Computercheck. Photoshopcheck. Lots of free timecheck. It seems that this is all that is necessary to call yourself a ‘designer’ these days. I believe that there is far more to a designer than software, computers and free time. Designers should have critical thinking skills, understanding of design principals, knowledge of grid systems, typography and much more.

Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking skills
Designers need to be able to think, reason, research and back up their designs. Critical thought is the backbone of design. Critical thinking is what separates designers from your clients cousins 10 year old kid with Photoshop that can ‘make a logo in 5 minutes’.  Design without meaning or concept is merely decoration.

Understanding of the Principles of Design

Balance, proportion, rhythm, emphasis, unity. The principles of design provide a designer with the basic tool set to product effective design. Good designers will utilize and manipulate specific principles to communicate and emphasize their message.

Principles of Design Resources:

Knowledge of Design & Art History

Knowledge of design & art history
A broad knowledge of design and art history gives a designer a firm foundation from which to be inspired and to reference in new and innovative design solutions. Designing without the knowledge of what has been done before is naive.

Design History Resources:

Sound Understanding of Typography

Sound understanding of typography

Typography can make or break an idea, layout, or design. A good designer should have a firm grasp of typography and should be familiar the different classes of typefaces and how their aesthetic qualities communicate and reinforce messages.

Typography Resources:

Knowledge of Grid systems

Knowledge of Grid systems
Designers should be aware of different types of grid systems and how they can help bring organization and structure to design. Without grid systems designs often end up in chaos.

Grid Systems Resources:

Sketching &  Drawing

Ability to draw/sketch or get your ideas out on paper

The design process should always start with sketching rough ideas or mind mapping. However drawing and doodling are often overlooked in the design process due to time and the use of the computer. There is an immediacy that is present when pencil or pen meets paper vs ‘sketching’ on a computer. IMO good designers will ALWAYS start with sketching.

Communication and People skills

Communication and People skills
One of the things that was left out of my design education was dealing with people – more specifically clients. Designers need to be able to clearly communicate about design in ways that clients can understand without making them feel inferior.

Communication Resources:

Knowledge of Color Theory

color theroy

A designer needs to have a strong knowledge of color schemes, color harmonies, and what they communicate.

Color Theory Resources

Work Ethic and Patience

Work Ethic and Patience
Design is a process and does not happen in an instant. Creativity tends to happen when we least expect it which sometimes makes things difficult. Designers need to posses the work ethic and patience that is necessary to see a design from concept to revisions to completion.

Willingness to Learn

Willingness to Learn
The design field is always changing and growing. Technology is updated on a daily basis that pushes designers to create innovative solutions for new mediums.  Designers need to be willing to keep their skills sharp at all times as well as push themselves to learn new skills, software and techniques.

What Do You Think?

I asked some of my twitter friends what skills they thought were necessary to be called a designer:

lmkdesign: you need the skills to create a marketing package for your client, without plagiarizing from somewhere else. Creaetivity+knowhow

mgoldst: You need skills in Translation, Visualization and Conceptualization.

jeffgolenski: you gotztah be articulate and have them problem solving skillz

lauraearley: A basic knowledge of the principles of design, talent, and a willingness to keep learning. It’s not all about Adobe and Apple.

standiaz: being able to explain why you chose a certain design element and what it does to the design.

lorissa: the ability to communicate your own ideas verbally and visually, and, in turn, understand what someone communicates to you

ralphsaunders: Remain optimistic about a project even when client wants to use comic sans…

curtismchale: communication with clients and organization

About The Author

Niki Brown is a graphic & web designer based out of the Boston. She writes for several design blogs as well as running her own design blogs The Design O’Blog and Daily Design Bits. Follow Niki (@nikibrown) on twitter!

  • Jacques van Heerden

    Awesome straight to the point article.

    I have seen so many people lately that just get a Computer, Buy Photoshop and now they are designers. They fiddle around in Photoshop Following the tutorials on how to change the skin tone on photos and different things.

