Craft Skills

13 minutes, 5 links


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

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To do strong design work, you have to be well versed in fundamental skills. It’s a prerequisite for the job. This is the raw ability to take inputs and transform them into something meaningful based on your technical knowledge of tools and concepts.

Craft is your knowledge of the tools, methods, and techniques to get the work done. A good designer has a solid grasp of the fundamentals that are usually studied in school, but not everything will be or is expected to be mastered at an academic setting.

important The most important skill of all? Learn how to acquire new skills or renew existing ones as the design field changes rapidly.

From a craft perspective you need to think about acquiring skills in these areas:

  • Visual design.

  • Interaction design.

  • User research and psychology.

  • Platforms and devices.

  • Design tools.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, so take it as a starting point. You may want to focus on some areas more than others. For example, if your work lies heavily on the content side, you might want to lean more into content strategy or copy and information architecture (a whole field in itself). Or if you’re interested in doing work that spans pixels and places, you may want to understand the tools and techniques of service design.

Visual Design

Visual design plays a vital role in the digital experience. At a visceral level it gives the user clues on what they’re about to see. Is this experience serious or playful? An expert visual designer is able to come up with a pleasing composition of elements on a screen.

Today, visual designers have more power, as they play an active role in creating design systems that embed visual design and interaction rules that span multiple platforms.

Some of the core visual design skills include:

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  1. Typography. Choosing type for function and emotion, creating typographic scales that work across multiple platforms and contexts, creating your own typefaces.

  2. Grid. Creating grids that guide the eye but knowing when to intentionally break the grid; working with baseline and vertical grids, considering the macro and micro grid interactions.

  3. Layout. Creating pleasing layouts that come together through a combination of typography, image, illustration, and so on.

  4. Color and shape. Choosing colors that are functional and emotional, colors that are pleasing and accessibility compliant, understanding cultural contexts of color and trends.

  5. Iconography. Choosing icons, doing minor vector work, creating an icon family that scales across different platforms and contexts.

  6. Illustration. Using illustration in proper contexts, understanding the nuances of colors and shapes to make changes to existing illustrations, creating your own from a sketch.

  7. Images and composition. Using images to evoke a certain aesthetic, image manipulation and editing, creating and shooting your own photos, coming up with image and photo guidelines.

  8. Animation and motion. Animation between screens, micro-interactions, making the customer experience feel polished, and using motion design to inform, guide, and delight.

The best way to learn visual design is to practice. Better yet, try practicing and critiquing design with other senior visual designers. Pick up on their good habits and ask them about how they think through a visual design problem. You’ll save yourself a ton of time and acquire shortcuts faster.

Outside of that, make time to replicate the work of others to understand how they’ve made it. See if you can uncover not just the individual design elements but common patterns and think through the problem they were trying to solve.

Interaction Design

Interaction design is about understanding true user intent and developing proper workflows to get the job done. It’s the art and science of communicating to the customer in a way that makes sense for them while pushing back on technology constraints meaningfully.

  1. Sketching. Exploring many ideas quickly on whiteboards and paper. Storyboarding to communicate key interactions. Showing rough ideas via UI thumbnails or drafts of complex multi-platform flows.

  2. Storytelling. Creating a compelling narrative of your work, “sketching” out your user’s world via succinct scenarios, writing a story that stakeholders can relate to and thus take action to make it a reality.

  3. Wireframing. Moving quickly from low-fidelity sketches, utilizing whiteboards, paper, or digital low-fidelity diagrams.

  4. Flows and diagrams. Distilling complex information into abstract flows, mapping existing flows of apps, knowing how to balance comprehensiveness with complexity, mapping out flows for multiple platforms and services. Synthesizing complex data and communicating abstract concepts to yourself and to other designers and stakeholders.

  5. Patterns. Demonstrating awareness of interaction patterns and best practices that are being used right now and why they’re effective. Understanding the reasoning for why certain patterns work better than others depending on the platform and context.

  6. Prototyping. Communicating your work effectively through a series of different stages of prototypes (within a screen, across screens), focusing on prototyping the critical few interactions while leaving out the unimportant many.

  7. Copy. Giving your product’s customers “information scent,” guiding them through the experience via effective copy. Providing a good way of finding clues and being consistent across screens and platforms.

There are tons of great resources out there, but if you had to read one book, then consider About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, 4th ed., by Alan Cooper. It’s a great handbook to refer back to as well as a primer for anyone new to design.

User Research and Psychology

As a product designer you probably don’t need to be a research expert, but strong interaction design skills are complemented well with foundational research skills. Understanding your customers and their goals and being empathetic to their needs helps you focus efforts on things that truly matter.

In a large company you’ll likely have access to dedicated research professionals. For smaller companies this may not be the case as they may not be able to afford both a researcher and a designer. In that case some of the research responsibilities might fall on your shoulders.

