Soft Skills for Designers

Succeed at Life and Work

Identifying the Problem

In my previous article, I explained how a lack of soft skills is hurting recent design graduates as they enter their first job. In my interviews, students admitted to feeling a sense of overwhelm at the pace of work, an inability to juggle multiple projects, and their struggle to effectively communicate with their boss and team members. On the flip side, hiring managers echoed this sentiment and commented that students often enter their first job with a lack of self awareness, lackluster social skills, and weak presentation ability.

Finding a Solution

Many, if not all, of these issues could be addressed by requiring students to go through an internship to receive the one-on-one mentoring and real world experience that typically comes with an internship. But not all universities are able to make this a part of their program, at least not at the speed needed to assist current juniors and seniors. For universities such as these, I have focused my design efforts. I am proposing a workshop and mentoring program called Soft Skills for Designers.

Soft Skills for Designers is for any college that has a graphic design program without an internship or mentoring aspect included in their curriculum. It will create immense value to universities by helping them raise up more well-rounded design graduates with the skills needed to succeed at their first job. It will create immense value to the students by better preparing them for the transition from college to career through training and mentorship.

How it Works

Everything begins with the free Soft Skills for Designers (SSD) workshop. The workshop is a true community effort in partnership with the school’s design program. SSD provides workshop template and materials (more on this later) and the university brings in successful design alum and local business figures with an excellent grasp of the soft skills being taught at the workshop.

The workshop serves 3 purposes. First, it reveals the student’s strengths and weaknesses of core soft skills by way of the SSD Quiz taken at the start of the Workshop. Second, it partners the students up with a mentor (school alum or local business figure). This is not necessary a one to one ratio. Most likely, a handful of students will be partnered with one mentor to engage with the workshop material together. Third, the workshop gives students (and mentors) access to the SSD web portal, where each student sets up a profile, takes the SSD Quiz previously mentioned, and can stay in communication with each other long after the workshop.

The SSD web portal is much more than a quiz or chat room. After a student takes the quiz at the workshop, their personal profile is created with a visual representation of the core soft skills and a gauge of what “level” they are currently at. (This is not in comparison with other students and does not display publicly until the student chooses to make their profile public. The student is encourage to sharpen weak skills and then open up their profile to share at job interviews. Hiring managers will be able to see the students strengths and weakness, as well as his or her efforts to improve weaker skills.)

The web portal is a launching point for deep dives into soft skills the student has yet to master. On the site, the student can find a variety of courses on each of the soft skills covered in the workshop, all presented my industry leading professionals in design and business. These courses are available for purchase at a student-friendly price. Each student will receive a promo code for a free course of their choosing upon completion of the workshop.

Detailed information on the SSD courses and curriculum can be found in the section entitled The Core Soft Skills.

Students participate in a workshop exercise.

The Competition

As with any business idea, there will always be similar or competing ideas. While there are many courses out there that address soft skills and many programs that seek to connect students with mentors, I believe SSD sets itself apart in its focused, holistic approach. It is focused specifically for designers and addresses issues such as dealing with clients or working with a team strictly from a designers perspective. It uniquely combines a physical workshop and mentor relationship with an online platform for continued education and growth.

The web portal adds a deeper level of learning, but instead of it being a virtual and impersonal experience, it is all built on the foundation of the in-person workshop and mentor relationship. When a student enrolls in a course, the mentor is granted access to the course as well and is sent a summary of the content with optional discussion prompts to talk through the next time the student contacts him or her (either in person or through the web portal video chat function). This puts training sites such as, Skillshare, and other e-courses at a disadvantage as there are no real relationships being built and little to no real-time human interaction.

Online training sites are just one example of a product that might compete with SSD. For a more thorough exploration of the competition, let’s make use of Porter’s Five Forces.

An Analysis Using Porter’s Five Forces

Porter’s Five Forces is a valuable tool that takes a business idea and looks at it through the lens of its industry to identify the level of competition, number of customers, difficulty of entry, and much more. This allows the prudent to identify red flags before attempting to enter what may be an over-saturated market. I thought it would be useful to pass SSD through Porter’s grid, so here we go:

