Skills every designer needs to learn

Karen Blocher

Karen Blocher

There’s no definitive list on what it takes to be a graphic designer. The industry “standard” is constantly changing. What’s hot now is old news tomorrow.  If I listed today what I think every graphic designer worth their salt ought to know, it would look very different in a few years.

Whether we’re starting a graphic design internship or years into our careers, learning (or brushing up on) some tactical skills will still be useful as we learn the technological skills expected of us today and down the road.

So here goes:

  1. The Creative Suite
  2. Visual Language
  3. Typography
  4. Hierarchy
  5. Creativity
  6. Presentation


I. Get to know the Creative Suite

This is probably the most temporary skill for a graphic designer. There’s no telling if the ADOBE CREATIVE SUITE will keep up as more competitors (with better pricing) rise to the occasion. But for now, it’s still considered the industry standard, and for good reason. There’s precious little that this team of programs can’t do if you know how to use them. 

While some competitor with a different UX/UI may one day replace them at the top, we’’ll have a headstart. WHAT we’re doing won’t change too much, just the HOW. 


II. Show (Don’t Tell) a Story

I was going to put Color Theory here, but there’s so much more to using VISUAL LANGUAGE than picking the right colors. Colors come with meaning, but these meanings can be amplified or changed completely in context. 

The Flash’s colors are red and yellow; indicating speed, passion, and fire. But how do the same colors convey friendly and quaint for willy nilly silly old Winnie the Pooh? Visual language. Angular shapes versus rounded shapes, dark shadows versus flat planes of color, clean lines versus sketchy textures – all of this helps the same colors tell (or better yet, show) a different story.


III. Learn your fonts.

TYPOGRAPHY is an extension of visual language, but it’s significant enough to warrant its own point. Pick up any magazine, movie posters, event posters, album covers and take note of the type they use. What does it mean to you. Is it a classy serif or a minimalistic sans serif? Is the type fluid and funky or structured and clean? How does it amplify the message being delivered? If Vogue decided to use Comic Sans as their main font, how would that change their visual language?


IV. Directing (not just drawing) attention

Nobody likes to be screamed at all the time. There’s a time for it, but if we’re always screaming, how will anybody know when we have something important to say? Likewise, VISUAL HIERARHY knows when to be quiet and when to shout. We need to learn the strategy behind it.

What needs to be small on the page? What needs to be big? What needs to be bland and what needs to be colorful? Not everything can be the biggest and the boldest thing on the page. Don’t drown out your main idea.


V. Exercise Your Creative Muscles

This is kind of obvious, but CREATIVITY is the heart of it all. I’m not an authority on whether creativity can be taught, but it can be nurtured. Sketch down stray ideas. Let yourself follow mental rabbit trails. Make stuff up that doesn’t exist. Don’t worry about whether it looks perfect or even makes sense. I’ve never met a designer who didn’t have some dumb personal side-project just to keep their creative well flowing.


VI. Sell your work

Congratulations: we made a pretty thing. Now we have to tell everyone WHY it exists. Every creative choice we’ve made has to have a meaning behind it. We have to learn to express those meanings to a client in a way that they not understand, but can feel. We have to tell them why (not just how) we came up with the best idea for them.

This isn’t the end-all-be-all for what makes a successful designer. I would need to update this list every five years to keep up with the industry. But anything is possible in the creative mind. With some adaptability, a strong work ethic, and a good attitude, these skills can go far and help you manifest your ideas to the fullest.

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