    It simply annoys the heck out of me.

    Awesome Read.

  • Niki Brown | The Design O’Blog

    Thanks for the comment Jaques!

    Id like to know what other essential skills you need to call yourself a designer?

  • Craig Thompson

    While I agree totally with the post, I can’t help but feel that there is a certain measure of elitism creeping into design recently. A sense of if you haven’t read the books that a particular designer has (although you’ve read others) then you’re worth less as a professional; or perhaps if you don’t quite fit in with the style status quo then you get the same label. Has anyone else experienced this or am I barking at the moon?

    Despite this feeling I agree wholeheartedly that somebody buying a copy of photoshop and a mac then calling themselves a designer is quite off.

  • Niki Brown

    Hi Craig –

    Thats why I tried to not really push a specific set of ‘educational’ resources and instead focus on skills.

    I’m not saying people that don’t have these skills are worth any less… but i think they are misleading people if they call themselves designers.

    I think ‘designer’ is a title that is too easily thrown around these days.

  • Laura Earley

    Thanks for including me on this. This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot. When I first got my nonstudent/legal copy of the Adobe Creative Suite I felt like I’d really made it and could call myself a designer, but as I quickly learned, there’s more to it.

    Great responses all around. I really like what Ralph Saunders said, remaining optimistic is sometimes the most challenging part of the job.

  • Aaron Irizarry

    Hey Niki,
    great read… some really good points on here. I think a lot of the technical stuff can be learned over time by education via books, blogs, and schooling.

    Some of the hardest things I think are the intangible things like the work ethic, and patience that you mentioned, and a willingness to always be learning.

    Having the ability to communicate with people to determine project needs, and understand what they are wanting the design to communicate.

    Again… nice article

    ~ Aaron I

  • Mark Poppen

    This is a good one!
    I think the definition of a designer is someone that lives and breathes design. Things like recognizing fonts on posters, not buying something because it’s not symmetric, always on top of designs and always eager to learn new stuff.
    I’m not sure about schooling though. I agree, you have to have at least basic knowledge of things like color techniques and the color wheel, but there are a lot of awesome self-taught designers out there.

    Good discussion-point! :)

  • Bob

    Good points. I especially appreciate the points about critical thinking and knowledge of graphic design history. I teach too many students today who have no idea how to solve a problem or whether it has been solved before.

  • Mark Nutter

    How about “someone who makes good designs.” This should be the only mark of a good designer – their body of work. Questions about whether the designer has a strong footing in design theory, typography history, or strong communication skills are irrelevant if the designs speak for themselves.

  • Niki Brown

    @mark – how do we define good design?

    For me a good design identifies and solves a problem. This requires critical thinking skills, and yes even knowledge of design theory and history. Its important to know how these same problems have been solved in the past and take cues from those solutions.

    If a ‘designer’ does not have knowledge of what has been done in the past they are just simply regurgitating ‘eye candy’ – which does not solve problems. Design without critical thought or reasoning is merely decoration.

  • Niki Brown

    On another note, I would also argue that a lot of people out there that call themselves designers are merely – decorators.

    I am guilty of this myself sometimes, creating eye candy just because its pretty. This is fine for your own design experiments, but not when trying to solve clients problems.

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  • Alicia

    Like it or not, the only thing a person needs to call themselves a designer, is being paid for design. Sure, there are a lot of people who aren’t good designers, or even competent designers, but professionally, they are designers non-the-less.

    Think about it this way: when you eat at a terrible restaurant, the profession of the person who made the horrible food is still Cook, whether you want it to be or not, they are just a bad Cook. When you call your phone company and the person on the other end is completely incompetent, they are still a Customer Service Provider…they just suck at their job. In every industry, there are people working who are bad at their job…but it is still their job.

    The main difference is how much time graphic designers spend calling out the people who provide crappy work. I don’t mind in general, but I’ve seen so much of the same conversation it’s getting a little excessive.

