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The Makeup of a Designer

posted by Matt Ward on Jun 8, 2010.

Who is a designer? What is the makeup of a designer? In this article, I will tackle these interesting questions and work toward building a thoughtful portrait of who and what I think a designer really is. This discussion will include concepts of knowledge, talent, skill, practice and critical thinking.

Recently, and thanks to a Smashing Magazine tweet, I stumbled across an interesting article over on FINCH. The title of the article is “You Suck at Design (Here’s Why)“, and the piece itself explains an interesting phenomenon by which those who truly understand a particular subject area – like design – are actually those best equipped to judge the quality of their own work, and thus tend to undervalue themselves. On the other hand, those who know nothing about that same subject area tend to overvalue their own abilities, simply because they are unable to actually see the mistakes they’re making.

The Makeup of a Designer

The Makeup of a Designer

The article raises all sorts of really interesting points – about the community, about the psychology of design (the action of, not the interaction with) and even about why so much poor design is produced by the now-proverbial nephew – and is even sometimes celebrated, making those of us who actually know what we’re doing cringe.

It also raises some interesting questions – at least in my mind – one of which I would like to address here. The FINCH article ultimately polarizes the population into two distinct categories: the knowledgeable and the unknowledgeable. Or, to put it another way, the true designers and everyone else. The question that I have to ask, however, is what actually makes someone a designer? The FINCH article talks a great deal about knowledge, and I think that’s a key element, but what about things like talent, skill and critical thinking?

In this article, I would like to look at these different elements and how they apply to the makeup of the designer.

Talent vs Skill

Any discussion of this sort needs to take into consideration both the concepts of talent and skill. Often, these two ideas are understood to be very similar, but there is a fundamental difference that actually makes them very distinct. To illustrate this difference, let’s turn (somewhat typically) to definitions from Dictionary.com. The definition for talent is as follows:

a special natural ability or aptitude: a talent for drawing (source).

Conversely, skill is defined as:

the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well: Carpentry was one of his many skills (source).

By contrasting these definitions, we can see that talent is something that is naturally born in an individual, while a skill is something that is acquired over time. With the FIFA World Cup coming up very soon, let’s look at a soccer player (or football, if you prefer), as an example.

A great soccer player has both talent and skill

A great soccer player has both talent and skill (photo from Shutterstock)

I would hazard a guess and suggest that probably every single player that you will see run out onto the field during the upcoming tournament possess an in-born athletic ability. They may have a natural speed or strength or agility that they have likely displayed all their life. As kids, they probably did pretty well at whatever sport they tried their hand at, and were likely the envy of others (like me), who were not quite so athletically gifted.

That’s a talent.

But if talent was all that was required to be a great player, then I don’t think professional sport would be nearly as special as it is. There are millions of incredibly athletic people in this world, but only a very few of them ever rise up to become stars in their particular discipline. The difference maker is skill. The World Cup soccer player spends years and years practicing, learning to move the ball with his feet, and accustoming himself to the flow and pace of the game. The player learns everything he can about the sport, and as he develops these skills, is able to couple them with his natural talent to become a world class soccer player.

I think that the same thing applies to designers, though obviously with a different set of talents and skills. On one side, I think that most designers have some level of natural born talent (though, perhaps, to varying degrees). This talent may encompass a tendency towards visual composition, a natural ability to draw, an inborn sense of colour and usually just a general creative spirit.

However, natural talent is simply not enough. I don’t even think that it is the most important element in the makeup of any designer. That distinction belongs to skill. Just like the soccer player, the designer needs to learn the ins and outs of the design game. There are principles to learn (and to learn to apply), the need to distinguish beauty from function, and the ability solve problems visually and an understanding of typography to be grasped. There are also practical skills involved in the actual creation of a design, much of which focuses on computers and software these days, but which once involved paste-up and typesetting.

These are the real hallmarks of a designer. Without them, even them most naturally talented creative individual cannot hope to truly excel at design, any more than that the most naturally athletic individual can hope to just step onto a world class soccer field without years of preparation and training.

