Posted on February 20, 2010 - by Lisa Nalewak
The difference between being “Just a Graphic Designer” and a “Graphic Designer People Want to Hire”.
This topic has come up many times in conversations I’ve had with industry peers: What makes a graphic designer a “great” graphic designer versus an “average” or “typical” graphic designer? Plenty of people I’ve interviewed have asked me “What makes you decide to hire one designer over another?”
First of all, let’s define “graphic designer”. A “graphic designer” can be many different people: someone who is focused on producing artwork for art’s sake, equivalent to someone who produces fine art for a living (painting, sculpting, etc). They can be an artist who creates graphics for clothing, or designs patterns for fabrics or carpeting. They can be someone who designs patterns or scenes for embellishing automobiles. There is a wide spectrum of positions for which “graphic designer” applies. For the sake of this article however, I define a “graphic designer” as someone who works creatively in a commercial advertising/marketing capacity.
Evaluating someone as a “great” graphic designer is partially interpretive, and the hiring process involves the subjective evaluation of intangibles like character, attitude and professionalism. Nonetheless, I do believe you can distill the main requirements for “graphic designer greatness” into a few key areas that require specific, high degrees of competency. I discuss them below so that as a graphic designer trying to find work in the advertising/marketing space, you’re armed with a good understanding of what people who hire designers are looking for, and to help you prepare as best you can to land the job you’ve always wanted.
Requirements for “Designer Greatness”:
1) High degree of artistic ability, alternatively referred to as “talent”
2) Advanced skill with popular creative tools
3) Working knowledge of popular industry production processes
4) Excellent understanding of business and marketing fundamentals, particularly how to leverage business and marketing knowledge to create end-products that meet or exceed a client’s goals and expectations
5) Ability to visualize and experience end-products you’re creating through the eyes of the target audience (and sometimes, multiple target audiences)
6) Responsible and proactive work ethic
1) Artistic Ability or “Talent”:
What Is It? – Artistic Ability is the “base” talent of all successful designers. It’s a designer’s ability (partially innate, partially learned) to envision and design a polished, professional looking finished product, whether it be a printed piece of collateral, a logo, a website, a billboard ad, etc. It requires an advanced understanding of color, composition, and typography and adept handling of element unity, dominance, hierarchy and balance. It is by far the most elemental talent a designer needs, for without it they are, in essence, not a designer. However, it is also the most common talent found among designers, which is why – to someone like myself who hires and fires designers for a living – it is the most basic requirement, and not the one that helps me make the ultimate hiring decision. All people who make it past Step One in the Hiring Process will possess excellent Artistic Ability, so it represents only the first step in the culling process.
Advice for Designers – If you are looking to get hired as a designer, be sure your level of talent meets or exceeds the level of talent that is currently acceptable in the jobs you desire and to which you are applying. It takes one level of talent to work at a small, local newspaper designing classified ads for small businesses. It takes a very different level of talent to land a job at a top New York advertising agency. If you are unsure about your ability level, talk to a design professional working in a similar position to the one you want and ask them to evaluate your work. Show them multiple pieces, and describe each project’s background in detail (including the business goal of each piece you designed), and then ask them to honestly evaluate your work. If they believe your work is not up to the level it needs to be, ask them to give you advice on how you can get there. Any designer with talent can get better: for some it just takes longer, so don’t give up!
2) Skill with Popular Creative Tools
What Is It? – This is a person’s expertise (which is learned, not innate) with the most popular creative productivity tools in the industry. These include applications like Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark Express (called “The Big Three” by many), other popular graphic applications like Flash, InDesign and Corel Draw and other productivity tools like Adobe Acrobat, Word Processing programs, MS Office applications, AdobeVersion Cue and Windows/Mac operating systems.
Advice for Designers – It is extremely important that designers be experts in the use of the most popular programs used in the graphics industry, because in the design world, you’ll need them to do your job and because – most importantly – time translates into money. If one designer can achieve a specific result in 1 hour, and that same task takes someone else 3 hours, it’s not hard to understand why the person who is most efficient with their productivity tools will be preferred over the other: that first person can do three times the amount of work in the same amount of time as the other and for a design agency, that means higher productivity and higher profitability.
The best way to learn tools is to use them. Set aside an hour or two a day and just play. Investigate all the different functions your software package offers. Create “projects” for yourself, and see them through to fruition by using features you’ve never used before. Most software tools come with tutorials: they are definitely worth exploring. You’ll learn an enormous amount of new material, and you may learn how to become more efficient with processes you already know. In addition, many local colleges and adult education programs offer classes in the most popular graphic design and business software, as do the actual software publishers themselves. If you can afford to take these classes, do it. They’re an excellent investment in yourself and can give you an edge over other designers when looking for employment.
Even if you feel you are already well versed with your software, be sure to continually educate yourself on new features and functionality that are part of new version releases. Being an expert in Photoshop 6.0 might have made you competitive back when 6.0 was the latest version of Photoshop available, but if you have neglected to keep up with the most recent versions, that expertise will get you nowhere today.
