I’ve worked with a variety of great designers: from apprentices to directors, niche artists to jack-of-all-trades. As a team lead, I’ve also vetted resumes and interviewed design candidates, some of whom sounded great on paper but fell flat in reality.
In fact, I probably fell flat too sometimes. Looking back at my own development as a designer, I used to focus too much on the technical aspects of my job. Thus overlooking the soft skills through which truly successful designers ensure their craft sticks with other people. They can network, work in teams and manage stakeholders. In other words, they ‘play well with others’.
I could break down the specific hats you can wear to be great at design from any angle. However, I prefer to set an example via negatvya (what Nassim Taleb calls ‘addition by subtraction’). So here are some example archetypes of truly self-sabotaging behaviour, the kind that prevents you from playing well with others. If you can avoid these mistakes, I guarantee you’re going to be a more hireable and better designer:
- The design hero – feels they don’t need support from anyone else (in their team or outside) and tends to work in isolation. They’ve been a solo designer for a long time and usually need to relearn how to work well with others.
- The ‘only designers can design’ designer – as the follow-up to the isolated design hero above, but this person hides away to complete design work thereby not allowing others to collaborate and evolve the design solution. Through blind dogmatism they tend to shut down feedback and ideas from people who are not design specialists.
- The know-it-all designer – is usually a junior designer who lacks humility and awareness of how much they still don’t know. It’s the opposite of traits that effective and in-demand designers have. This person lacks the curiosity and the beginner’s mindset necessary to uncover meaningful findings and produce great design solutions.
- The design a-hole aka ‘Steve Jobs was awesome’ type – is another type of designer who lacks self-awareness and communicates badly with others. Many designers excuse away their ego-driven behaviours by using Steve Jobs as an example of a successful person with bad interpersonal skills. If you think great design justifies you being an a-hole, I have bad news for you.
- The ‘doesn’t care about anything else’ designer – While focussing on your craft is important at the start of your design career, designers who lack business acumen, communication skills, knowledge of the product lifecycle or emerging tech can struggle to do well. This type of designer tends to ignore engineering, marketing, process excellence and almost any other essential input.
- The ‘fake it till you make it’ designer – While it’s ok to boast a little by marketing your work in a positive light, I’ve interviewed candidates that were outright lying about their experience. Sometimes it’s lies about having a particular skill or it’s lying about an activity they did and how. Regardless, my advice is to be honest (in your design portfolio and real life).
- The design thinker – calls themselves a designer but can’t actually design. Very common nowadays, especially in the world of consulting. This person is usually a well-meaning individual who, after taking a UX course or bootcamp, thinks they can jump right into the shoes of UX design pros. However, their inexperience shows quickly and leaves a disappointed client.
- The talker – the equivalent of the person on a group project who talks a lot but doesn’t do anything. This type is not to be confused with design evangelists who are usually experienced designers. This person is also a combination or one of the following: the ‘fake it till you make it’ designer, the design thinkers and anyone else who can sort of sell the design craft, but has no clue on how or why to do it.
- The dreamer who can’t solve real problems – is a naive creative wanting to do art for the sake of creation. While I respect that, I don’t think that pure creativity can deliver value. In practice what makes any designer a great one is the embodiment of the creative and of pragmatism. The form always follows the function, not the other way around.
So it goes without saying that a good designer needs to develop outwards. I like to think of this in terms of a tree, where the roots symbolises inwards development of craft while the branches grow outwards to make what would otherwise be a stump into a tree.
This article is an expansion of my Quora answer to ‘What type of good designers would you never hire?’ which you can find here.