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Soft skills advice from design leaders

What people skills would you want for your
younger self?

Why do your colleagues want to work with you? And why do clients come back? Maybe it’s because of your talent, or your bullet-proof process. Or maybe it’s because of the brilliantly simple user interfaces and interactions you design.

Maybe, but not necessarily. It may well be due to your people skills, otherwise known as soft skills. How you relate and interact with those around you is at least as important as your talent and technical prowess. This is not to say that your capability won’t get you in the door; it will. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t always matter if your pixels are perfect, your bezier curves are smooth, or your code is clean. What matters most are the relationships you foster.

Your day to day interactions are far more important to your success and happiness than any interactions you create on a screen.

Now that I am no longer a neophyte, I wondered what soft skill I would urge my young self to improve. After a bit of soul searching, I finally landed on flexibility.

As a designer in a fast paced, ever changing industry, there are so many things to learn from so many different sources, but those sources don’t always agree. Thus I say that flexibility is the most important tool. To me, that means being open to trying new things and adapting to new situations, even if they make you uncomfortable.

It also means picking and choosing your battles carefully. When you get out of school, you’ll likely feel flush with passion for your work, and desperate to make a mark in your industry. If so, you’ll undoubtedly feel confident in your own opinions, too. But as you gain experience, you’ll come across more and more people who will disagree with you. That’s okay. Learn when to back down and when to push for what you believe in. Easier said than done, right? That’s where the following comes in:

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Fans of the TV show How I Met Your Mother, you may be familiar with this modified version of Barney’s “Hot/Crazy Scale. Thanks @laureltripp for the reference!

Obviously you don’t want to be labeled as an Inflexible Diva. True, if your talent is higher than your Diva, your co-workers will put up with you, but for how long? Talent can only get you so far. There will always be someone more able, smart or eager. But flexibility can be achieved by anyone. It’s a little bit of an equalizer, and it can be your secret weapon.

Still, being flexible doesn’t mean always giving in and saying yes. One of my first projects as a creative director was with an organization I loved. Because of that, and because I was new, I was eager to please. Too eager. In retrospect, I should have fought more battles, not just to protect my team, but to save the budget and the timeline. That would have created a happier client in the long run.

Flexibility is the soft skill that I try and focus on a lot, even now. I find it keeps me happier with all those little interactions that don’t go my way, and lets those around me know that I deeply value their collaboration.

This line of thought made me wonder what other soft skills are valued by people in the industry. So I asked several top designers what advice they would give to younger versions of themselves. Here is what they said.

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“As a junior its easy to be intimidated. People use big words and acronyms. You’re afraid of what you don’t know. Briefs are often on the boring side. And for many, it’s the first time you have to present work to a large group of people that are older and speak a different language. If you can learn to acknowledge the fear and be ok with it — because it’s not unique to you, everyone has been there — you’ll be free to try new things. To contribute at brainstorms. To throw out ideas in the hallway. To interrupt meetings. To share something funny.

This business is full of process design to protect you from fear and failure. That’s you’re safety blanket. To create something we can all relate to, you need to experience fear and challenge to know how to put the positive emotions of success, fun and happiness into your work.”

Kimberly Bartkowski
National Digital Creative Director
Melbourne, Sydney, New York, Adelaide

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Keep Your Design Mind Open
“Designers these days will greatly increase the impact of their work by being able to hold a room and keeping access to their design mind as they have a conversation with their clients. Doing so requires long practice in making designs and live-capturing the ideas so that one can see the design emerging from the conversation. When this happens, the full might of the designer’s practice merges with the client’s incredible knowledge (not always conscious) of their context and reveals how much they know about their users.”

Chris Baum
Founding Partner

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Time Management (and Humility)
“I would want to encourage my younger self to be more disciplined in managing my time. It doesn’t matter how proficient I am at writing beautiful code or pushing beautiful pixels if I can’t properly prioritize and execute on the things that need done. I would also remind myself to stay humble as I improve. There’s no substitute for true humility when you work in a collaborative industry,
as we do.”

Ben Callahan

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You are not your work
“Be gentle to yourself when your work fails your demanding standards. You are not your work. Your immense value as a human being is completely unrelated to the worth of the things you make. The success or failure of a project, the presence or absence of attention, the silence or applause of an audience… all of these things are useful commentary on your work — but your work is outside of you. Apply that feedback to the things you make, not to your self-worth. Success doesn’t make you a better person, and failure doesn’t make you a worse one. There is no rest or satisfaction in thinking you will finally be happy if only your work is a success.”