  1. Competitive Rivalry | Soft skills have become a hot topic of the past few years, and while many schools and employers are realizing their value, little has been implemented for students thus far. Reinhardt University created a program for their students that teaches soft skills on the weekends and rewards the students with badges for their graduation gown. On the flip side, The School of Life in London seeks to be a global program focused on emotional intelligence and has a physical presence in several countries. They focus on in-person workshops and charge for each other 12 in their curriculum. None of these programs included mentoring in their concept.
  2. Supplier Power | SSD “suppliers” might include our web hosting provider, video production crew, and the print shop that will produce workshop materials. In each of these cases, options are endless, giving SSD great flexibility to find the most affordable provider for each service.
  3. Buyer Power | There are two “buyers” in SSD’s current business model. The first is the university that chooses to bring in the SSD workshop. For this there is no charge, so the only “selling” is proving to the university how valuable the workshop really is when students attend and form a relationship with their mentor. The second buyer is the student, the real user, who can enhance weaker soft skills by purchasing online courses (and strengthen their online profile to show to potential hiring managers). The goal of SSD is to become a recognized name that businesses consider a plus if they find on an applicant’s resume.
  4. Threat of Substitution | The threat of substitution lies mainly with the choices of the universities. As mentioned earlier, only a handful of schools have currently implemented a soft-skills program. Schools that are more progressive may work to create their own program, but those looking to fill the need quickly will have few options. New World of Work is one of the few alternatives that I found. It provides free videos for schools to use in teaching soft skills. It does not, however, provide a mentorship program or include a web portal to showcase learned skills to potential employers.
  5. Threat of New Entry | Until SSD gains moment and is recognized by employers, threat of new entry remains high. There is little cost to enter in on this particular business model. For SSD’s success I predict a strong network must be formed with leading designers (for the production and promotion of online courses) to protect SSD as the premier soft skills training program for design students.

Why Soft Skills for Designers?

My research has shown not only a huge need for this sort of training, but also a very limited number of solutions. With a very niche target user group, SSD has a great opportunity to launch with little to no competition. SSD will help junior and senior design students gain soft skills such as communication, self-awareness (knowledge of strengths and weaknesses), organization, and time management, so that they will be successful at their first design job and beyond. It all starts by attending a one-day workshop that teaches fundamental soft skills, provides mentors who can continue the conversation with students, and grants access to a web portal with courses to strengthen the weaker skills identified during the workshops.

So what does the material actually consist of? Read on…

The SSD student handbook given out at workshops.

The Core Soft Skills

SSD has broken down soft skills into five core categories. It may be argued that some topics do not fall in the category of soft skills, such as diet and exercise, but studies have shown that exercise strongly affects mood which has a huge impact on the way people interact and communicate with each other. For this reason, I felt it necessary to include such topics. The five core skills with sub-topics are shown below:

  1. Productivity
  • Organization
  • Juggling multiple projects
  • Time management
  • Working faster and more efficiently
  • Deep work, focus
  • Suggested Resources: Deep Work by Cal Newport, Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy, Getting Things Done by David Allen

2. People Skills

  • How to relate to co-workers
  • How to relate to your boss
  • How to work on a team, flexibility
  • How to relate to clients, empathy
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Suggested Resources: How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork by John C. Maxwell

3. Communication

  • Public speaking
  • Presenting to clients
  • How to sell your ideas
  • Power of persuasion
  • Writing emails
  • Suggested Resources: Steal the Show by Michael Port, Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith, Influence by Robert Cialdini

4. Problem Solving

  • Brainstorming methods
  • Staying curious
  • Design thinking
  • What to do when you hit a wall
  • Suggested Resources: The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger Von Oech, Change by Design by Tim Brown

5. Self Optimization

  • Work-life balance
  • Your mood — know thyself!
  • Confidence
  • Diet, exercise and rest
  • Suggested Resources: High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard, Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

The Workshop

The foundation of SSD is the live workshop held on college campuses. Successful alum and local business managers are invited to come speak on one of the core soft skills from SSD material. Outlines and content are provided for each talk, but the presenters are encouraged to adjust the material to the way these topics really play out in their workplace. The schedule for the workshop is as follows:

  • 9:00 a.m. — Check in, create SSD web portal account
  • 9:30 a.m. — Welcome, meet your mentor, introductions
  • 9:45 a.m. — Soft skills assessment quiz
  • 10:00 a.m. — Guest speaker #1 Productivity
  • 10:30 a.m. — Group exercises w/mentor, productivity hacks
  • 11:00 a.m. — Guest speaker #2 People Skills
  • 11:30 a.m. — Group exercises w/mentor, scenario practice
  • NOON — Lunch break
  • 12:30 p.m. — Dessert and SSD web portal demo
  • 1:00 p.m. — Guest speaker #3 Communication
  • 1:30 p.m. — Group exercises w/mentor, selling your idea
  • 2:00 p.m. — Guest speaker #4 Problem Solving
  • 2:30 p.m. — Group exercises w/mentor, brainstorming examples
  • 3:00 p.m. —Coffee Break
  • 3:30 p.m. — Guest speaker #5 Self Optimization
  • 4:00 p.m. — Group exercises w/mentor
  • 4:30 p.m. — Recap, promo code for free course given out
  • 4:45 p.m. — Goodbyes

Most hour blocks consist of a half hour presentation followed by group exercises to practice or discuss what was taught. Some exercises are designed for small groups and some are designed for the entire group with a handful of volunteers being called up front. The SSD experience is always meant to be enlightening and entertaining. Although soft-skill strengths and weaknesses are being identified in the students, careful attention is made to never shame weaker skills. The workshop is all about affirming moves in the right direction. The student acknowledging room for growth in a positive way is already a win in the SSD program.

