessary skill, especially now that email often replaces telephone conversation. A personable, well-written (and well-designed) cover letter gets more attention than a snazzy rZsumZ in my office. If your writing skills are weak, consider a course to improve them. Have a colleague proofread your correspondence before it goes out. Spell check every time. And please, for me, use real quote marks, not ditto marks.

Answer in Complete Sentences: Part 2
A successful designer is an articulate designer. The ability to express yourself eloquently and to discuss the implications of how things look can transform an uncomfortable, off-balance client into an excited, involved partner. Clients want to understand the rationale behind your recommendations. Be able to explain your process and interpret the solution in detail. Be willing to listen to feedback and to learn, too. Good solutions result from good client/designer understanding.

The Client as Partner
Recognize that you and your client are partners in a common cause. Contrary to thrillingly horrible war stories, clients aren’t secretly determined to sabotage our best designs. Designers and clients want the same result: a solution that exceeds expectations. A friendly demeanor and open, genuine interest in the project—and in the person who brought it—go a long way toward facilitating the give-and-take of a successful process. You want to work with people you like and so does your client. This doesn’t mean devoting yourself to a new Best Friend with every project on your list; just be friendly and genuine.

Slow Down—You’re in a Hurry
Be patient in pursuing your ambitions, and take the long view with career choices. Be content to listen and learn, to pay the dues, to work your way up. Give every assignment your best effort, even if the sweetest design project trickling through the ranks to you is an announcement postcard.

Your career isn’t a race. Stay with a good firm, where you’ll learn and grow, instead of jumping to a "better" job with less to give you. Be the willing bag-carrier for an inspiring mentor. All the while, be courageous. Take chances, try new things and test the edge. Just know the difference between your personal agenda and those of the people around you.

I’ve noted that broad general knowledge is fundamentally necessary to a designer. But don’t act as though you know it all. Don’t even act as though you know it all about design. A humble view of yourself may be hard if you were the star of your college design studio, but try. Recognize that your boss, your colleagues and your clients all know quite a bit, too—and respect them for it. In turn, this will make your knowledge more accessible to others. Colleagues won’t brainstorm with someone who’s likely to condescend to them. Bear in mind that, although you may have extraordinary contributions to make—blazing creativity, great technical skills—design coworkers won’t take advantage if your attitude offends. Professionals treat each other as equals regardless of disparate skills.

And while you’re at it, treat everyone around you with respect: office administrators, the FedEx guy, the pressmen. It all makes a difference in the overall culture of your workplace and in the progress of your career.

Be Passionate
Why do it if you don’t love it?