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Big question: what skills does a digital designer need in 2013?

Shane Mielke
Creative director

Design is a strategic exercise in both organisation and stylistic problem solving. To be a successful digital designer you have to be good at both UX and visual design. Those roles might be divided at your place of work, but a true designer cannot be a one-trick pony. It all comes down to how much control you’d like to have in the creative process and how high you’d like to rise in your company or the industry. The more tools, skills and knowledge you have in your belt the more you can creatively contribute to or direct various aspects of a project. A designer who can execute or influence the UX, design style, photography, 3D and development of a project is a management level designer or creative director who can control their professional destiny and the creative vision of the work. Those who can only push pixels will eventually reach a glass ceiling of respect, knowledge and participation on a project and potentially be frustrated as various aspects of a project are dictated by others.

Shane is designer and creative director at 2Advanced

Derek Featherstone
Accessibility expert

The most essential piece for success as a digital designer is empathy for the person at the other end of the computing device. An understanding of people's goals and motivations, the context in which they live, work or play, and the ways that they think about problems and solutions all contribute to ensuring that the design that you're creating actually meets the needs of the people you're designing for.

Derek is the lead at Simply Accessible

Mark Kirby

It depends on the type of teams you want to join. Bootstrapped startups, young companies and small teams may only have the budget for one designer and one developer, and the ability to do both UX and visual design will make you a desirable candidate for those teams. If you want to launch your own project, being a generalist can enable you to control more of the overall design. On the other hand, more and more people are recognising the importance of UX as a separate stage and as time goes on its becoming easier to find work in just one field. If you are planning to work for large companies and on already established projects, specialising on either UX or visual design might just be the best option.

Mark is the director at Hatch

Mike Mackay
Web developer

Having the designer be aware of these things is definitely not a bad thing, as it will aide their design flow(s). At our agency, we have these as separate roles as having someone specialise in this area means they can get a lot more in-depth than someone who tries to cover them will be able to do. Sure, you get those rare types who do all things equally (and remarkably) well, but fragmenting in this way also allows shared roles and responsibility on the project/brief.

Mike is technical lead at Outside Line

Chris Coyier
Web designer

The key word is ‘designer’, so: line, shape, form, colour, balance, proportion, rhythm, emphasis, gestalt.

Chris is a freelance web designer

James Bates
User experience designer

Personally, I don't think there's any one skill you should have – it's much more important that designers are well-rounded.

But, you can't be an expert at everything. If you believe the rule that says you need 10,000 hours to achieve the mastery associated with being at the top of what you do, then mastering more than one discipline takes more than most people's working life.

We talk at Clearleft about being T-shaped designers (a phrase coined by Tim Brown of IDEO), which means you have wide and varied pool of abilities and experiences, but are highly skilled in a much narrower area or discipline. Now I know that's slightly idealistic, but overall I think it's true. While generalists have their place – to solve the more interesting, tricky problems you need specialists. Having that breadth of experience means you're less likely to suggest an inappropriate solution and the specialism should shape the medium and how you deliver it.

Understanding the medium you're designing in is crucial – but it doesn't mean you have to be a master to design for it. Figure out what your strength is and supplement that with as much appreciation of related or tangential disciplines as possible.

James is creative director at Clearleft

Rachel Shillcock
Freelance web designer

At the moment we seem to be having some sort of realisation or revolution when it comes to our job titles and what it is that we actually do. In today's industry, it's now no longer good enough to be good at just one thing – the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ seems to have disappeared. When I first started out a few years ago it was good enough to be good at just what I did the most of and what I considered to be my speciality: designing for the web. Nowadays though, it almost feels like we need to be an expert in more than ever before – including user experience and interaction design, web typography, grid systems… the list goes on. But really, is this any different from what we should have been doing before? I think not – the things we are all responsible for doing now have always been in our hands, but nowadays we simply have new names for these tasks. We also have new experts that take on these roles and ensure that, at the end of the day, users don't suffer and the experience that people have is as it should be. That isn't to say that as a designer, we can now sit back and let the experts take control – we all have a responsibility to give our ideas, get involved and understand the decisions we make and why we make them.

Rachel is a freelance web designer

Jonathan Smiley

Designers in 2013 don't need to know how to do everything – but they do need to know a lot. Interface design, visual design, some sort of code (the more the better) and a dash of experience with observation, deduction and psychology are all critical to good design given the complexity of digital products these days, and going forward. I've never seen segmented roles produce really incredible design, at least not without staggering inefficiency.