The Web Portal

SSD’s web portal may be the most powerful tool in the program for students to grow in their newfound soft skills. As mentioned previously, students and mentors create an account on the website at the start of the workshop as they take the soft skills assessment quiz. This unlocks a profile page that shows how the student is doing in each of the five categories as well as opportunities (i.e. courses and activities) for growth.

The web portal serves three purposes: (1) a way for the student and mentor to communicate and continue conversations about soft skills well after the workshop, (2) an online training platform to purchase deep dive courses from design and business experts, and (3) a profile page the student can make public whenever they choose to show progress and effort in developing soft skills to potential employers.

SSD online courses are set up to encourage further discussion with the student’s mentor. The student is advised to ask their mentor how they have seen the topic play out in their career. The student is also given optional exercises to perform that will boost their current rating for that particular soft skill. Each time a course is completed, the student’s rating goes up.

The public profile on SSD’s web portal can be utilized for full resume and skill display to potential employers.

The Mentors

Mentors are the true heroes in the SSD experience. Mentors commit to helping the students grow their soft skills and transition from college to their first job. Students gain valuable wisdom from the more experienced designers and business leaders, getting a better grasp of what to expect before their first day on the job or how to handle conflict with a coworker. Each month mentors receive updates on their student’s activity in the web portal, potential discussion topics and conversation starters, and activity suggestions to reunite the mentorship group from the original workshop.

A year after the student graduates, the “official” mentorship ends (guided discussion and activity prompts from SSD cease), but the student and mentor are certainly encouraged to stay in touch if they so choose. It is SSD’s hope that these relationships grow into true friendships that lead to fruitful conversations and ideas for both parties involved. These mutually beneficial relationship hold the key to successful careers for students and mentors alike.


Below is a list of articles and studies that guided my journey creating the Soft Skills for Designers workshop and mentorship program.

Higher Education Is Failing Students and Employers — Forbes Article

  • There seems to be a growing consensus that a college degree does not provide graduates with the grounding they need
  • Higher education’s main purpose is to prepare students for the workplace… and they are failing at it
  • Solutions:
  • Providing more practical and applied education experiences
  • Using technology to improve access, experience, variety and outcomes
  • Strengthening relationships with strategic partners

How higher education remains viable in today’s dynamic world — IBM Article

  • A disconnect exists today between educators and industry leaders
  • The solution involves a systemic transformation that prioritizes more practical and applied curricula, exploits disruptive technologies, and strengthens and expands ecosystem partnerships.
  • See downloaded PDF

Recent Grads not Prepared for the Workplace — Forbes Article

  • According to the survey, fewer than two in five managers believed college graduates were well-equipped for a job in their field of study
  • Less than half believed they could write clearly, manage a project, give a presentation, conduct a meeting, or create a budget.
  • Seven in ten (students) believed they could effectively communicate with figures of authority. Less than half of hiring managers thought likewise.

How Our Universities are Failing Us — Article (This is an excerpt from, Shattered Consensus, published by Encounter Books.)

  • A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for all, even if no one in a position of academic authority can specify what such an education is or should be
  • College tuition and expenses have grown by five times the rate of inflation over the past three decades
  • More recently, several books written from a liberal point of view have taken colleges and universities to task on various counts: they are too expensive; the education they offer is subpar, especially in relation to costs; they are administratively top-heavy; their faculties are too specialized; they do not emphasize teaching; their catalogs are filled with bizarre courses; and, importantly, they are not providing the liberal arts education that students need and deserve.

My observations

  • Higher education does not paint the big picture well for students.
  • It does not teach them leadership skills
  • It does not teach communication skills
  • It does not teach problem identifying and solving skills
  • It does not encourage creative thinking

Modern University Failing Students — National Review Article

  • A bachelor’s degree is no longer proof that any graduate can read critically or write effectively.

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money — Book

  • The authors cite a telling statistic: from 2005 to 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees but created just 15,820 assistant professorships.

The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux — Podcast

  • We don’t have an education system that is designed for a world where anybody can tweet an idea at 3 a.m.
  • We don’t have an education system that prepares students that their career field could disappear
  • We don’t have an education system that prepares students for a future where they don’t know their future
  • We can’t teach students as if things are constant. The world is evolving so quickly…

Problem: colleges are too focused on teaching hard skills and have no metric for soft skills that lead to dynamic leaders with critical thinking and problem solving abilities. There is no consensus on design curriculum. Hiring managers don’t know what skills person with a “graphic design” degree is going to possess

American Design Schools Producing Weak Graduates

  • Academic design programs are crippled by blurry standards which are so vastly different from program to program that it is nearly impossible for me, as an employer, to have a reliable idea of what skills a student toting a design degree can be expected to possess.

