And while there are benefits to having a degree—I tend to disagree with anyone who demands it as a necessity.
I don’t have a design degree.
I’ve always been lucky enough to have people guiding me, and a breadth of experiences that provided on-the-job training. And while there are benefits to having a degree—like making it easier to train new staff in a small agency—I tend to disagree with anyone who demands it as a necessity.
To me, it’s more important that someone demonstrates a good attitude. They work hard, try their best, and look for ways to improve. On my team, I want the type of creative person who’s always bringing 100 new ideas to the table and who isn’t wounded if none of them are chosen.
That flexibility, curiosity, and graciousness can’t be taught in school.
So, in my experience, when it comes to being a professional designer, there are a few qualities that stand out more to me than a degree:
1. You want to work hard and bounce back.
We just hired a designer at the independent agency I run, Clarke, who is fresh out of school.
He went to a top-tier art school, trained in design, and graduated with a great portfolio. But it was his work ethic that made him stand out to us from the other candidates. The type of dedication he demonstrated is tough to find and even tougher to instill.
As a small agency, we need designers who believe in a project and commit to it. And that dedication comes from a next-level work ethic. But when we’re hiring, it’s hard to pinpoint who works hard, and who claims to.
Outside of doing the old-fashioned legwork and calling references, I tend to listen closely to how designers talk about their work. One or two simple sentences can tip you off. For example, if someone is talking about a project, and they tell you, “Oh, well, we went through a huge number of iterations on this before we really got to where we wanted to be,” then you know they’re only satisfied with a certain level of quality.
And if they’re setting high standards, chances are they’re also scrappy. A good designer’s work ethic shines through the brightest when they fail, and fail, and fail, and fail again—but they refuse to stay down. They get back up. Every time.
2. You have a natural curiosity.
Our most recent job posting at Clarke said, “We are seeking designers who think ahead, want to learn, consider different points of view, understand the value of listening, and can work collaboratively.”
The key underlying trait in that description is the same key trait every good designer needs to have: curiosity.
In some ways, designers are inventors. You have to question the way things work, and why they work, constantly. Then, once you’ve figured it out, you use design to tell the rest of the world.
Designers want to take things apart and see how they work. That’s how we get to the core of what brands do, and how we find just the right concept. We have to dismantle the problem we’re presented with, figure out how it all works, and then put back together again. Except when we reassemble things, they work better than they did the first time.
3. You can reflect with empathy.
When we see a corporate social media post or use a fitness app, we see something entirely different from a casual observer. We know what it takes to nurture a brand from an abstract concept to a living thing that looks, speaks and behaves in a unique way. We understand the investment by the brand owner and partners to ensure that the brand fulfills its promise.
Our work requires continual refocusing. Throughout the process, designers need to step back and think, “why do people think this brand can deliver on its mission?” “what does the user experience here?” “what does the customer feel at this point in their journey?”
This kind of reflective empathy—putting yourself in someone else’s shoes—goes a long way as a designer. And while it’s not teachable necessarily, you can still learn it. One way is experience.
Be that person using a fitness app. Go for a walk or a run on a crisp morning. Maybe try to beat your personal best 5K time. Did the app meet your expectations for the brand? How did the app help you meet your goal? What could be improved? Apply experiences like this in your work.
4. You’re willing to learn from the people around you.
Although I don’t have a degree in design, I did minor in graphic design (yeah, that’s a thing).
Again—most of my education came from my colleagues. So, to this day, I make sure to always take in new lessons and values from the people I work with, even if they’re younger than me. They may be more in tune with what’s popular, what new tech is available, what new societal movements are pushing boundaries and impacting design.
There’s a lot to keep up within our world, so it pays to help one another take notes.
I also make time to meet up with former colleagues for lunch, coffee, or a quick beer. We share ideas, brainstorm together, keep one another up-to-date. Whether we’re both running shops or at entirely different points in our careers, we still learn from one another.
And remember: fellow designers aren’t the only people you can learn from.
Creativity is not exclusively someone with a creative title—a designer, writer, illustrator. Lessons in problem-solving or thinking outside the box can come from anyone, whether they’re a business owner or your retired next door neighbor. It doesn’t matter.
Because above all else, a good designer learns from the world around them—and you definitely can’t teach that in school.