    The pertinent question is not what you need to be a designer (which is just getting paid to design) it is instead, how to be a good designer, and your list does cover most of the introductory things to get started on the path to being good.

    Personally I think that to be truly good you need to have some natural gifts. “Design principles” are largely verbalization of things that humans intuitively react to, and for some people this clicks and for others, it never clicks no matter what they read. But either way, educating oneself is non-negotiable and always beneficial.

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  • MattS

    I don’t think that design is about identifying and solving a problem. It can be – but it’s certainly not the definition of design.

    I would even say that 90% of what is known as design is merely “just” eye candy.

  • Niki Brown


    Why do you disagree with the statement “design is about identifying and solving a problem” ? Curious to see you expound more on that subject.

  • MattS

    Well, for example furniture design, or jewelry design. There’s no problem solving in there, just creativity.

    I do understand what you mean though, but I think it only applies to certain parts in the design world, like web design, logo design, lay-out (print and web).

  • Niki Brown


    I disagree – with furniture design you have the problem of making something appealing yet functional. Everything that is designed is created to fufill a specific purpose or meet the needs of a person.

    Ikea furniture is made to appeal to the masses. The problem is making something appealing, but also making it affordable as well as eye catching.

    I’m sure the same thing applies to jewelry.

    I think i might just be talking about the commercial aspect of things, but i still think that design should solve problems weather its being created for a client, or for other purposes.

  • Melody

    I have been wining about people understanding the principles of design on blogs for some time now. I really believe that it is essential to anything–if you can’t understand the fundamentals then you simply have no business being a designer..

  • Alvalyn Lundgren

    I suppose that a person can purchase a stethoscope and a white coat with his name smartly embroidered on it and call himself a doctor. The proof of his being a doctor is not in the accessories or clothing, but in the knowledge – the theory – and the application of that knowledge – the practice.

    The same is true for a designer. A lot of “designers” have the accessories and the title, but they’re really not what they say they are.

    If graphic design were a licensed profession as are interior design, cosmetology and medicine, the entire playing field would change drastically. There would be no room for the person who knows the design software and knows a bit about color or CSS but who does not know the principles and elements of design and is able to apply them in solving a design problem.

  • MattS

    @Niki designing a chair for example is not solving a problem – because that problem has been solved the first time a chair was made. All shapes and sizes of chairs after that are still designed though. So in this case the design is eye candy.

    And this goes for a lot of stuff in my opinion. It’s not that i want to proof you wrong or anything, it’s just my view on design.

  • Niki Brown


    First off – how are you defining a problem?

    in reference to designing a chair – yes the structural problem has been solved, but there are still design problems that need to be solved based on who the chair is designed for – this is specific to the target audience. I would also guess that most industrial designers have an in depth understanding of design history which is essential for understanding how to create new solutions to design problems.

    I think what we are running into differences in our definitions of Art and Design and WHO things are created for. IMO design solves problems and is not about personal expression (unless you are creating for yourself.)

    My website for example was created to express my personality typographically and illustratively (the design problem that needed a solution was how to represent myself visually) another problem was to make the site appeal to potential freelance clients. The design solves this problem by integrating a blog where I write about design and showing my knowledge and expertise on the subject. The design solves the two initial problems that I saw arise before I redesigned.

    Art while it can be commercial is created to express an artists viewpoint – not necessarily to solve problems (although it can do that as well)

  • MattS

    I think what we are running into differences in our definitions of Art and Design and WHO things are created for. IMO design solves problems and is not about personal expression (unless you are creating for yourself.)

    Yes, I think that’s where we clash.
    After reading your last comment I do understand your point more though.

    Let just say it can be both, separate or combined. =]

  • Jon Reil

    A good article for those interested in knowing many of the elements that make a good designer. The one big thing that a designer also needs is PASSION. You have to jump out of bed in the morning charged for your day. Good work will follow.

  • Stanley Diaz

    Great article Niki. I completely agree with all the points presented. Although I myself am not quite familiar with Art and Design History, I agree that knowing what has been done in the past can really help a designer solve problems by knowing what has worked and what has not.