The Problem with Design Education

  • Need to include science as part of design education

Design Education’s Big Gap: Discussion of Power

  • Students never learn or discuss the role of “power” in the world
  • When you have power, the chances of you affecting a particular outcome is increased. When you have a lot of power, you can practically guarantee things will go the way you intend them.
  • (article may not fit this project, but definitely interesting for thesis work)

The Problem with Design Education (Creative Review UK)

  • The easiest way to break down disciplinary barriers and encourage transferable skills is to place architects next to fashion designers next to metal workers next to computer illustrators.
  • Working in an agile way is a key characteristic of all the studios I spoke to.
  • Rigorous questioning and iteration, going back to the beginning again and again to perfect the end result, is another common part of the creative process of design studios.

Why Design Education Must Change

  • My experience with some of the world’s best design schools in Europe, the United States, and Asia indicate that the students are not well prepared in the behavioral sciences that are so essential for fields such as interaction and experience design
  • Design needs to develop its own experimental methods.
  • Designers fall prey to the two ailments of not knowing what they don’t know and, worse, thinking they know things they don’t.
  • Many designers are woefully ignorant of the deep complexity of social and organizational problems
  • Need more attention to the social and behavioral sciences, to modern technology, and to business.
  • (another guy who thinks science needs to be more a part of curriculum)

Programs that Failed the Gainful Employment Rule

6 Reasons Design Education is Failing the Creative Industry

From Graduate’s Perspective:

What I Wish I Was Told Before Becoming a Graphic Designer

I Wish I’d Known

Letter to Junior Designer

8 Tips For Keeping Your First Design Job

Beyond Design, 10 Skills Designers Need to Succeed Now

10 Essential Traits of a Successful Graphic Designer

17 Design Pros Give Career Advice

Success in your First UX Job:

Avoid being the noob at the job:

Succeed at First Job after College:

What I’ve learned at design jobs:

Soft Skills and Programs that Teach Them

3 Must-Have Soft Skills

Lack of soft skills demands change in education

Forbes: The 20 People Skills You Need To Succeed At Work

E-Learning Industry Worth $325 Billion by 2025:

15 E-Learning Trends:

  • By 2019, video will be responsible for 80% of the internet traffic in the world

Capital Factory:

  • Provides space for entrepreneurs to work AND gives access to 150 entrepreneurial mentors
  • At a monthly fee of course

Student Mentor .org

  • Online connection for students to find mentors to message questions to
  • Free!
  • Get advice on carreer, grad school, financing your education, interview skills, time management, study skills, transferring

College Vine

  • This is actually for high school students, but teaches a lot of the skills I am talking about

The School of Life (London based with global aim but not in USA yet)

  • Interesting site focused on emotional intelligence, but definitely covers alot of soft skills
  • Has a few physical spaces around the world for in-person workshops
  • 12 carefully curated classes address the great challenges of life, following 4 broad themes: Work, Love, Self-Knowledge, and Culture.


  • Creates profile pages for every student to showcase accomplishments
  • Highlight stories outside of classroom grades or achievements
  • Can show softskills

Reinhardt U soft skills program

  • Reinhardt University launches program to train students in soft skills such as conflict management and strategic listening — while preserving liberal arts mission.
  • Physical badges are pinned on student’s gown for graduation with completion of different classes

New Hampshire Community College soft skills course

  • Has an actual course to prepare students for their next job

Community College soft skills program expands to meet demand of employers

New World of Work

  • A true competitor here
  • Curriculum to teach soft skills to students, but not designer focused
  • Does not include mentoring

Benefits of Mentors

Benefits of being a mentor

Larger effect sizes were detected for academic and workplace mentoring

Reporting benefits of mentoring

  • Provides impartial advice and encouragement
  • Develops a supportive relationship
  • Assists with problem solving
  • Improves self-confidence
  • Offers professional development
  • Encourages reflection on practice

List of benifits of mentorship

  • Career advancement, including a higher rate of promotion
  • Increased opportunities and a likelihood of staying at the institution
  • Higher salaries
  • Increased productivity and better time management
  • Greater success in achieving external research grants
  • Personal and professional development, including increased job-related wellbeing, self-esteem and confidence, and better work-life balance
  • Preparation for the future and heightened career aspirations
  • Developed networking skills

AIGA mentorship program list… none in Texas

  • Partnering with people from amazon, google, etc to provide mentorship for designers to level up their career

Article on Medium from mentee’s perspective

  • “I can say that my most meaningful design growth has come from mentorship.”

How To Find a Design Mentor

Mentoring best practices:

Great mentorship program and what it can look like over several months:

How to make mentoring work

The Role of Mentoring in College Access and Success