  • Heuristic review. The easiest way to critique an interface via a list of guidelines for UI design (for example, Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design).

  • Competitive audits. Analyzing your competitors to learn about their offerings without falling into the trap of copying them.

  • Analogous domains. Extracting relevant patterns from a different domain and applying it in your work.

  • Usability testing. Structuring and running unbiased usability studies that will give you proper directional data with confidence.

  • Surveying methods. Understanding basic tenets of how to write a survey, how to take a correct sample, and how to synthesize data.

  • Contextual inquiry. Monitoring users in context, understanding how work is actually being done (as opposed to how they say it is), and being empathetic to their needs and workarounds.

  • Research planning. Putting the methods together in a plan that’s cost effective, leading to faster feedback loops, with the right amount of rigor.

Lastly, designers should also have a basic understanding of psychology:

  • Cognitive psychology. Limitations of human memory, how people make sense of information, and what they pay attention to.

  • Behavioral psychology. Understanding how to influence and guide people with your product.

Need to brush up on research techniques? Check out Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research by Elizabeth Goodman, et al. This book lays out the core fundamentals while arming you with practical tips.

Platforms and Devices

Understanding the advantages and constraints of platforms is a key skill for product designers. Since product design work is so closely tied to platforms, it’s important to know the best practices for each platform and also how these platforms can work together (this is especially important when your company’s product is multi-platform). Platform knowledge means understanding best practices and trends as well general market trends, recency, and adoption of a platform.

  1. Responsive web. Creating a system that works well across multiple sizes and deals with different platform nuances (touch versus point interfaces).

  2. Mobile native. Understanding touch, mobile, and tablet affordances, being aware of guidelines for iOS (Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines) and Android apps (Material Design).

  3. Wearables. Unique patterns in the experience (for example, designing for bracelets, rings, watches), understanding use cases, small tap targets, managing battery life and other hardware considerations.

  4. Voice. Designing trees, anticipating user intent and actions, providing cues, new interaction patterns.

  5. AR/VR. Inventing new patterns or stress-testing existing ones, guiding users in unfamiliar settings, understanding different VR platforms—their capabilities and trade-offs.

Between native (touch) and web (point and click) devices, you’ll have your work cut out for you. But if you’re in for adventure and want to explore or pioneer new methods of interaction, you’re in luck! New wearable devices are emerging all the time, and the world of augmented reality and virtual reality, while maturing, still has a long way to go.

Later on, we’ll get into the pros and cons of designing for existing vs emerging platforms.

Design Tools

Product design tools are always changing. Adobe used to be the company of choice for most digital work, but these days things are changing. Sketch has come on the scene and established itself as an industry leader, but now with the emergence of Figma, its dominance is slowly fading. Who knows what the next future design tool might look like.

Some design experts say that learning tools doesn’t make you a better designer—you’re just a tool expert. I disagree. Knowing how to quickly use a tool efficiently or picking the right tool for the job will help you not only generate more concepts (and thus lead to a better outcome) but also help you get there faster. You certainly don’t have to learn every shortcut and install every plug-in out there, but having common ones at your disposal will help you be far more effective, so it’s time worth spending.

Here is how you can think about your tool stack:

  1. Low fidelity exploration. Quick sketches on paper using pens, markers, sketching flows, and UI on whiteboards.

  2. Static UI. Creating polished mock-ups quickly (Sketch, Adobe XD, Figma).

  3. Prototyping. Creating interactive prototypes and communicating micro and macro interactions for developers and users (Figma, InVision, Framer, Principle, Origami).

  4. Capturing feedback. Helping your stakeholders comment and share their feedback on your work (Google Slides, InVision).

  5. Diagrams of complex interactions. Providing a bird’s-eye view for yourself and others of how screens and information flow.

  6. Pixel perfect precision. When you need to do retouching or pixel perfect precision, usually for photography (for example, Photoshop).

Take this list as a starting point. Depending on the role that you’re seeking out you may need to pick up new applications along the way.

Think of design tools as an extension of your skills. Are there tools that can help you generate more quality ideas faster and communicate them effectively? Sometimes the best tool is the one you have close at hand—a napkin and a pen might do when you need to capture an idea quickly. Tools will always change and evolve, but great thinking is never out of style.

Collaboration Skills

Design is a team sport. A designer is powerless if they can’t communicate what they’ve done and if they can’t work well with others. Strong collaboration and communication skills are key throughout one’s journey as a designer.

Initially, entry-level designers focus on smaller features and work primarily with oversight from a senior designer. As one’s career progresses, the scope and complexity increase. While strong craft skills are still a prerequisite, one’s focus shifts toward influencing others and working with other cross-functional senior leaders on ambiguous, long-term projects.

Cross-Functional Partnership

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