The Designer’s Most Important Skill


A graphic designer in today’s day and age has to have a wide-ranging skill set. Along with the obvious grasp of design principles like contrast, balance, color and such and the knowledge of how to use the industry-standard software, many clients also expect designers to be developers, illustrators, strategists and more. I agree with most of these expectations (so long as they’re realistic); however, there is one specific skill that can and does, in my opinion, mark the difference between a good designer and a great designer: the art of clear communication.

Communication = Speaking + Listening

For the purpose of this article, “communication” entails both sides of the coin: speaking and listening. Many people assume being a clear communicator is the same as being a clear speaker; however, as communication is a two-way street, a true clear communicator is one who is a clear speaker as well as an active listener. These traits are found in great designers.

Clear Speaking

You can design ’til the cows come home, sketching out epic illustrations worthy of the Sistine Chapel or creating websites that best any CSS gallery out there. However, if you can’t clearly articulate your design choices to your clients, co-workers or bosses, you might as well be designing in tables or drawing sketch figures. Being able to articulate that your decisions for that call-to-action button on the homepage – including size, shape, color, surroundings and placement – were designed in a thoughtful manner in order to meet pre-determined goals means two things: a) you’re already showing you’re an active listener, and b) you’re a strategic designer who cares about measurables, not just “making things look nice”.

By showing you’re a strategic designer who cares about client goals, you’re already speaking your clients’ language: business, not design. By doing so, you’re on your way to cultivating a strong client-designer relationship.

Active Listening

All that being said, it’s sort of pointless to be “speaking your clients’ language” if you’re not actually listening to their wishes & goals. If you truly understand the problems that need to be solved, the wants & needs of the client, you will already be on the path to a successful design.

I remember one of the project management classes I took a few years ago. Out of everything I learned in the course, there was one quote that stuck with me: “Are you really listening, or are you just waiting for your turn to speak?” (a quick Google search says this apparently is attributed to John Milton Fogg… I have no idea who this is). Regardless of source, it really hit home for me. If you’re a good listener, you’re actually listening as opposed to waiting for your turn to speak. It’s a great way to make sure you’re accurately listening; try applying it in your next conversation.

Anyway, being an active listener is the other half of being a great communicator. You can’t be a great listener and poor speaker if you want to be a great communicator; likewise, you can’t be a great speaker and a poor listener either. If you really want to succeed in the world of design, you need to be strong in both areas; luckily it’s something people can, and should, strive to better about themselves.

How to Improve Your Communication Skills

There’s no easy path to improving your communication skills, but there are a bevy of articles, books, and even courses out there in your city you can use on your quest. Your clients will respect you; you will have a stronger body of work; you will have an easier time getting client approval; and most importantly, you will grow as a designer.

What tips & tricks do you use to ensure clear client communication?

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