#67: 8 Skills They Don’t Teach You at Design School

Graphic design is becoming a very popular career path these days. Whether it is the idea of just doing art all day or being creative for pay, More and more people are becoming drawn to it.

But what kind of skills other than knowing the software do you need to have to be a successful graphic designer. These are all things I have had to learn and try to impart on any designers I direct or students I teach. Some of these things may come more naturally to some and many of them may need to be practiced and learned over time.

So here’s a quick list of a few non-technical skills that are necessary to survive in the realm of graphic design and any other creative professional field, or even well, life.

1. Receptiveness

Being receptive is one of the most important if not the most important parts of being a designer. We cannot get married to our ideas. There’s are few things in my line of work than working with a designer who thinks they know everything. Being receptive and flexible while still maintaining a confident stance on our designs is a valuable skill.

Whether it is from a client, an instructor, or an art director, we must always be willing to at the very least, genuinely “hear them out” and take into consideration what they are suggesting. Many times they can add something truly valuable to the conversation that is our design. Receptiveness can also be actually trying something they have suggested and not disregarding because you think you did consider it, and just considered it wrong.

Receptiveness is the skill that will allow you to truly learn from others and build your own authentic way of designing.


2. Tenacity

Tenacity is not the same thing as persistence. Tenacity is having faith that anything is possible if you work for it. It is knowing there will be challenges and finding a new way round them with the understanding that there’s a chance it may never work out. Whereas persistence is trying the same thing over and over hoping it will work, tenacity requires flexibility. Tenacity says that you will keep trying to find another angle even though you’re never sure which way will work.

Persistence is a lot of effort, but can end up just wearing you out. Persistence is not the best way to challenge yourself, it is many times a lot of effort with no result. Tenacity challenges you and brings to light the truths about yourself and that you could be wrong, and that that’s okay. Because in being wrong, you realize that there is always another way you can try.

This is the important thing about tenacity, it assures that you never give up trying new ideas, not simply the ones you wish could work.


3. Honesty

The thing about working in an industry where people don’t really understand what you do is that it can be really easy to make stuff up to make it sound like you know what you’re talking about. But the best way to figure out your own reasoning and communicate that to your client is just to be honest. Tell them how you came to your solution or why that particular shade of green is perfect for their promo poster.

Be willing to deliver hard truths like, “your missing your target with your current branding” and be able to tell your client why.

Honesty breeds trust.

When they see that you are not only in it for the money but that you actually care, you’ll bypass the jerky stereotypes.


4. Curiosity/Inquisitiveness

Being curious is something that I believe that everyone has but that not many people value or pursue. Curiosity is what drives us to find new solutions to creative problems and fun and interesting ways of designing. Childlike inquisitiveness is something that we should embrace since it can lead us to some of the more interesting paths. Creative people are generally and naturally curious, it’s one of the things that will give you the most pleasure out of all the things on this list.

If you let yourself be curious, and you embrace the questions you have about life and creativity, your work will become unique, authentic, and more interesting.

5. Self-Motivation

Few things are more frustrating than having to stay on top of an adult designer like I do my children when they don’t do their chores. As students, you are at design school to learn. But just like in high school and especially in a work environment, there comes a point where you are expected to act on what you have learned without being asked daily.

Self-motivation is something you should be mindful of as it can really propel you in your time at design school. Whether it is pushing yourself to do a few more sketches, to seeking out critique, I can say with certainty that all the best designers have had great self-motivation. Once you see the benefits, you’ll be hard pressed do be lazy again.

6. Competitiveness

I think that being competitive immediately sounds like something negative, and I think it can be in the wrong context. However, just like anything else, a healthy competitive spirit can propel you further if you approach it with the right mindset.

The most important thing is remembering to always be in competition with yourself. By this I mean that you know the things you’ve done before, you know how good you’ve been. I wrote before that you need humility, well this goes with humility. Having others around you also instills a bit of competitiveness. Much like when playing sports, even on a team, you are constantly pushing each other and trying to show your own strengths, trying to be better than you were the day before.

A competitive spirit is the thing that propels us to strive for something better inside ourselves.

7. Humility

Don’t be a know it all. Even if you know a LOT, you don’t have to be arrogant. Be gracious of the compliments but don’t let them go to your head. Someone will always be smarter, faster, or better than you. Remembering this fact will keep you grounded in the reality that you will never stop learning. Some of the best designers don’t believe they know everything.

Humility allows you to see past yourself and what you think you know and shows you, at times, that your way may not be the best way. Humility ensures that you will always be willing to listen to the viewpoint of someone else (a client perhaps) and take something from it.

Humility is a powerful skill that should not be underestimated in the field of design and will absolutely set you apart in a world of creatives.

8. Confidence

This one can be a rough one for novice designers. Whether you are just out of high school or you’ve just left another career to pursue design, confidence seems elusive. Out of this list I’ve given you I would probably say this one is the most difficult to grasp.

The importance of this particular skill is truly invaluable in your future as a graphic designer. Confidence is the real secret to being a great designer. Underneath all of the education you will have eventually there needs to be the foundation of confidence or your designs will have nothing to fall back on. When you can have confidence in your design choices.

Confidence allows you to to present your ideas, defend your work, and assure your client that they can trust you with their vision.

The life of a graphic designer is not always easy, it’s not always exciting or fulfilling. But, one thing is for sure, design is always a challenge. A designer will rarely face the exact same design problem multiple times and will almost never come up with the same sort of solution twice. This makes having more than just the technical skills really crucial. All of the above things aren’t taught, but they can be learned if you can see that they are needed.


Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll join me here, because design matters.


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