Three Traits of a "Good" Designer

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November 21, 2011
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Three Traits of a "Good" Designer

There is often a lot of talk among the "design elite" about whether or not one can be taught to be a "good" designer. This debate could very well be the oldest in visual communication history, and one that seems to always begin after a "talented" designer comes into contact with an "untalented" designer.

The good news is YES, you can can teach someone to be a "good" designer. The bad news is that talent has nothing at all to do with the school you went to (although it can't hurt to go to a good one) or the kind of computer you design on (unless it's anything other than a MAC -- which will makes sense when you read point number 2 below) or the mentors in your life (although, it doesn't hurt to have a good one of those either). No, none of those things really effect the final outcome of a career in design. Let me explain.

Design is a field unlike any other. It combines many disciplines into a single job, and with the evolution of technology the modern designer has been forced to wear a multitude of hats at the same time. Now, I understand that as in any career there are varying types of jobs in design, and specialties you can work within. For example, if you wanted to work in the education field, you can be a Principal, or a Lunch Lady. Both work in education, but we really all want to be the Principal, right? So how do we do that? How do we learn to be "Good?"

Well, back to the BAD news. To be a "good" designer it is my theory that you need three basic elements built into your DNA, and if you don't already have these 3 elements to your DNA then you're out of luck. You can't go out and get them. Now I'm sure it has happened, and I'm equally sure it is so rare that what ever example one could give would simply be a outlier to the debate, so I will simply move on.

What are 3 elements that make-up a "good" designer?

1. Taste.
Seems simple enough, but taste is a rare natural ability. Although everyone thinks that they have good taste, they don't. That's just the way it is. Taste is one of the three basic intangible elements a designer must possess. Clients often refer to this rare superpower as "pixie dust" or "doing whatever it is you do" but in reality it all comes down to taste. Taste gives us a high water mark to in which we judge projects, it gives a sense of what to accept from the visual world and what to discard. Taste is the difference between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Both brilliant men. Both have changed the world for the better, but who has made the bigger impact on culture as a whole?

2. Intuition.
Again, very intangible. And again, good luck teaching it to someone who doesn't have it. Just like taste, your intuition is either right most of the time, or wrong most of the time. Intuitive people trust themselves and usually have a very strong sense of what they believe in. They will also fight for that belief. A strong point of view (backed by intelligence, of course) is paramount to the DNA of a "good" designer. Some people naturally have this. Most do not.

3. Passion.
I would take passion over a lot of things in life. It may seem simple but passion drives everything about a "good" designer. The passion to get things right, the passion to solve problems, the Passion to discover new things, learn from mistakes and more importantly attack everything with new eyes. Passion makes someone go the extra mile because they want to, not because it's expected. When you combine that with Taste and Intuition, you have a lethally "good" combination.

If you take these 3 DNA elements and look at them, and then combine the hard knowledge an education provides, you can see how it is possible to teach a person to be a "good" designer. But, we have to be honest with each other and stop pretending that anyone can do anything. The basic building blocks need to be there. Those DNA strains must be present, they are the precursor to success, much like height might be a requirement for a "good" jockey or "good" basketball player, or physical appearance is necessary if someone wants to become a model.

Design is about solving problems the right way. Doing that takes takes a certain kind of pedigree. Although anyone can pretend to do it, its important that as an industry we nurture, develop, and regulate ourself for the best results. Finding people with these rare traits, and mentoring them is the first in the many of steps.

Some other hand-picked posts you might enjoy on our Design Blog:

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Cory Skaaren

Cory Skaaren

Creative Director. Problem Solver. Thinker. Principal at Skaaren Design. Follow me at @skaarendesign.

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Mobile UX Designer / Redwood City, CA

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