Hard skills—like knowledge of specific software programs, etc.—are vital for graphic designers to be effective. Yet too many designers overlook the importance of soft skills in their careers.
It’s not just when applying for corporate or agency jobs that soft skills are important, either. The most successful freelance graphic designers also have strong soft skillsets. So which soft skills are the most important to master in your career as a designer?
1. Creativity and innovation
Any designer can create a design based on an established design pattern or the work of others. But the best graphic designers can come up with unique, creative ideas for their projects. The very best can innovate in entirely new ways, influencing others in the industry.
Graphic designers should do as much as they can to improve their creative and innovative thinking capabilities. There are numerous ways to do that , including approaching design problems from different angles and incorporating creative thinking into other aspects of their lives.
Some designers work solo on projects, which can leave collaboration skills lacking. But being able to collaborate with others—whether that’s other designers, marketers, or stakeholders on a project—is a vital skill for graphic designers.
Collaboration is about give and take, and requires good communication skills. Designers who are new to working with a team should practice giving and receiving constructive feedback. They should also take time to learn more practical skills like how to use collaborative software.
The other aspect of collaborative design is working directly with the end-user or audience. This type of collaboration can result in better designs that actually address the needs of the people the design is meant for.
3. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ) has gained more recognition over the past decade or so. Before that, it would have been rare to see it mentioned as a desirable soft skill, because most people were not even familiar with the concept. In case you aren’t, emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically” according to Oxford Languages .
Why is this so important for designers? Most designs are created to be persuasive in some way, which requires a certain level of understanding of human psychology and what motivates people to do things. Emotional intelligence is closely related to that.
Besides the direct impact emotional intelligence has on design work, it also affects how people relate to their team members, clients, and managers. Individuals with a high EQ often do better working with others and have more harmonious working relationships.
4. Growth Mindset
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” ― Shunryu Suzuki
A beginner mindset is an important basis for a growth mindset. When you think you know all the possible solutions to a design problem from the outset, you don’t consider new, more innovative ideas.
When you approach problems with a beginner’s mind or with the idea that there is always room for growth and improvement, you consider solutions from broader sources. You’re more likely to come up with an idea that hasn’t been tried before. That directly impacts your creativity and innovation.
A growth mindset is also important because of the speed at which design and technology evolve. What was cutting edge a year ago is old hat now. If you aren’t looking to grow on a continuous basis, you’ll be stuck implementing the same old design patterns that everyone has seen before.
Storytelling might seem like an odd soft skill for a graphic designer. The best designs, though, often tell stories to those viewing them. Going even further, the best brands absolutely tell a story. A graphic designer with a strong grasp of storytelling principles will be able to craft stronger designs and brand identities than those who don’t understand storytelling.
However, designers often focus on the wrong aspects of storytelling. They focus on the narrative structure of stories rather than the emotional impact and outcome. A brand story doesn’t necessarily need to have a beginning, middle, and end, with narrative ups and downs. What it does need to have is something that causes its customers to react in an emotional way, and to want to take action to achieve a desired outcome.
Mastering those two things will set you apart from other graphic designers. The best way to do so is to break down the stories of designs and brands you admire. Look at how they use storytelling to create an emotional response, and how that response directs customers toward taking the desired action.
One soft skill that seems to make every list of soft skills for every profession is communication. And don’t get me wrong, communication skills are vital for graphic designers. But since design is built almost entirely around communication, this isn’t really a “soft skill” at all. Instead, it’s the very foundation of good design.
While desirable soft skills may vary from employer to employer, the ones included here are a good basis to get started. All of them can be learned, practiced, and improved upon to make you a more desirable graphic designer to employers and clients alike ■
About the Author — Cameron Chapman: Editor. Blogger. Author. Designer. Copywriter. Marketer. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Consultant. Coach. I wear a lot of hats. What most of them have in common, though, is storytelling.
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