4 Key Professional Development Concepts for Designers

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In this series, Douglas Davis answers designers’ persistent questions about career development and managing relationships in the workplace. To ask more design career questions, reach out to us on Twitter with hashtag #AskaDesigner.

Question: I’ve been in my current position for a number of years. I worry about how I can stay at the top of my game in an industry that changes daily. Where should I focus my professional development to stay relevant?


Nowadays, the expectations on the design world have changed—we’re called upon to have skills that weren’t in our training. More and more often, business terms and objectives are at the forefront of creative discussions. Consider the recent Wired article outlining how IBM is “a leader in the growing ecosystem of design-conscious companies”—the marriage of design and business is official.

Yet we’ve all been in meetings where we seem to lose business because we and the clients aren’t speaking the same language. After all, most creatives don’t have formal business strategy training to rely on, a limited concept of business objectives, and sparse marketing vocabulary to add to their pitches. At the same time, a designer, copywriter, or freelance art director’s success is now measured in metrics that include sales, downloads, page views, click-throughs, time on site, shares, likes, retweets, and ROI (return on investment). The results determine whether the effort was successful, creative, or worth trying again.

So what can you do to make yourself even more valuable to your clients? Become what I refer to as “a creative who understands business.” The result of adding left-brained strategic thinking to a right-brained creative problem solver equals clarity on the relationship between business objectives, marketing strategy, and the creative product. Learning the language of business can help you win more business and get more design work. Here are a handful of common business terms you’ll probably hear about in meetings.

4 Common Business Terms Every Designer Should Know


In our context, an insight is the gold that we mine from company data, target-market research, or brand history to inspire our creative concepts. Insights are a set of conclusions rooted in truth that we draw from the implications of the research that inspire our creative direction. When looking at data on sales or behaviors, questions like these can lead to insights:

  • What is it telling us about the people we are observing and the decisions they make?
  • Does the data point to an underlying truth about the values of the people we are observing?
  • Does the data contradict what we assume to be true or confirm something we didn’t even know was there? If so, how could we quantify and articulate that information on a broader scale?

An insight will help present something widely known or help frame new information in an interesting way. Often an insight goes on the end of an observation and gives us the ability to state the implications from the information collected.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory that attempts to explain the psychology of curiosity and human development. Marketing and business programs mention Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when delving into consumer behavior. Abraham Maslow identified what he saw as five stages of human needs. At the most basic level, or the bottom, are the needs that sustain life itself. These items include breathing, food, and water and are labeled biological and physiological needs. Once those needs are taken care of, someone typically would seek the need for safety. After that comes the relational needs of belonging and love. Status or esteem needs follow, and last, at the top, is the abstract need for self-actualization.

How do these needs translate into consumer behavior? Have you ever considered that the person buying the whitening toothpaste may really be out to brush away self-consciousness? Or that the guy purchasing the hair regrowth product may really want to regrow his confidence? A whiter smile or a fuller head of hair is what a product may promise on the surface, but the deeper, underlying meaning that these things represent in the mind of the consumer is what successful creative messaging should speak to.


“Segmenting” refers to dividing your target into groups based on such characteristics as:

  • Demographics
  • The target’s life stage
  • Psychographics (the study of a target’s interests, attitudes, and opinions)
  • The behaviors and actions a target takes

Looking at these categories will enable you to speak specifically to the individuals via concepts, media, copy, and design of the marketing message. For example, you wouldn’t talk with a seven-year-old girl who only spoke French, a thirty-eight-year-old businessman, and a seventy-two-year-old grandfather in the same way. Therefore, you shouldn’t “speak” to them the same way in your advertising, design, or copy either. What they have common is that they all like Coca-Cola Classic—however, because of their various life stages, media consumption, and language needs, you would need to develop messaging tailored to them in order to reach them.


What Is It?

Differentiation is simply what makes something different from something else in the same category. Say you’re walking down the sugar aisle in the grocery store and you need a five-pound bag. There are several well-known national brands you could choose, as well as the store brand. If you believe that all sugar is created equal, then there is no differentiation in the mind of the consumer, only a commodity. When this is the case, the consumer will choose on the basis of the lowest price.

A key point: these terms are always relative. Meaning, the term used might vary from company to company or situation to situation—it depends on the person using it, the culture of the agency, and so on. If necessary, ask for clarification!

For more on this topic, visit HOW Design University’s online course Creative Strategy and The Business of Design by Douglas Davis, check out the latest news on his website, and don’t miss his session at HOW Design Live 2016 in Atlanta!