Graphic Design Skills – not as easy to define as you think
At first glance, it looks easy, doesn’t it? Graphic design skills come from creativity, aesthetic knowledge, drawing, a bit of presentation skills and client communication and no more. Right? Well, no.
The ideal graphic design skills always depend on the exact workplace or position the designer is seeking. A freelance designer has to play their own manager and salesman at the same time. You have to manage your time, find new customers, communicate with clients and of course create exceptional design work.
But if you want to work at an advertising agency as part of a big design team, you rather have to work on your technical and aesthetic skillset. This comes in addition to collaborating with other designers since you probably won’t come into direct contact with your clients. So graphical design skills always depend on the context, but I tried to gather basic skills and qualifications which I consider important.
First, a good graphic designer has to live with eyes open. They have to consciously look at their surroundings as a designer. No matter what you do, we can find design all around us every moment of our lives. Paying attention to art, typography, packaging, posters, magazines, books, apps, webpages or even buildings, objects or natural forms can inspire you and shape your design taste and approach. You also have to take notice of actual design trends. This makes for the first step towards making conscious design decisions.
Every year, we at UX Studio organize a month-long product designer course in Budapest for anyone who wants to deepen their knowledge in UX design. When it comes to screen design during this course, we talk a lot about visual hierarchy.
In the “Designing Screens” presentation I hold, I talk ages about visual hierarchy. A graphic designer must learn this. Visual hierarchy defines where and what you pay attention to when looking at a piece of design. Everything has visual hierarchy. Books, magazines, screens, even buildings or objects can have a visual hierarchy! If you can build hierarchy well, you can direct people’s attention to the right way.
Your best method of generating ideas
“Graphic design constitutes a creative profession.” We’ve all heard this a lot. But do you need creativity to become a skilful graphic designer? Does such a personality type as a creative person actually exist? Or do we just tend to stick this label on certain people or professions? Or even ourselves?
I think of creativity as just a question of process and method. No one can come up with good ideas in seconds. You won’t find a real-life Don Draper. To work creatively and find creative solutions, just sit down, understand the problem/market/customer and start generating lots of ideas, mostly pretty bad ones. But then, if you work hard enough, you’ll find the right one, the one which will work.
Creativity deals with process and work. You have to train your brain and get used to the process. But you still have to learn the process, which is a learnable skill.
Working as a graphic designer requires you to use fonts and typography. Therefore, you have to learn the basic rules and actual trends of typography. Typography skills also connect closely with visual hierarchy.
Digital knowledge and awareness
In graphic design, things change extremely rapidly compared to other professions. A new tool, plugin, method, trend or guideline pops up every day. You have to be ready to learn to work on new digital tools and remain open to these changes. Have some basic digital “talent” or at least some curiosity for new tools and digital solutions in the design field.
Years ago I worked as a junior designer at a small company. At that time UI designers had just started to slowly change from Photoshop to Sketch. My very small design team had won a dream project – one of the biggest banks in Hungary asked us to work for them. But they already used Sketch for designing their interfaces. No one on our team besides me ever had. So even as the junior designer on the team, I ended up working on the project full time.
Know your tools
The ability to discover new tools makes up one side of the “technical coin”. You also have to master the graphic design software you use on a daily basis. These tools may depend on the exact field and environment you work in. If you specialize in branding, then master Illustrator and Photoshop. UX designers have to create prototypes, so they learn Sketch or Figma maybe also Axure.
I had designer friends who knew all the existing shortcuts available in Photoshop. They also tend to get very sniffy when someone uses a tool differently. God forbid, sometimes I went for the mouse instead of shortcuts. But skill with the tools doesn’t mean how many shortcuts you know by heart. It means efficiency and speed. Learn your tools to use them as fast and efficiently as you can.
Presenting & defending your ideas
As a graphic designer, creating excellent design doesn’t suffice. After that comes the less fun part, when you have to sell your ideas and defend them. For that, learn how to communicate your ideas and motivations effectively. And prepare logical answers why you created something in a certain way. When presenting your work, pay attention to not only what you say, but how you say it.
Managing your time
As a designer (especially as a freelancer), you have to learn to manage your time effectively when it comes to tasks. Graphic designers lean towards perfectionism and love to spend a lot of time creating excellent work. But sometimes you have to work under pressure and manage a lot of different jobs. In these cases, we have to learn to let go of at least some of our perfectionism and prioritize – or even eliminate – tasks for the sake of our own well-being.
In a lot of cases, design deals just with collaboration. You may have to collaborate with other designers, developers, researchers or product owners. Learn how to work effectively together with them. Also keep in mind that everyone on your team probably has different working methods, speeds or approaches. Learn how to adapt or influence these people in order to work more effectively together.
Another one of graphic design skills should be the ability to create value for your end customers/users and your clients every day. To do this, first understand the people you’re designing for. Understanding them also means sometimes letting go of your preferences. You don’t have to leave your own style completely and do ugly designs just because your client or market demands it. Just listen to your customer, client and the market you’re working for. Move like an explorer, not an artist.
Humility and attentiveness don’t replace confidence in a designer. You still have to step out and show your work, talk about your design and defend your ideas. This requires of you enough confidence to push through important design decisions. After you’ve learned to pay attention to the customers, you have to confidently represent their needs and preferences. (This “representative” role can even feature more importantly in UX design.)
When I started working as a designer, I loved to create multiple versions for any kind of project. Clients usually tore them apart and made their own redesigned Frankenstein versions. I got used to it. It scared me when a client first asked me to make final decisions about the design. Shouldn’t they choose their own versions and make their own decisions? It took time to gain enough confidence to show my solutions and also tell them which one would make the best choice. A good designer has to make design decisions and communicate them toward their audience.
UX designer vs. graphic design skills
Nowadays graphic designers love to pivot to UX design. A lot of people who work outside of IT think UX design resembles some kind of graphic design work. A UX designer does very different things. Beside the listed skills, if you want to specialize in UX design, you’ll also need some very specific knowledge about human behavior and user research.
When we hire UX designers here at UX Studio, we always look for people who already have a user-centered mindset. Systematic thinking, empathy, problem solving also always win over aesthetics and creativity in graphic design skills. Our friends at UX Folio have already written an excellent article about UX designer skills if you would like more knowledge about that topic.
OK, so does this require unicorns then?
After reading this long list of skills, you may rightfully ask. You don’t have to qualify as best in all the mentioned fields. It’s not necessary to become the world’s best presenter or project manager and know all the existing design tools and plugins. You just have to improve on the skills which you still need some progress on. I try to do that every day here at UX Studio. 🙂
I hope I helped you with the most important graphic designer skills. What do you think about this topic? If I missed important ones, please let me know in the comments!
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