    I agree with Jon Reil, that having passion for what you do should be a trait a designer must have. If you don’t like what you do, why do it?

    It was nice seeing responses of others to your question. Thanks again.

  • WallMountedHDD

    I have a genuine interest in it, I have fun doing it, and I don’t confine myself to rules and guidelines. I keep it fluid. If that means I’m not a true designer then so be it. I don’t meet most of the criteria set forth by the author, even though it’s really just his/her opinion anyway. My expertise in other areas definitely affords me a firm grasp on critical thinking and comprehension of complex systems, but I know squat about art history and metaphysical perspectives like “harmony.” Don’t know much about color theory or typography outside of conditioning and common sense either. And sketching? Yeah…no. But, as someone who has studied business/science/computers and not art, none of this is a huge surprise. I guess that’s why I take such a rule-free approach to art; I’m very logical and formal with so many other subjects I study, so art is like taking a break.

  • Tidy Design

    Critical Thinking Skills… I think these are most important of all! Whithout these you are swimming against the tide! Nice post :D

  • Mario S. Cisneros

    I think this is an excellent list Niki and provides even seasoned designers with valuable advice.

    One thing I’d like to add is there’s needs to be a focus on usability, and user-centered design should be part of every designers tool kit. If not, even the most visually stunning designs won’t matter if you fail to meet the users needs and expectations.


  • Nicola

    I agree with the article, however, i don’t sketch. Drawing never came easy to me, give me a computer and i can draw a masterpiece. I think the pencil just doesn’t like me.

    I think every graduate needs to read this, we see so many unbelievably bad CV’s its unreal. From people who are applying for a design role in an award winning agency. Beyond Belief.

  • Sebastian Green

    Good article. I totally agree there is a lot more to being a designer than most people think.

    Personally I am constantly looking for inspiration, even in places where you wouldn’t think it existed. I constantly read books on design, design blogs etc.

    I also think the attitude of the designer is important. The industry I think is quite chilled out and relaxed. As you said “Design is a process and does not happen in an instant. Creativity tends to happen when we least expect it which sometimes makes things difficult. “. I don’t think it make things difficult when creativity does happen but it is difficult when a client wants to see designs asap and you haven’t had that creative thought yet. Designers need to be chilled out and not stressful. There are no solid rules for design, it’s not an exact science. A person that is used to the 9-5 working hours may no fit wall working as a designer. I yesterday day did no work, yet at 9pm last night I got inspiration and was designing until 3am.

  • agence web

    Thanks for the article, you posted very interesting links

  • Peach

    Nice read. I guess designing to solve and to create both share the majority in designs. It depends on the work.

  • Craig Tommola

    I agree with many of your comments, and the article as a whole. However, I would avoid sounding as though you’re drawing a line between those who have a degree in design and those who have raw talent with an added fervor for self-motivated research and learning. Design CAN be self-taught.

    One major point I believe you’ve left out, and often is left out, is the ability to monitor and gauge the success of a solution. You speak of critical thinking and others mention the ability to solve communication “problems”. But all to often the results of design work is scrutinized only on the aesthetic composition.

    Understanding selling, the sales cycle, the industry and position of the end user and audience of the tools being designed is paramount. In many cases, I would prefer to hire an individual with raw artistic talent and business savvy, over someone who regards themselves as a “designer” and doesn’t know the first thing about HOW their tools are used. It’s simpler to teach design principles to the former than it is to teach business skills to the latter.

  • Lauren Morris

    Great points! I find dealing with clients the hardest part of my job. Trying to communicate without anyone feeling inferior or offended is hard! Thanks!

  • Maverick

    absolutely brilliant article. this is a real problem everywhere. just after learning a couple of softwares people think they have become designers but infact they have only become operators of those particular softwares. the design skills need to be learnt and worked on separately.