Josh Clark
Global Moxie

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Learn to Learn
“The most important skill everyone should strive to master is to learn how to learn. No one person has all the answers in an industry that changes every day, so the ability to efficiently seek out resources, information, and solutions is vital to advancing your knowledge.”

Brad Frost
Web Designer

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Take Charge
“If you have an idea, make it. If you have an opinion, speak it.
Don’t wait for permission. Don’t expect someone to ask. And never wait for someone to do it for you..”

Jennifer Kinon
Co-Founder and Designer
OCD | The Original Champions of Design

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Show Respect
“If I was going to call out just one soft skill for young designers breaking into the industry, I would say it’s most important to show respect. It can come through in many ways, from the research you do about a company before your interview, to the way you learn from the people who have been at the company longer than you. It means being humble, listening to others and then after gathering the facts, stating your opinions and beliefs without an ego.”

Rett Martin
Associate Creative Director

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“I tell students and young designers all the time that this is what I grade/hire on more than anything else. Curiosity drives learning, and I want to hire on what I think they’ll know tomorrow more than whatever they may know today. The drive to figure out the ‘why’ and then the ‘how’ — that’s what really
sets people apart.”

Jason Pamental
Principal & Co-founder
h+w design

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Learn to give and receive feedback
“A skill that designers rarely know intuitively, but can be learned easily, is to feel comfortable about giving and receiving feedback. In receiving feedback, I advise people to assume that whomever is giving feedback only has the good intentions about the project at heart and isn’t trying to undermine their hard work. And, in giving feedback, the best way to get their message across is to remember two simple rules:

  1. Always start with a compliment. Find something in the design that works, even if it seems insignificant, and say something nice. Everything you say afterwards will be heard more positively.

2. Frame your feedback in questions. Ask, “Why did you choose this shade of chartreuse?”, not “Ugh, this green is hideous.” If your questions can be relatable to goals of the project, even better!

What young designers might not be aware of is a lot, if not most, of their jobs will revolve around giving and receiving feedback. So, the quicker they get a handle on it, the quicker they can blossom in their new careers.”

Kevin Sharon
Creative Director
National Design Service

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Embrace other people’s ideas
“As designers we’re trained to be critical. Often times (especially when we’re young) we try to prove our critical thinking by simply being cynical. Our knee-jerk reaction to feedback from an art director or client is often to see it in opposition to our own point of view. But rather than refuting or trying to disprove other people’s ideas, my advice is to embrace them. Adopt the default position that you will be excited by any idea that differs from your own point of view. Find something to love about it. Reevaluate your own work through the lens of this new idea, and do it with enthusiasm. The more adept you are at taking on new and different ideas — and the less threatened you are by them — the faster you will grow.”

Christopher Simmons
principal / creative director

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“You’ll make your users happier if you put yourself in their shoes and design for their specific circumstances. Along the way, you’ll make YOU happier if you put yourself in the shoes of your co-workers, teammates, and even executives that don’t SEEM to know the realities that you do.”

Beau Teague
Sr. Director, User Experience
Cartoon Network

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When I was a young designer, I quickly learned that bouncing back was instrumental to success. You need resiliency. How well do you bounce back from a failed design? A crushing, and perhaps mean critique of the work? How do you handle long nights, with little to no sleep to meet a deadline? What about difficulty with tools or technology, or even vendors? Resiliency enables you to persevere, and now as a design educator, I find myself constantly reminding students of how valuable this is.”

Jason Tselentis
Associate Professor, Winthrop University
Contributing Author, HOW and Print magazines

Gumby (left) with Jason Tselentis (right) 2012 photo by Jeff Wilson

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Listening and synthesizing
“Soft skills I’ve used well in my career are listening and synthesizing during meetings with peers and clients. The synthesis tool for me is having a whiteboard/sketchbook/app and writing tool handy to keep drawings and thoughts active during initial brainstorms or key product development moments.

With listening comes the eagerness of a curious mind excited to have design thinking shape great experiences for customers. In the profession today, having the passion to think of one’s work through all the lenses we need to think through is critically needed as designers create simple and elegant
experiences for multiscreen.”

Jeff Tyson
Jeff Tyson Studio
Recent Past : eBay, Apple, Yahoo!

How about you? What soft skills would you tell a younger version of yourself to work on?

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