What Makes A Designer

Understanding form, light, colour, texture, materials, human behavior. Having experience, knowledge, curiosity, imagination, and an uncanny ability to see answers to problems, and the ability to take a chance sometimes—these are some of the attributes of what makes a designer.

But I can hear a whole raft of voices now saying, “don’t forget the ability to use Quark, Photoshop” or whatever.

When we see job adverts for designers we so often see, “Must have 3 years experience with InDesign, Illustrator” and so on. And whilst these are necessary, the weight given to these requirements is often undue.

For instance, do we suppose because someone has handed me a beautiful set of fine stone-chisels, I am now able to sculpt a piece of art? Do we not need understanding of the material (it’s limits, it’s frailties, it’s strengths), not to mention understanding of form, human likeness, intimate understanding of artistic sensibilities (either intuitively or through study)?

I have, over the course of my design career, been met by individuals (not often my clients thankfully) who seem to believe that purchasing the tools will somehow enable them to create effective designs.

These are not isolated instances and for the life of me I cannot truly understand where this thought process originates. Do these individuals believe that purchasing a piano will enable them to be a musician?Of course not. They clearly understand that it takes many, many years to become a rounded and talented musician. 

Even modern digital tools such as Apple’s Garageband don’t make the music for you. There is still a need for musicality—either through immersing yourself in music or learning the theory behind it. Yes, it’s often music coming out, but is it any good? Will anyone want to listen to it? 

So, as a design industry, what went wrong? Going back to the start of the story we looked at how design jobs are often advertised by putting undue requirements on knowledge of tools. Here’s a real-world example that illustrates it well: 

As Pixar grew ever more successful, Disney took the decision to remove many of their traditional hand illustrators and instead put their 3D work out to overseas concerns. Pixar on the other hand, proceeded to hire many of these traditional illustrators and trained them to use the required 3D tools. They understood that knowledge of human form, space, movement, lighting, textures and so forth is a skill not easily developed, whereas learning to use a new tool (in this case the computer application and interface) is. 

This means, when you need to employ a designer, there are specific traits to look for: good communication; a clear understanding of the problem, the audience, human nature; user experience; and a rich portfolio of completed work (looking for effective designs, not just what looks pretty). 

In a nutshell, you’ll need tools to do the job, but you’ll need a good graphic designer to do the job well. 


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