We know the design industry is always evolving. Changing technologies and trends mean that the skill set sought by potential employers is always in flux. Staying ahead of the game requires keeping up with trends, but also keeping up with the skills that are going to be most in demand.
The beginning of the year is the perfect time to think about how your skills fit the direction that the industry is heading. As we enter a new decade, here we look at 6 skills that could help you stay ahead of the game in 2020, from technical expertise to add to your CV and design portfolio (opens in new tab) to the soft skills that will make clients want to work with you.
Assuming you haven’t had your eyes closed over the past year, you’ll probably have noticed that illustration has become rather popular. Brands big and small are favouring illustration to add personality to web and UI design. This includes line drawings and other hand-drawn elements that feature natural imperfections, almost as a rebellious turn against perfection in digital design.
Brands are seeking illustration for everything from attention-grabbing main images on landing pages to personalised icons that reflect the brand’s character and custom hand-lettering to create unique type that can blend with imagery.
Cuberto (opens in new tab)’s concept landing page for a Japanese language school uses illustration where in the past photographic imagery may have been the obvious choice. Colorado-based designer Chelsea Carlson (opens in new tab)’s unique, stylised hand-drawn icons for cookery site Butterlust follow the rough brush edge style of the brand’s logo to create an emotional and human feel. Drawing doesn’t come naturally to everyone but the skill can be developed by practising on drawing from life, and focusing on the process rather than on aiming for realism in the results.
02. Motion design
The year 2020 is all about movement. Brands have realised that adding motion can captivate and engage customers. And in a digital world with faster internet connections and device performance, it can be applied almost everywhere. This means that animation and motion design are no longer niche skills practised by a small group of specialists, but something all designers should at least have an awareness of, and upskilling in this area is an immediate way to stand out in the talent pool.
From GIFs to CSS animation (opens in new tab) and full-blown video, it can be an intimidating world to enter if you’re getting started, but there is plenty of good software for the job. Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects, and Cinema 4D are the major tools. A knowledge of colour grading for video will also get you ahead.
There are no end of applications that brands are looking for, including email marketing campaigns such as the campaign for women's clothing company LOFT above, animated logos, video tutorials, product walk-throughs and social media content. It’s predicted that 80% of internet traffic will be video by 2021, but even offline there’s demand for motion design in advertising for digital billboards and in-store digital ordering screens. It’s no wonder it’s the skill that most designers want to learn in the coming years.
03. Image editing
The growing demand for illustration and motion does not mean that designers can forget about photography and image editing. Photographic images remain the main medium of visual communication in social media and the majority of websites. A growing trend to combine text and illustration with realistic photography to create collages means that image editing skills are still in high demand and that editing needs to be as precise as ever.
Graphic designers at all levels will want to make sure they are at least sufficiently skilled up in the basics of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to be able to make the little tweaks that can make an image usable. This can include tasks as small as cleaning up dust or flare on an image, or adjusting colour to fit a composition, but the more you know about image enhancement and manipulation the better, the more you can do yourself without having to go to someone else.
Courses will get you so far, but image editing is often best mastered by rolling up your sleeves and getting in there. Many designers who don’t find they need to edit images in their usual work develop side projects in order to work on the skills.
04. Coding and UI design
Drag and drop tools for web and UI design mean that most designers don’t need to know the finer details of code, but a working knowledge can set you way ahead of the competition. With web design and UI evolving from flat pages to become more immersive, designers who can code and design user experiences are in high demand and are often rewarded with higher pay. Even basic coding skills will allow you to avoid being limited to what your software is capable of and allow you to offer something that little bit more personalised than what competitors can deliver.
That brings us to communication itself. This is a soft skill that is becoming just as essential as many technical skills in the designer’s toolbox and a vital part of getting ahead in design. Potential employers now look for designers who are able to communicate their ideas and processes well. For freelancers, a great portfolio can make an impression, but it’s your ability to explain your work and your approach that will earn the trust of potential clients.
Every day communication skills during a project include reminding people of the project goals, what the plan is, when they can expect delivery, what the fallback plan is, and following up after delivery. Explaining where you are and what you are working on helps others to trust you. Larger corporate work will often demand formal presentations to decision makers. Designers need to know not only how to make a visual presentation, but also how to talk an audience through it in an engaging way.
Another essential soft skill for designers in the new decade is collaboration. Designers no longer work in a vacuum generating fantastic ideas. They increasingly have to work with complex teams. Not only with other designers, but also with programmers, copywriters, engineers, sales and marketing teams, manufacturing, and management. This means a lot of discussion, and a lot of compromise.
In his last Design in Tech report (opens in new tab), John Maeda argued that designers sometimes alienate other disciplines and can be guilty of trying to force their own tastes on clients. There can also be conflicts when designers work with their own portfolio in mind. Clients with complex projects are wary of this and now look for designers who show they can collaborate with other disciplines.
A good way to improve skills in collaboration is to think more broadly and to develop a greater awareness of other disciplines, from business models to marketing and sales techniques, and manufacturing processes. It can also help to share unfinished work more often and to ask more questions. There’s a general trend in many different industries towards a 'blurring of swim lanes' with people in different roles expected to have a greater awareness of the overall goal and every stage of a project.