  • FeryKloucek

    That’s really great article! I think this is real problem nowadays, everyone who has a computer and Photoshop thinks he’s a designer..
    Design is my big hobby for more than two years, I’m still learning new things, but I still see a long way and lot of learning in front of me to become a real designer.. That’s why I also want to thank You for great and useful links! Nice reading! :)

  • Amanda

    This was a well-written, evocative article. Until recently, I sat back and developed the back end of things, content to let a Real Designer take the reins. But then I started learning about design, which spurred me to go back to school to learn more. As pretentious and irritating as design school was, I learned a lot.

    I’m still light years away from being a Real Designer but by building my skills little by little, I’ll get there. Thanks for posting this. It reinforces the notion that there’s always more to learn. Always a problem to be solved. Always a way to be better.

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  • Hian Battiston

    Excellent post. A designer must fulfill all these topics to be considered a great designer.


  • Lisa

    Absolutely wonderful post! Designers, real designers, are compelled to pursue a life of design. It’s a lot of hard work, dedication, and love.

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  • icecream???

    great article!should sharing with lots of people.

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  • alyssa

    wOw! What an incredible post!! I should have my mom read this. Granted I can make things look good to the untrained eye, hence the reason why mom says I should start making logos… NOW for people. Mmmm…. no.

    You hit every nail on the head, great post! I especially agree with you about typography making or breaking a design. In my opinion, typography is just as much art as the rest of the design. In fact, it’s probably more important, because it’s usually the primary focus–the first thing you want the viewers to read. The designs surrounding it just enhance the message.

  • Web Design Southampton

    Great little post, there are a lot of sites I come across which must have a designer behind them who meets none of these standards!

  • Retro Sweet Hamper

    Hehehehe, cheeky little post this one. I can safely say that the Chewbz designers go beyond the items listed above… and thank God!

  • Darren Azzopardi

    Designers offer solutions to the proposed question.

  • Web Design Maidstone

    I think a vast percentage of what makes up a decent designer is a natural creative flair/ talent within them. You can buy all the Adobe products and read all the coding manuals you want, but if you don’t have that eye for design you might as well just draw squares onto a page.

  • Perry Clease

    Notice how easier it is to read the black on white comments section than the white on black article?

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  • Sibi Gauer

    Awesome sinthesys…

    About MattS args, I want to say a few words…

    Needs is the father of all creativeness. And product design, rather than any other kind of it, is about solving problems.

    Really good article!

  • Mike

    I think all these things are good points, and I think a lot of design courses actually don’t go very far to teach these specific areas.

  • Ashely Adams : Postcard Printing

    it was a delightful read! i do my own designing and printing at and i agree with the fact that you need to know your basics before you start work on a professional level

  • Paul Rabattski

    An interesting and good read. However I strongly disagree with “Knowledge of Design & Art History” and I for sure wouldn’t call the lack thereof naive.

    First of, there are plenty of self-taught designers out there who have zero knowledge on that level (or aren’t even remotely interested in it). Ok, these designers might be the exception to your rule however there are also enough artists who have no clue who Basquiat or El Lissitzky might be which could prove my point.

    You see, knowledge is great but it can also be a burden. Knowledge can slow you to a grinding halt when you are experimenting, it can influence your free flow of thinking, it can be quite demotivating. You know the this-has-already-been-done’s, this-looks-way-too-much-like-what-(s)he-did’s etc.

    If you have no knowledge you don’t have these bounderies. And yes, it’s very possible you make something that already has been done, but who cares, there is always someone who will point this out to you but don’t forget you yourself made it. And as a bonus you learn from it. You know the cheap cliche, thinking out of the box. Knowledge is able to keep you pretty much in the box.

  • Ted Rex

    This needs to sit right next to my other observation that those with digital cameras are not suddenly professional photographers.

    Very good post. I made this page one of my three featured links on today’s Design Thought blog:

    All the best, Ted

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  • Polly

    I agree with every single point of this article. But like the author pointed out in the article itself, dealing with People has been left out (in the comments). You argue about solving Problems, but I got the feeling you’re forgetting for whom you are solving them (forgive me if I’m wrong).

