Aside from having a well-honed skill set, designers possess traits that help them get quality work done while elevating people around them to do their best work. Strong designers raise the quality bar and are seen as leaders to emulate due to the positive examples they set in the workplace. Examine the following traits.
Design is a team sport that continues to evolve and rapidly grow over time. No one knows everything, but how you handle the lack of knowledge makes a key difference. Having a “growth mindset” (as coined by Carol Dweck) as opposed to a “fixed mindset” helps you continue to push when the going gets tough and to learn from failure.
Designers with a growth mindset:
See mistakes as a natural part of learning.
Attribute their design skills to hard work instead of innate talent.
Perceive others as having the ability to grow.
Although mindset is singular, this is not a binary switch that you flip on or off. Unlike craft and collaboration skills, we usually think of mindset as an either-or. While people do have certain preferences or attitudes and a certain inclination, a helpful mindset can be developed and cultivated.
Comfortable with Complexity and Ambiguity
There are many ways to solve a problem in design.
To understand your level of comfort with ambiguity, ask yourself:
How have I approached complex or ill-defined (“wicked”) problems in the past?
How many complex assignments have I had in the past (for example, ones that spanned multiple teams, platforms, and initiatives, and which may not have had concrete success criteria attached to them)?
What is the most ambiguous assignment you’ve faced?
As you mature as a designer, taking on larger and more undefined projects, your level of comfort with ambiguity and complexity will increase gradually.
In your approach to solving a design problem, you can choose to wait until perfect data and research come in, but oftentimes, realistically, there is not enough time and waiting too long is just as bad as moving too quickly. As your experience increases, you’ll know when to move fast and when to wait. Senior designers don’t wait for problems, they seize the opportunity, create solutions for the future, and rally their team around implementation.
From a design manager’s eye, this is the type of designer anyone would want to hire. Instead of having them wait for work to come in, this designer is restless and will focus on creating value and identifying the biggest gaps that they can close while delivering maximum value to the company.
Transparent in Their Work
Design work is never done, and often the first iteration of a design has missing elements and needs to evolve further. It’s up to the designer to determine and seek out the type of feedback they need in specific parts of the process, while moving with quality and little supervision.
Are you proactive in seeking out feedback?
How have you developed others by giving them effective feedback?
How have you acknowledged mistakes in the past and learned from them?
When do you ask for help?
Have you created action plans to get yourself or the project unstuck?
This isn’t about hedging or sweeping mistakes under the rug but rather admitting fault or calling for support and help when needed.
High Velocity with Ability to Take on Multiple Projects
As you mature as a designer, your speed of execution will also increase. You’ll be able to move quickly and get to high quality solutions faster. Of course this will vary by company and priority at the moment.
How often do you show your work in progress?
How long does it take for you to go from idea to polished concept?
How well can you context-switch, handling multiple projects in parallel while advancing the direction of all of them?
How much are you able to take on? How good are you at juggling multiple projects? Can you only effectively work on one? Or can you pick up and run with two or more at the same time?
Strong Planning and Organization
When the scope of your projects increases from working on features to working on things that cover multiple surface areas, planning becomes more important. At senior levels you’re expected to properly set expectations for the scope of the work and meet those expectations.
How accurate are you in scoping projects?
How well were you able to manage stakeholder expectations?
How far out can you reliably plan out projects and foresee potential issues?
Setting the Quality Bar
Quality is a murky term that could mean different things to different people, and oftentimes quality is negotiable depending on where you are in the product process.
How innovative or ground breaking are your design proposals? Are you pushing bounds and establishing new standards?
How well can you focus on the critical few things that matter? Can you double down on the things that are working while letting go of things that are just OK?
How do you set and maintain a standard for “quality” work? Can you push back on constraints to maintain a higher bar for design?
Having said all that, quality doesn’t always have to be a compromise. Even in projects that call for MVPs, there’s always room to think more holistically and propose future versions. Thinking of quality this way can help you deliver good work in the short term while building a path toward the north star.
Quality will mean different things in the context of the company you’re with. In a design agency it may mean pushing the bounds for high end, visually stunning prototypes that win over the client. For a corporate banking application, this may mean getting the details right to account for all the various edge cases while dealing while working within the confines of a legacy infrastructure.
Traits and Interviews
Some of your interviews, especially behavioral and cross-functional ones, will touch on these traits. However, it’s in your best interest to not just keep these traits in mind when interviewing—actively develop them so that they become second nature in your work. How well do you display these traits today? What are some key aspects of these traits that you can grow in?
Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is an excellent read about what it means to have a growth mindset compared to a fixed mindset. This concept has been popularized in the media and may seem like old news, but I sincerely recommend the book, as the rich stories bring the ideas to life. Alternatively, you can also check out Dweck’s TED Talk, “The power of believing that you can improve.”
As you can see, the modern designer possesses a tremendous amount of knowledge about various aspects of design. If you’re starting out in your career, don’t worry, you don’t need to know everything all at once! Naturally, there will be some areas you’ll gravitate toward and enjoy, and others where you may need to pay extra attention in order to improve.
If you’re an entry-level designer, the core expertise and strength that you should bring to your team lies in your craft. This means you should be spending more of your time on the tactics and execution, getting stronger and faster with production. How companies determine your level of craft will vary and this is a good conversation to have with your manager. But in general you’ll probably want to hone in on your interaction design and visual design skills. When you have the basics down, you should pay attention to execution and strategy. All of these things take time, so don’t stress out if you don’t feel like you’re growing as fast as you’d like. It usually takes a couple of tries on multiple projects to improve your skills.
As a senior designer, your work will be more strategic. You may not be pushing the pixels as much day-to-day, but you’ll find yourself in meetings and strategy sessions. You’ll be responsible for leading the team toward new ideas and innovations on par with your product manager and engineering lead.
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