I remember being in college thinking, “If I can just make a living being a designer then I would be so happy and forever thankful.” I was worried that — after I’d racked up 100k in design school loans — that I would be in massive debt, but not employable. I remember searching “what makes a great designer” and getting results like “you buy wine based on the label”. I knew even then that they were wrong. Buying wine based on the label makes a great CONSUMER. Not a great designer.
Now that I’m on the professional side of things and I’ve been practicing multi-disciplinary design for over a decade, here’s the list I want to send to people when they email me asking: “What do I need to do to become a designer?” “How do I get great at design?” “How do you do what you do?” It’s really all the same question just phrased differently. They want to know (just like I did!)…Will I make it?
1: You enjoy problem solving.
Great design is a solution to a specific problem. When the design is good you can easily explain WHY you designed what you did. From spatial relation, to how mediums work together, or figuring out new programs, you need to be a strong troubleshooter to hack it as a designer. It helps if you get satisfaction when you solve the problem successfully. You need to “Love to Learn.” If you’re overly analytical you will be great at designing.
2: Time flies when you’re designing.
If I asked you: “Would you choose to sit and design and practice making stuff
OR just instantly be known as a famous designer?” And you choose famous designer — don’t waste your time in this field.
It’s a practice. Just like doctors practice medicine. Trends and technology change and you need to embrace them.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field. Don’t assume design is an exception to that. If you think you are great — wait five years and look at your stuff for a good laugh.
If time passes slow for you when you design it’s an indicator you don’t really love it.
It should have that feeling like when you make out with someone for the first time and wonder where 5 hours just went.
3: You could have been a shrink (or an actor — maybe).
Were you ever interested in psychology? Or how people behave? It’s a must for good design solutions. You need to know what makes people, and the world tick. Do you know the feeling of putting your voice and ambitions aside and do you have the capability to slip into a client’s personality, objective, needs, voice, and filter? The ability to communicate as your client would will allow you to do great work and make a lot of cash. Designers that can’t do this or don’t understand why a youthful campaign showcasing a trendy, illustrated collage with a broken grid won’t land well with a conservative corporate insurance company won’t make it in the industry. You need to pretend to “be” the insurance company. Read the brand and communication guidelines. Research it, absorb its voice. How does it talk, walk, how does it throw a better version of itself out there and engage people?
4: You CAN see the forest for the trees.
You have the ability to see a full-scale picture and then break it down into smaller steps or details. Attention to detail is critical, but so is the conceptualization of how the dots connect and how the big picture fits together.
5: You hoard media.
This might be digital photos or business cards or package design — to bookmarks of title sequences online. You like to look at and dissect stuff.
6: You CAN speak the language.
It doesn’t take too long of a conversation to know if someone is a designer. There is a vocabulary to it. You can reference other designers and their work/solutions. And have read enough case studies and designed enough to be able to articulate yourself appropriately. Just like how announcers doing the Olympics know the right words, it’s because their vocabulary came with time and watching professionals. Those jokers don’t even need the slow motion video to hammer out “Struggled effort high jump premature dismount” about some pole-vaulter and critique their form with whatever words that I DON’T KNOW.
7: You possess a unique point of view.
If original ideas or solutions don’t often come to you (quickly) and you have to copy other people’s work…. Design is probably not the best field for you. Everyone has stuff that they’re good at. I try to point people back to the thing they wanted to do when they were 5–10 years old. Before the world got a hold of you. That’s probably what you were meant to do. If ideation is your thing design is a great fit.
Having your own point of view also requires a bit of an edge. If an idea is good- it might upset people. So you need to be ok pissing people off.
8: You are consistently complimented on your taste.
Look at how you design — not just your files but also your life.
Maybe you have good penmanship, or maybe you can illustrate well.
Or perhaps you do all of the below a little “above average”:
Your choices should all “match” up.
And if people consistently compliment you — it’s a great indicator you are going to dominate the field as a designer.
9: The 8 out of 10 rule // The odds are in your favor.
No one would expect a baseball player to hit home runs every time they step up to the plate. Same rule applies with designers. Even if you are amazing you are going to have some fails. Typically you learn from them (even the fails can be a win). That being said, the average you succeed out the gate still needs to be pretty high to make it in industry. So if you sit down and do a handful of projects and 8 out of 10 of them you land a great design solution smoothly, you are winning. For the other two, you still need to get around to home base and score at the end. You need a higher ratio of reliable wins, with the margin to not have to be “perfect” all the time, and the patience to go back to the drawing table and re-concept.
What makes a great designer is the ideation or creativity and ease of solution/ intelligence that comes to you fluidly (80% of the time).
But for the other 20% projects or clients that are exceptionally difficult, you need the skill and ability to acknowledge the error in your work, take the time to start over and create the solution that’s best for the client.
By Becka Gruber