    I think Design is about People, and for them. The “Problem” itself is not the real Problem, it has its source. That source is the Beautifully Incomprehensible Human Mind. It’s not enough to just be able to communicate with People, you have to understand them, not as a whole, but just enough to give them what they need. And I really mean what they NEED, not what they WANT – People are almost never happy with what they’ve wanted.

    This is certainly not the only quality a Designer should have (as I said, I agree with all points of the article), but I figured it deserves at least one comment. Just like many other professions, Design couldn’t exist without the People.

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  • cdmuench

    When I first got into this industry my mentor handed me the book making and breaking the gird. it changed everything for me for the better. Now that I am doing more development it still helps me. I wish I would have learned more art history…maybe I will go back for that…thanks for publishing this…great article!

  • Luke Fowell

    Awesome article, I love the use of the images in it! Makes a very good read!

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  • Brasil

    Good post, but you tell us about graphic (or visual) design only! If you are a designer, engineer, physician, you have to know that these fields of knowledge have other many areas, not just yours. So, to be a designer you don’t have to think and study like a graphic designer only.

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  • Joni Mueller

    “Based out of the Boston,” huh? ;) That’s one pet peeve of mine; typos on a web site or in a web article. (Or in print for that matter.)

    But you said clearly and concisely what I’ve just been thinking all these years when anyone and everyone fancies themselves to be web designers. A bootleg copy of Photoshop and a family size bag of Chee-tos do not a web designer make.

    Great article!

  • Winston Muller

    Superb! I think anyone that takes this list to heart, and works at it can develop their design skills immensely.

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  • igrice

    Awesome post!

  • Major Courchine

    love your website

  • Igre

    it helps me become a good designer.,

  • Coleman Camping Chairs

    Thanks for your introduction. I agree with that designers need to be able to think, reason, research and back up their designs.

  • Craig

    Great article, with some really interesting links, and think as a designer you are constantly learning and trying new and wonderful things, evolving, so I would have to say there are different types of designers at different stages :-)

  • Igrice

    Thanks for this post I’ve become a good designer.

  • Machines

    Thank you so much for the tips and ideas that you’ve share. It really helps in making me a good designer.

  • VizioDesign

    I agree with your points about being designer. Although I try and do my own design on my websites, I am far from being a designer. This post will definitely be my guide into getting better and maybe oneday be able to call myself a designer.

  • PremiumWordPressThemes

    As a beginner in field of designing, These tips will give a big help for me.

  • tinnitus

    It is a nice design.

  • Lance T. Miller

    @ Author of article: Wow. Well played. I am right there with you.

    @ Paul Rabattski: You are right sometimes too much knowledge can be a burden. However for others it can be a means by which to demonstrate to clients that you really know what is going on. By sharing with them the knowledge that you have gained and then backing it up with solid design, the client can feel very confident they’ve hired THE expert. So I believe a happy medium is in order.

    @ Joni Mueller: I am laughing so hard right now about the: “bootleg copy of Photoshop and a family size bag of Chee-tos do not a web designer make” comment. :)

    @ Polly: I agree, I believe there should be an immense amount of psychological study that truly allows the communication aspect of design to take place.

    [Tears up] “I’ve found family…. Designers that think.” *sniffles* :)

  • Pandora

    By sharing with them the knowledge that you have gained and then backing it up with solid design, the client can feel very confident they’ve hired THE expert. So I believe a happy medium is in order.

  • Rodjendanske Poruke

    aaaah colors, that is what I need to learn. thankd for this post!

  • Laren Galloway

    very good source of interesting posts! I am a newbie, so this is really a big help!

  • 1001 noc

    a big help for everybody… even for us, experienced ones :)))

  • Suri Cruise

    I love the people who write these posts, you are the best!!!

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  • Zabranjeno voce

    Great site, and great article! As always!