Jonathan is a design lead at ZURB

Aral Balkan
Experience designer

First off, let me start by saying that I have no idea what a ‘digital designer’ is. Perhaps someone who never uses analogue tools like pencils and paper? So, instead, let me briefly talk about what I do know: the role of user experience and the experience designer in the age of experiences.

When multiple products reach feature parity on essential features, features stop being an important differentiating factor. Until this point, features are very important: a new feature enables something that was hitherto impossible. Once two or more products implement the same feature; however, how that feature is implemented is what differentiates the products. In other words, user experience becomes the differentiating factor. Up until rather recently, we were living in the age of features but, today, both hardware and software have become commoditised. And, for most products, there are competitors that have feature parity. Today, we are living in the age of experiences, and the experience designer’s role is of utmost importance.

Experience design, by its very nature, concerns the whole experience. I call it experience design; you may call it service design, customer experience design, user experience design, or holistic design. It begins from the moment the customer first hears about your product or service and ends when the customer leaves your product or service. Everything including and between those two points falls into the realm of experience design.

Experience design is what drives product development. It is not veneer. It is definitely not about how a product looks (although that is one aspect of it). And experience design does not exist in a vacuum. It is a symptom of the organisational structure. Experience design, as I have outlined it here, is practiced by design-led organisations. Needless to say, such organisational structures are still very rare. Experience design is not something that can be introduced, guerrilla-style, at the lower ranks of an organisation with the expectation that it will trickle up. In design-led organisations, it trickles down from the topmost levels. Without buy-in at the highest levels and without an organisational structure that guarantees that the experience designers lead product development, you cannot expect a functional product development process that can compete in the age of experiences.

And experience design is not the role of any single person in the organisation or of a single department or unit (although there may be people who are specialised in it and lead the effort). It is everyone’s responsibility. A design-led organisation makes every team member aware of this and gives them the necessary responsibilities and authorities to ensure that they have a stake in the whole experience of the product.

So, all this to say that yes, while you can very easily (and probably should) have different roles for visual design and experience design in teams, the experience of the product is everyone’s responsibility.

Aral is a designer, developer, professional speaker, teacher, and author of the Feathers iPhone app

Aaron Gustafson

This just recently came up at the panel I was on at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco.

My feeling is that digital designers do not need to do everything, but they should have a fundamental understanding of each discipline in web design and how it affects their work. For example, a graphic designer needs to understand the performance implications of their design from a bandwidth perspective. Similarly, a UX designer needs to be thinking about how a user will interact with a given interface both with and without JavaScript.

A thorough understanding of all of the technologies and methodologies that go into building a website is a bit much to ask for in any one person, but an appreciation of those aspects will make it easier for an individual to communicate with her clients and her team. And, in the end, it will result in a better product and experience for her users.

Aaron is principal at Easy! Designs

Stu Collett
UX design director

UX covers a vast set of disciplines across research and strategy, user-centred design (including visual design) and evaluation. Our toolkit alone comprises some 30+ tools that we customise for any client project. To be a digital designer (or digital product designer as we call this role) and be expert in all these areas is mostly unrealistic. At Super User Studio, we choose to split the individual disciplines into separate roles – for example, information architect, interaction designer, UI designer, art director, content strategist, frontend developer and so on – all led by the UX director. We find this allows people to focus on and become highly specialised within their realm, bringing to the project diversity and balance of knowledge, debate and decision making and allowing them to connect all their ideas. In our experience this is where innovation thrives and what makes for a better end product. On the flipside however, we do appreciate that building these types of teams is not always possible, for various reasons, and if we were to seek a ‘digital product designer’ – what would they be expert in? We believe first that they must have strong skills in interaction design, information architecture and visual design and secondly they should have good knowledge of frontend code. This would be ingrained by UX design thinking and wider understanding of (but not expertise in) UX research and strategy.

Stu Collett is a co-founder of Super User Studio

Huw David

I would say the skills a digital designer needs are no different, they are an appreciation and understanding of the target audience/end user and how your work intends to improve their lives. The technology may change, or the specific tools may change, but the one constant element is to remember who you are designing for.

Huw is founder of Huw David Design

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