The Soft Skills Needed to Become a Graphic Designer
Graphic design is the career of your dreams, and you’re itching to get started as soon as possible. You already have a natural knack for design, but you’re not sure what’s next. After all, can’t you just learn the technical skills on your own and become a successful designer without a degree?
Not necessarily—while some exceptionally talented or well-connected designers may be able to make it work, it’s not an ideal approach. There are plenty of skills needed to become a graphic designer beyond an instinctive eye for what looks good and a talent for making it happen. Degree programs teach technical skills as well as an essential element you may not have considered: soft skills.
Successful graphic designers need to know more than which fonts work well together and how to use the latest design software. Join us as we explore why soft skills matter for graphic designers and what you can do to improve your own transferable skills.
Why soft skills matter for graphic designers
Soft skills are the traits and behaviors that make a job candidate a well-rounded employee. Soft skills include characteristics that can be hard to measure, like creativity, good communication and critical thinking. Because these skills are applicable to careers in many different industries, they’re sometimes referred to as transferrable skills.
Graphic designers may rely on technical know-how to create a design project, but soft skills are equally important in the workplace. “Graphic design aesthetics, software and hardware ... it will all change over time,” says Jennifer van Alstyne, owner of The Academic Designer LLC. “Soft skills apply to many situations, and that means you’re more prepared to adapt and communicate with your team.”
The goal of graphic design is to communicate a clear message to others, and the right soft skills are essential to accomplishing this. “Soft skills are important in design careers because we are ultimately problem solvers and communicators,” says Heather Toler, designer and owner of RVA Creatives.
6 Graphic design soft skills to hone
Our experts identified these six soft skills for graphic designers to have. Take a look to learn which soft skills could make a difference in your graphic design career and how you can add them to your repertoire.
Why it’s important: “You are talking with clients or managers, and you have to be able to communicate and understand effectively—both in writing through emails and verbally through phone calls and in-person, face-to-face conversations,” says graphic designer Jordan K. Buckway.
How to improve it: Challenge yourself to practice communicating about design with others outside the field. “Find ways to explain stuff without mentioning kerning or pantone,” Buckway says. “The typical client will not know this, so you have to explain stuff in a way that they will understand.”
Try recording yourself explaining a complex subject or your rationale for a design decision—do you sound confident? Would you trust this person to make decisions that could have an impact on your livelihood? Even better, ask for the input from people you know on what you can do better. Communication skills won’t be mastered overnight, but just being aware of what you might struggle with is a good starting point.
2. Active listening
Why it’s important: Graphic designers must be able to accurately understand a client’s vision and translate it into a piece of visual design, and that means developing active listening skills so you truly understand what others are saying. “Communicating is a two-way street, so as you make your points be sure to listen to [the client’s],” Toler says.
How to improve it: Go out for coffee with a friend and practice focusing on what they’re saying rather than thinking about what you’ll say next. Try repeating what they said back to them using your own words to see whether you understood them correctly. This might seem a little odd at first, but by leading with a summarization of what you’ve heard, you’re providing an opportunity for the other speaker to clarify.
3. Conflict resolution
Why it’s important: Graphic designers work with teammates, bosses and clients, so there’s bound to be disagreement about a project from time to time. Designers with conflict-resolution skills can remain calm while helping everyone move forward toward a solution. “This is easier said than done, but it’s essential to the designer-client relationship and your ability to go further in your career,” Toler says.
How to improve it: “Work with people and practice with real problems that arise now,” van Alstyne says. You can gain experience with conflict resolution by working with classmates on a group project or taking freelance design projects to build your portfolio. Inevitably there will be a point of friction and tough conversations to navigate—focus on finding middle ground where possible and putting yourself in the shoes of the person you disagree with.
Why it’s important: Graphic designers must think outside the box to develop innovative ideas and design concepts. Not only are they tasked with creating attention-grabbing designs that communicate a clear message, they must also use creativity to capture a client’s vision while applying the principles of good design.
How to improve it: Gaining experience creating designs of your own is a good starting point, but you can take your creativity further by getting input from a pro. “Ask for mentorship from professionals around you,” Toler says. If you’re in a degree program, seek mentorship from your instructors. You can also use social media to reach out to designers who are already established in the field. There’s also the tried-and-true method of observing other creative work—you never know what might serve as a creative spark later on.
5. Time management
Why it’s important: Graphic designers need “the ability to manage multiple projects or project elements at one time,” Toler says. Strong time management skills help them juggle all their projects and clients without dropping the ball. Design comes with deadlines—learning how to be efficient with your time allows you to dedicate more of it to productive work.
How to improve it: Once again, practice makes perfect. Students working toward earning a degree are also receiving a crash course in time management as they plan around multiple commitments, such as coursework and attending class, going to work and spending time with family. Learn to organize your life so you know what needs to be done by when.
Why it’s important: “There will be changes. There will be re-dos. There will be stuff that gets scrapped at the final hour. As a designer, you have to be able to take stuff in stride and stay persistent,” Buckway says. “Know what to concede on and what you will stick to, but throughout the whole process stay persistent in creating the best design you possibly can.”
How to improve it: College courses offer plenty of opportunities to develop persistence. Students learn to carry on with their studies even when a lesson is difficult or their life becomes busy. Those lessons follow them beyond the classroom into persistence that’s a valued asset in a design career.
Improve your soft skills, design your career
You can see that a design career requires more skills than you may have realized! Gaining and improving these soft skills for graphic designers will help you launch the career you’ve been dreaming of, and a graphic design education could be what it takes to help you get there.
Still not sure whether a graphic design degree is right for you? Come to a conclusion with our article “Is a Graphic Design Degree Worth It or Worthless?”