However, unlike the soccer player, who is equally unlikely to succeed without some natural talent, I do believe that someone who has a firm grasp of the principles of design is in a far more likely to be able to create a good, solid design than a much more creative person with no understanding of these same principles. In other words, while I believe that most of the people who find themselves getting into design are there because of a natural talent, I also believe just about anyone can develop the necessary skills to become a successful designer (though perhaps not one of the world’s great designers).

On Education

This emphasis on learning and skill may seem to be putting a strong push on the importance of education. In many ways, I suppose it is, since the knowledge and learning that a designer accumulates is probably one of their greatest assets. However, I want to stress that this education does not necessarily need to happen between the four walls of a formal school.

Yes, the most important part of developing your design skills is gaining the necessary knowledge, but how you acquire that knowledge is really up to you.

Some form of education is important

Some form of education is important (photo from Shutterstock)

Personally, I don’t have any official schooling in design. I took art classes all the way through high school and one basic drawing class as an elective in university, but while none of this probably hurt my skills as a designer, they certainly don’t constitute anything remotely close to a formal education in design.

Instead, I have developed my skills and education through a number of different means, such as:

Reading – If you were to go to school for design, one of your principal resources would be surely be books. Teachers and professors would assign required reading, and you would be expected to learn a great deal from these pages. Well, it just so happens that you don’t actually need to be enrolled in a class to read a book. You can pick them up at your local bookstore or library and learn all kinds of wonderful, design related thoughts, ideas and principles.

There is also the internet, filled with tons of blogs and other websites dedicated to the subject of design. These are a rich and valuable resource for you to tap into, and I will openly admit that a lot of what I have learned about design over the years has actually come from reading the material on these sites.

Feedback and Critiques – Another really educational experience is always receiving constructive criticism and critiques on your work, especially if these are coming from other skilled designers. I have had experiences where I received criticism that made me sit back and look at a design from a different perspective, allowing me to see something that I hadn’t before. When this happens, I try to file away that perspective, to help broaden the way I look at my own work and hopefully improve my overall skill as a designer.

Dribbble is a great resource for getting this kind of feedback. If you haven’t been invited to that site yet, there are all kinds of other communities that you can look at too. The trick is to find a place where you will be offered more than just a proverbial pat on the back. Praise is all very well and good, but solid advice and constructive criticism that will help you hone your skills is far more valuable.

Practice – I’ve written before about the importance of practice for becoming a better designer, and it has honestly been one of the more valuable educational experiences. Though somewhat organic and perhaps unfocused, I believe that by simply practicing the act of design, many of the underlying principles will being to manifest themselves to you. You will likely start to learn that things generally look better when aligned with each other, or with a larger pattern (such as a grid), or that visual hierarchy can help establish a logical organization for a design.

Just as an aside, there may be some who would argue that this just doesn’t happen – that people don’t just naturally pick up on the principles of design through practice, and that they must be taught. If this is true, where did the principles come form in the first place? There were no ten commandments of design, delivered from on high. There was no miraculous revelation.

No, like most human knowledge, the principles were discovered over time. Through practice and analysis, we gradually began to understand why certain compositions worked better than others. As we learned, we translated this new knowledge into working principles, which remain with us and guide much of what is designed today!

Critical Thinking

I think that another thing that is part of the makeup of a great designer is the ability to think critically. This can mean taking stock of a particular design project (usually through a brief of some sort) and undertaking an intentional and careful analysis of the requirements in order to come up with the best possible solution.

It can also mean being able to step back from your own work, examine it from a somewhat objective perspective and ultimately assess whether anything needs to be tweaked or changed.

In many ways, I think that critical thinking generally emerges as a by product of extensive knowledge, and here I find myself coming back to the FITCH article, and the suggestion that only those who really know what they’re doing in design are actually equipped to assess the quality of their (or any other) design.