3) Knowledge of popular industry production processes
What Is It? – Simply put, this is the technical understanding of how the visual pieces designers create are actually produced, printed or published. It means possessing the production knowledge necessary to ensure that a visual communications piece prints, outputs or displays correctly in the media for which it was designed. This knowledge is critical when prepping an art file you’ve created. Much of the technical information for the correct production of a piece is assigned by the designer and is included (or “embedded”) in the art file itself.
Advice for Designers – Know the different production requirements for art that you create for various media formats. For example, when creating an ad for a magazine, be sure you understand how that magazine will be printed and produced so the art you create 1) takes advantage of that particular production process’ strengths and avoids its weaknesses, and 2) reproduces correctly and at the best quality. When creating a graphic that will support a web magazine’s editorial feature, make sure you understand the specific technical requirements for that image as it applies to electronic distribution over the web. Understanding the different production methods used to produce the most popular forms of visual communications will also allow you to get creative with materials as well, and create unique pieces with atypical stocks and finishing processes.
If you possess high quality artistic talent, but do not know the difference between setting up art to print in spot-color, four-color process and for electronic distribution, or do not know how to create a die-line, or what type of challenges to expect when overprinting inks, or designing for billboards, you have immediately put yourself at an disadvantage over other talented artists with this critical production knowledge. Why? Because it 1) limits your creativity and 2) limits the effectiveness of your work, which means someone else will have to “fix” your art to produce it correctly. That costs either your agency or your client money, and causes frustrations for both as well.
The best way to keep abreast of production technology is to be proactive about reaching out to production companies that specialize in various media, and to look for sources of information in print and on the web. Talk to you local offset printer. Visit a web fed press. Visit a large commercial digital press. Talk to web design gurus. Subscribe to different magazines that cover these topics. Follow blogs that cover advances in the different production technologies. Join groups on social networking sites that share information, tips and strategies on different production methods. Visit your local Chamber of Commerce or Community College and take continuing ed classes. There are many more ways to keep on top of production technology. It’s up to you to find them and keep yourself educated and up-to-date.
4) Excellent understanding of business and marketing fundamentals
What Is It? – Basically, having an excellent understanding of business and marketing fundamentals as a designer means you understand WHY a piece is being created for a company and how that piece fits strategically into a broader, higher-level marketing and/or business plan. It means you understand the specific business goal a piece you are designing must achieve, why it is important that the piece achieve it, and why the achievement of that business goal is the most important criteria for evaluating the success of your design (not whether or not you think it looks pretty or “artistic”). In the design of visual communication pieces for business, art plays a secondary and supportive role. In order to achieve this understanding, you must be familiar with how businesses work and how they market themselves.
Advice for Designers – The understanding of business and marketing fundamentals is the most rare – and the most important – attribute designers possess. Those that have it are years ahead of those that don’t, because they do not demand that their agency spend months, and possibly years (which costs time and money) teaching them why the art they are creating is important to the client, and how it will be used. That knowledge makes a big difference in a designer’s ability to design an effective piece, and clients want pieces that produce results, not just look pretty. All else being equal, I will hire a designer with excellent business and marketing acumen and good creative tool skills over one with elite creative tool skills and weak business and marketing acumen, because the tool skills come very quickly to talented artists. The business and marketing acumen isn’t as intuitive and takes longer to develop.
While every industry has some unique factors that effect how companies in their space do business and how they market themselves to their consumers, there are still general, fundamental business and marketing practices that are common amongst all industries. Most people learn these through experience. Some learn them from books and study. Some from both. Whatever way you can, you must learn these basics so you can approach your design from the perspective of a business and marketing professional first, and as an artist second.
If you approach a project in the same way as your client, who is no doubt a business or marketing professional and NOT a designer, you will be at an enormous advantage over other designers who do not speak the same “language” as your client. When you approach a piece from a business and marketing perspective, and design it to meet a specific business or marketing goal, you are ensuring that your piece is effective and drives results for your client. And that’s what clients want: results, not art.
There are numerous books out there that teach people about the fundamentals of business and marketing. Get some. Read them. Take introductory classes or go to seminars for entrepreneurs. Talk to other designers who’ve been doing what they do for a long time, particularly those who do a lot of work in direct mail and print advertising. Find out how they approach a project from a business perspective, and then start doing it yourself. When you find yourself thinking “How should I design a cool-looking business card so it convinces the recipient he absolutely needs my client’s services?” rather than “How can I design this business card so it looks really cool?”, you’ll know you’re now thinking like a business professional, and that will put you at a serious advantage over other designers who do not.
5) Ability to see through the eyes of the target market
What is it? – Simply put, having the ability to experience the world, including interacting with collateral you’ve designed, through the eyes of your target market means you can remove yourself from your own system of beliefs and values when evaluating an experience. Instead, you evaluate experiences using a system of beliefs and values common to people within your target market segment, even if their beliefs and values are vastly different from your own. Another popular way of saying the same thing is “Being able to walk in someone else’s shoes”, in this case, the shoes of your target audience.
