Beyond Design, 10 Skills Designers Need to Succeed Now

10 attributes that are just as important as design skills for success in today’s economy.

Beyond Design, 10 Skills Designers Need to Succeed Now

Judging by the number of inquiries we’ve received lately there are quite a few recent graduates who have not landed that all-important first job in the profession. Of the few portfolios I’ve reviewed, it seems that this year’s graduates continue the trend of improvement in skills and capabilities. That said, there are several attributes key to success that don’t always get the attention they deserve in most design schools. Ultimately, those attributes will prove as important for a designer’s success in today’s economy as sheer design skill. Here are my top ten “strengths” that graduating designers–or any designers, for that matter–should bulk up on:


Passionate Curiosity: Continually explore and understand. More often this is a key differentiator between those who will make an impact and all the others.

Imagination: Bring ideas and opportunities together in ways that were not initially obvious. It can be a powerful and defining capability for a designer.

Objectivity & Self Awareness: Assess yourself and your work, and view yourself through the eyes of others with a realistic understanding of your capabilities.

Crisp Communication: Build credibility. Often the language of design is very different from the language of business. The ability to effectively communicate across the disciplines is critical for a designer to influence an organization.

Effective Storytelling: Fold and translate your ideas into the priorities of your client or organization.

Flawless Execution: Get things done. Long gone are the days in which a designer handed work off to a project team to figure out. (It was never a good modus operandi, anyway.) Today, a designer has to work with cross-functional teams to advance designs and shepherd them through to production–every step of the way.


Business Acumen: Create value in your markets. Effective designers need to understand how their businesses (or their clients) what role design can play to bring an advantage to their customers.

Global Awareness: There are really two aspects of to global awareness: understanding how changes around the world are affecting the customers and markets; and understanding that the talent pool for designers today is global.

Context: Bring ideas and designs to the table that are relevant by considering current economic, social and business trends.

Talent: Talent is intentionally last on this list. Having a real talent for design is as critical as it has ever been. However, talented designers are far more common than those designers who have real talent complimented with the attributes that are outlined above.

Ten years ago, this list would have been less than half as long. In ten more years I expect that the demands on the designer will be that much broader. To be effective, designers have to get out of their studios and more fully engage their organizations. So my final advice for new graduates is to use any free time while chasing your first job to sharpen your skills, build depth in your portfolio and add new capabilities to your toolbox. You should assume that the best of your peers are doing the same.

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Ken Musgrave has been building and leading Dell’s Experience Design Competencies, including industrial design, visual identity, and usability, at Dell Inc. for the past eight years. The team now extends globally with creative professionals in Austin, Texas, Singapore, and Taiwan. For the first twenty years of Dell’s history it enjoyed growth through operational efficiencies and superior cost structure. Three years ago, Dell recognized that the principles and process that got it to that point would not be the same ones that would carry it into the future. Design has been at the forefront of that cultural shift. Ken has lead the development of a design competency and design culture through that transformation–including seeing Dell move from being a U.S.-centric manufacturer of computers to being a global source for great product experiences.

At Dell Ken has lead design-centered strategies ranging from consumer personalization to enterprise experiences. Before Dell, Ken led several design leadership and corporate identity roles at Becton Dickinson, a medical technology company. While there he led a global program to redefine the company’s visual, product and global corporate identities. Ken holds an MBA from the University of Utah, an MS in design from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a BS in industrial design from Auburn University.