This of course, brings us full circle in our discussion, and offers a perfect segue to wrapping things up. As already stated, the purpose of this article has been to take a look at the makeup of the designer. So far, we’ve looked at some of the various parts that I believe to be key elements to this makeup. To pull it all together, I would like to offer a more complete picture, based on what we have already talked about.

In essence, I believe that a true designer is an individual who has amassed a certain degree of knowledge, allowed that knowledge to develop into critical thinking, and applied themselves to a significant amount of practice to help develop and refine their skills. Ultimately, all of this may (or may not) serve to emphasize or complement a natural-born talent.

And that’s it. For me, that’s the makeup of a true designer. Of course, it’s going to vary from designer to designer in terms of degree and/or proportion, but generally speaking, I think this pretty much describes every designer I have ever known.

What about you? Would you agree with this, or do you think that designers are made up of different elements altogether? Share your thoughts and help be refine this definition!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Jun 8, 2010

Naomi says:

I too do not have a formal design education. It took me a lot of hard work, persistence, belief in myself and some great feedback, assistance and useful criticism from design directors along the way. 15 years later, I am a confident respected designer now studying my masters of design!

Jun 9, 2010

Richie says:

You never disappoint me with your articles, Matt. I most certainly agree with the ‘Critical Thinking’ and the ‘Practice’ part, as they lay the foundation for creativity. It is highly important that every designer should understand and apply the ‘Principles of design’ to put himself in the right path to become a great designer.

But I fail to understand how everyone speaks of this, so called “Talent’ being acquired from birth. Not only does this seem intangible but i believe the genes or any of the similar factors, has nothing to do with being a genius or having creativity of unsurpassable proportions.

But there are some medical situations that a person develops over time, which allows him to see rather than just look; feel rather than just touch and listen rather than just hear ……. unlike most of the normal people do, but even this is “developed” over time.

And from what I could garner, ‘If a person is not “born” with this talent, and no matter how deeply he commits himself to acquiring the necessary skills, won’t he succeed? Having devoid of the “talent”, will it stop him from reaching the top?

I think your analogy of the footballer provides a perfect justification for your opinions because I’ve seen many kids who are extremely adept in playing football and performing tricks, but they never make it to the big league. One of the reasons is that they lack the necessary skills to play the game, such as critical thinking, strategical playing, decision making abilities and so on.

Well, however eccentric my questions seem to be, I think it draws a thin line between being an artist and being a magician :)

The quest continues……

Thanks a lot for bring the topic up, Matt and a very nice article indeed…

Also, I recently wrote an article on how to think like Leonardo Da Vinci, which is on similar lines with yours. If you have the time, do read it and offer your opinions ( http://bit.ly/9vWY6w )


Jun 9, 2010

Nathan McKinney says:

Very interesting topic.

As a designer who even recently has done soul searching about whether I’m really “cut out” to be a great designer, I feel there is a more integrated relationship between the talent and skills of a good designer. The degree of your talent is a major factor in what it takes to learn the skills in the first place.

I’ve worked with creative people, who didn’t have enough talent to push their skills to any appropriate level, no matter how hard they tried, or anyone tried to help them. They were limited.

The same applies to me. While many people over the years have told me I’m good at what I do, what I truly listen to are those critical of my work. Based on responses from those who actually critique my work, I know I have limitations. I have enough talent to push those limitations only so far. I know I’ve done a good job pushing myself to be a “good designer”, but to ever become a “great designer” would be quite a leap. A leap, I’m not sure my talent would allow.

About the only thing I can do to bridge the gap, is practice, practice practice.

