Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Non-Design Skills for Designers

Design schools teach you everything you need to know about design, but there are other critical skills designers need in order to succeed professionally.

Many graphic design job descriptions have the same basic requirements. Must know Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark/InDesign. Must have a basic understanding of HTML. Must be able to “think critically.” Must be “detail-oriented” and “meet deadlines.” Any my favorite: “must have a Bachelor’s degree.”

These are the qualities that set good designers apart. If you can’t think critically—meaning you can not only recognize problems with a current design (easy) but offer specific direction in making it better (much harder)—you’re in the wrong business. These are things they taught you in art school. (You do have a Bachelor’s degree, don’t you?)

But what makes a good designer is not the sum of a great designer. There are fundamental skills that precede your college education that are critical to working in the design field. Designers, after all, do not exist entirely in the right side of the brain; many times you will need to figure out complex math, write long e-mails and interact with co-workers, superiors and vendors in the real world.


The sheer amount of math I use every day still amazes me. When I was in high school, I knew I was going to work in the design field, but it never occurred to me that I would be using geometry and algebra. Examples:

  1. Resizing graphics for print layouts. After reviewing negatives, you have to pick which pictures are going where, measure the space, and then figure out the exact percentage the negative needs to be scanned so the image would not have to be scaled inside the layout program. Service bureaus are not cheap, and your boss does not want to pay for a huge image you do not need.
  2. Complex die cuts for packaging need to incredibly precise—down to 0.0001 inches. This requires careful measuring, planning and double-checking to ensure the piece gets cut right.
  3. Even working with CSS requires math. Nested percentages get messy quick, and I often find myself quickly adding columns of pixel values.


If two resumes are sitting on my desk, and all design skills and backgrounds being equal, I’m going to hire the person who can write. Almost every job description somewhere mentions “must be able to clearly communicate.” You’ve probably read that so many times your eyes just glazed over.

Writing is critical to succeeding in the workplace. You really do need to communicate effectively—whether you’re reaming out a vendor over e-mail, typing up a project spec or writing a peer review for a team member. If people can not understand you, the game’s over before it’s begun.

Writing has never come naturally to me. I have to work at it. Most of my posts go through more edit cycles than Jacko’s nose, which is why I only post about once a week. When I publish something, the sentence structure, grammar and fact checking have to be solid. Nothing annoys me more than half-arsed writing where the author didn’t even spellcheck. And if it annoys me, the right-brained designer, you can bet it really annoys the left brain exec who’s signing your checks.


Without getting too motivational speaker on you, the ability to effectively communicate can not be underestimated. People love people who can connect with people.

This is a skill I have not found in any design curriculum (even Bachelor’s degrees), which is a shame since design’s nature is to directly facilitate communication. Designers I know are generally withdrawn, quiet types who are more interested in creating than espousing their tactics. But it’s no coincidence that well-known designers are the ones who speak at conferences, write prolifically and generally inspire other designers by means outside just showing slides of their art. This skill lends itself to their success. Who would a client trust—a graphic artist who can coherently translate the goals of a project and then act on it or one who just lets his comps speak for him?

Successful people depend on good communication and interpersonal skills. Donald Trump is not that great at business (he’s lost as many businesses as he’s opened), but he knows how to get on a platform and get people to listen. Designers like Pash and Zeldman could not have achieved their status without getting out there, speaking, writing and actively participating in the Great Design Dialogue. Even famed artists of a previous generation understood this; Paul Rand was known to travel in very high-profile circles.

Talent only goes so far. A good portfolio can get you in the door but being able to communicate will get you shaking the client’s hand.

commentary + criticism

Jeff Adams

wrote the following on Thursday September 8, 2005

You are so right that writing and communication skills are essential.

I spend probably a quarter of my day writing emails and speaking on the phone or in person to clients.


wrote the following on Monday September 19, 2005

“When I publish something, the sentence structure, grammar and fact checking have to be solid.”

On the subject of which:

“can not be underestimated” should be “cannot be underestimated” and “design’s nature” should be “designs nature”.


wrote the following on Monday September 19, 2005

Actually, “can not” and “cannot” are interchangeable. I prefer spelling out “can not.” (From Oxford dictionary: Both cannot and can not are acceptable spellings, but the first is much more usual. You would use can not when the ‘not’ forms part of another construction such as ‘not only.’)

“Design’s nature” is possessive, so it has an apostrophe. “Design” is the noun. “Nature” modifies.


wrote the following on Monday October 10, 2005

Kevin is correct in this matter. Quit trying to out-wit a professional, Camin. He is a very skilled writer.

In trying to look good you ended up looking bad. I am sure that Kevin would agree that there is no room for ego in the business of graphic design.


wrote the following on Monday October 10, 2005

Maybe somewhere in the design industry there is room for ego (Milton Glaser anyone?) but I certainly don’t have time for it.


wrote the following on Friday November 18, 2005

I love you, Kevin. :)