Skills You’re Not Taught In Design School

There ‘s a book in my library titled, 101 Things to Learn in Art School by Kit White. It’s full of truths that every designer should know, no matter what school they attend, if any at all.

Another truth is, even the best of design schools can’t teach everything necessary for success. Some skills can only be developed “in the trenches” of the working world, because it’s only there that they become evident.  There are what I refer to as essential practices for every designer. It’s when you launch into actual practice and get serious that you realize you need to know more than you do about a lot of things.

The basis for this realization is a the simple truth that we do not design ex nihilo – out of nothing. There is no truly original creative idea… new ideas and new creations are incubated in the assimilation of what already exists. Designers need a certain amount of life experience to draw from, and an awareness of what’s been done in the past, what’s going on now, and the diversity of ideas in our current culture. The well-rounded designer practices these things:

Listening. Not only does the designer need to listen to his clients, but he needs to be continually listening to people in general. Listening is an acquired skill, and requires discipline. In listening, we perceive the depths of people’s perceptions and plumb their world views. If we are listening well, we become informed about needs, purposes, fears and victories, and are able to accurately pinpoint the needs and concerns of the audiences we design for.

Reading. This activity not only informs but requires us to imagine in a way that watching does not. When reading, we form our own images and draw conclusions. Reading should encompass journalism, non-fiction, self-improvement, leadership, history and fiction. Read the classics and contemporary work. Read poetry, blogs and technical manuals.

Watching: In addition to listening, watch. Observe with intention. How do people react to a brand? What patterns do you see emerging? The way to understand a target audience- in addition to listening – is to notice and identify those common, repeated threads that occur and reoccur over time. The next time you go shopping, don’t go just to make a purchase. Observe how people engage with and react to brands. Watching also refers to entertainment, advertising, and design. Be aware of what’s going on in the culture around you. Visit galleries and attend opening receptions. Go to movies. Attend sporting events. Watch some television. Museums, libraries, historic districts, farmers’ markets, shopping malls, car shows, points of interest all present fodder for our creative solutions.

Resting. Few of us do this well anymore. We take time off of work and fill it with activity. But resting is necessary not only for our well-being but also for the percolation, sorting, evaluating, editing and overall categorizing of all that information and visual stimuli we’ve been taking in. Information is nothing to us if it’s only information. Our need is to decide what to do with it, what it means, and how and whether to act on it or not. Rest – the cessation of work – allows room for reflection and is a skill that needs to be done intentionally. Carving out time in a day or a week, taking a day or two each month to separate from work, be quiet and think, needs to be an determined and planned effort.

Writing: All that reflection we get done during those times of rest should be recorded. Capture thoughts and doodles on paper – real or virtual. If it’s on paper or recorded in some way, you can refer back to it without having to keep it in your head. When it’s recorded, you can run with it, develop it, connect it, communicate it, utilize it, deploy it.

What are other necessary skills for a designer? Comment to share your thoughts.


Alvalyn Lundgren is a graphic designer, illustrator and owner of Alvalyn Creative, an independent design studio near Los Angeles, California. Contact her for your branding, graphic and web design needs. You can join her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and receive her monthly newsletter.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and design director at Alvalyn Creative, an independent practice near Thousand Oaks, California. She creates visual branding, publications and books for business, entrepreneurs and authors. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business roadmap program for creative freelancers. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and digital design needs. Join her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. i a a beginner at drawing and i feel that im not as good as i want to be my passion is art and i feel that i would really want to be a artist but my drawings is stilll not where or at the standard i want it 2 be…how do i improve ? is it possible for a person that loves art but cant really draw 2 persue a life in art

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