Practice includes:
– doing a wide variety of design projects.
– trying to bring something new and fresh every time I design something.
– finding someone critical of my work that can push me to see it from a different perspective.
– making the most of even the simplest design problems. Some of my best design enlightenment comes from small tasks that I could have blown off with canned design solutions.
– Reading,
– but more than reading, looking at the world of design around me every day, and stopping to think about how good things are, how would I improve them, and how did the designer get there in the first place.
– Becoming a critic. The easiest way to get better at critiquing your own work is to critique everyone else’s. This doesn’t mean “becoming an ass”. It simply means, offering constructive feedback, even if you are keeping it to yourself.
– lastly, teach. Some jerk in the past coined the phrase “those that can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Sorry, but I’m calling BS on that. If you are learning from someone who doesn’t know jack taco, then you aren’t learning. You will always hear teachers say they learned more from their students than they passed on. That doesn’t mean the student is smarter than the teacher, it just means the practice of teaching is a two-way exchange. If you find someone you can mentor, do it. You will gain as well.

Jun 10, 2010

Ken Reynolds says:

I’ve always believed that people can achieve anything they set their mind to. I think that if someone really wants to become a designer through hard work, application and a never ending thirst for learning then they can.

Some people have certain natural advantages which makes the path a little easier (seemingly) but it still takes a lot of work to succeed. Natural talent alone will not serve you well in the long run.
There are so many other abilities needed to compliment a natural gift to make a person an effective designer.

I don’t like it when someone’s success is pinned down to ‘talent’ it almost implies that no effort of work was involved.
I’d rather be complimented on dedication and hard work than something I was gifted in a biological lottery.

Jun 10, 2010

designi1 says:

Great subject you bring today for the discussion Matt.

I believe in methodology. that can be the main concept to be a good designer – or to make design. Without that you can manage photoshop and do time to time some good works but you won´t be understandable for many people and more importante you won´t be able the defend your own work.

methodology can help you with the process and make you better designer.

Once more congrats Matt for you effort really enjoy your work!

Jun 11, 2010

Kerry Novak says:

@crowdSPRING RT @IndusLogic (designer makup): Article is extremely short-sighted, bland and written by a blogger, not a designer or close.

Divide every person in the world by 12 (into star signs) and predict the future/fortune… it’s irrelevant, bias but with a small touch of truth ‘almost designers’ can slot themselves into to feel like part of something.

half star/5.

Jun 11, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

I love this blog, and I love the articles I read here. A lot of them go much deeper than the traditional blog posts about practice and delve into interesting topics like theory and psychology.

And, as a designer and not a blogger (yet, anyways) I can honestly say that Matt makes some extremely good points.

We will all keep reading and enjoying, Matt.

9.5 stars out of 5. Now you’ve broken even!

Jun 11, 2010

Keri says:

Excellent article! I always enjoy reading your blog. Lots of great ideas to think about in this post =)


Jun 11, 2010

Chris says:

Sounds like someone is angry that they spent thousands on art school only to be told you don’t need formal education to become a designer : P

Don’t listen to her. Good article.

Jun 11, 2010

Lucas Cobb Design says:

I do believe in the old adage “practice makes perfect.” It is so true in anything you do, not just design. Practice is like sharpening a knife, if you don’t do it the blade will dull and it will not be able to perform its intended function.

You are spot on with what it takes to be a designer and I feel what does separate a world class designer from the crowd is that burning desire to try new things and that thirst for knowledge. A broad base of knowledge on all aspects of design is what is needed to mold a well rounded designer.

Let this be a lesson to you folks, if you want to be the best then you have to practice.

Well done Matt, great article and you deserve a hand for this one. I also second Richie’s request above for you to read the “Thinking Like Divinchi” article. It is superb and definitely on the same level as this article in terms of thought and scope.

Jun 12, 2010

gillico says:

This is a great article! Thanks for writing this.

There are far too many people these days who think they can call themselves designers without any sort of credentials or experience to back it up. Just by repeating over and over again “I am a web designer,” they think they will make it so.

Those of us who have earned our place as designers know what it really takes.

Jun 12, 2010

Irfan Suleman says:

cool thanks

Jun 21, 2010

Keri says:

I recently read an article that made me think of this blog post; I thought you might be interested:


“Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

Jun 27, 2011

Rob says:

To some designing comes by taste, i always believed in myself and the outcome was too good almost every time..

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