Advice for Designers – It is not easy to fundamentally change the way you think in order to be more like another type of person. However, with practice, it becomes easier to achieve. If you are unable to attain this level of “enlightenment” when designing something for a specific target audience, rest assured the final product you design will be nowhere near as compelling and effective as a piece created with the wants, needs, beliefs and desires of the target audience in mind. It is essential that as a designer, you become skilled at removing your likes, tastes, desires, style preferences and personal feelings from the process of design, and instead learn to execute a design using the likes, tastes, desires, style and personal preferences of your target audience instead. To do this, you must first recognize who your target market is, and then research their preferences as they pertain to the topic of your design project.
For example, let’s say you are asked to design a postcard to sell women’s swimsuits. The target demographic is women, aged 25 to 40, which is being mailed to a retail clothing chain’s mailing list. You don’t have to think too hard in this example to understand that your card has to appeal to women, particularly to younger women. But, can you dig further to uncover more about this audience? What type of woman does this clothing chain attract? Trendy, fashion conscious women? Outdoorsy, natural-type women? Frugal, conservative women? Where are most of these women located? Are women in Dallas generally different then women in Boston? How about income? Are these women generally in lower, mid or upper level income brackets? Are they generally healthy, active types or do they tend to be more sedate and indoor activity oriented? Does this have an effect on how they view their bodies? Once you learn the specifics, you can put together a “value list” for your “average” target customer and from that, you can get a good design direction for your project.
For our example, let’s say our target audience is generally outdoorsy type women and that the chain is located in the Boston area, and that most people who shop at this chain are in the mid and upper level income brackets. Based on this and conversations with your client about their customers, you are able to infer that these type of women are likely to respond to graphics and visuals that emphasize the outdoors, that they can afford and are likely to purchase high-level products, that they are generally more liberal in their values than conservative, that they tend to be active and most have a healthy body image. Now, you approach your design project by thinking “If I were this woman, what type of design elements would motivate me to pick up this card, read it, and then respond?” An earthy color palette would be a good place to start, as would a handmade-looking, fibrous card stock. Perhaps imagery of outdoor scenery, coupled with a natural, flowing arrangement of body flattering suits in the layout, anchored with green-friendly messaging would help our piece “connect” with its audience. This is a very different approach than if we were designing for a hip, urban crowd, or for a conservative, more reserved crowd, and – most likely – it’s also quite different from the types of things that would motivate you if you were the recipient of the piece in the mail. It’s all about thinking from the perspective of the target audience, and putting aside your personal preferences to achieve the best end-product possible.
The best way to brush up on this skill is to do it. Give yourself assignments: create a series of designs for the same product, but for different target audiences. Change the gender, age, income and geographic value of the end-user. Change their hobbies and likes. Change the political climate of the country, even. For each new set of demographics, values and beliefs you make up, create a completely different design. There are many factors that go into “thinking like another”, so try to get as creative as possible. Over time, it will become second nature to approach every design project you take on from the perspective of the target audience instead of from your own perspective (or even the perspective of the client) and the efficacy of your designs will improve greatly.
6) Responsible and proactive work ethic
What is it? – Hopefully, this is already something most people looking to embark on a successful professional career already cultivate, but still, it’s worth mentioning. Being responsible and proactive basically means that you are an amazingly stable and dependable worker, always strive to meet and exceed the expectations of those who count on you, and take the initiative on a regular basis without being asked to do so. In my experience, finding people with responsible and proactive work ethics has surprisingly not been as easy as I would have thought. For every great person I find, I go through about 3 or 4 who prove that they care very little about their work or the company they work for.
Advice for Designers – Being responsible means that you take it upon yourself to achieve the best results you can every time you work on a project, and that you can be counted on to perform your work when you are scheduled to, when you are asked to, and when you have deadlines to meet that may necessitate overtime. Being responsible means letting other people who count on you know if you have to take a sick day, if you can’t finish something in the time you are given, or if you been assigned something that is not within your capabilities. Being responsible means that you care immensely how your actions effect other people, and as a designer, you are cognizant about what you have to do and when, and you strive to keep the people around you (including clients and co-workers) happy and motivated to continue working with you.
Being proactive means that you “go the extra mile” and do things without being asked first, because you know they are the right things to do, and/or would benefit you, your co-workers or your company. You spend time after work to add a special touch to a design, or to better learn a creative tool. You approach your supervisors and ask to be given more of the type of work you’re interested in. You offer thoughtful suggestions and ideas that help increase your company’s productivity, its success, it profitability. You help a coworker learn a new software package. You reach out and follow-up with someone on a topic of discussion rather than hanging-back and waiting for an email to appear in your mailbox. In essence, you are good at “taking the bull by the horns” and making things happen rather than waiting for them to happen on their own.
In the rather competitive design world, it’s important a designer is both these things. If you are not responsible, it won’t take long for people to learn they can’t depend on you, and work coming your way will dry up. If you’re employed as a designer somewhere and you are not responsible, you will lose your job (there is no doubt about that one). If you do not make efforts to be proactive, you will not be thought of as an invaluable team member, but rather as just an asset that is likely easy to replace. Do not underestimate the value of being proactive. It is the key element that separates great, thoughtful designers who enjoy bright, progressive careers from those that just collect their paycheck and remain cubicle gophers for life.