10 skills early career designers should have

james helms
6 min readDec 31, 2015


Early career designers frequently reach out to me, asking which skills I’m looking for. Photoshop or Sketch? Angular or bootstrap? Here’s my critical list for the aspiring early career designer.

You can draw. This may be the most critical skill. Drawing is thinking, iterating, exploring and communicating. Learn to do it well. Clean, tight circles. Squares with tight corners and straight lines. Legible icons and nice handwriting on a whiteboard or grid paper are the tools of a prototyper and a design thinker. Practice. Be ready to demonstrate. If you want to impress me, bring your preferred whiteboard markers (I love Quartet chisel-tip markers in a variety of glorious colors).

Computers are great for mid- and high-fidelity prototyping. But the computer can also insulate your ideas from early feedback. Plus it’s slow, unnecessarily high-fidelity, and discourages rapid iteration. Work publicly, unapologetically. Get feedback on a whiteboard while your thinking is in progress. Field questions. Explain the problem. Write down their suggestions in one corner. Even if you don’t use them, it won’t be because you forgot them. Draw, take pictures, erase. Draw again, better this time.

Then yes, use Sketch, InVision, Axure. Whatever is fastest to build, test and iterate.

You can write. An email. A design rationale. An explanation of your thinking and process to the person who is not in the room. Writing is an important skill for every job, ever. But it’s critical for a creative person. You are a dot connector. You must also connect those dots for others. Re-read and edit. Focus on grammar and punctuation. These things matter, from your cover letter to your letter of resignation. They set an expectation for the work you’ll deliver and the effort you’ll expend. Set that expectation high.

You can tell a story. You understand the fundamentals of story telling, and can break down any business problem into simple elements that illustrate the tension, the climax and the falling action. You can paint an emotional and compelling picture of your user. You are equally adept at breaking down your observations and experiences into a 10- 5- or 2-minute story for an audience. You can read an audience and adjust accordingly.

You should be able to build a keynote presentation with thoughtful transitions to highlight emotional moments. The magic of interaction design often happens in the space between screens — demonstrating a deft hand here is critical. Less is more.

When you prototype experiences, use the most real data you can get your hands on. Use your personas, not your coworkers or the cast members from Lost. The data in your prototype should offer the lowest cognitive load possible. Kitten pictures and clever easter egg copy distracts from the goal of a protoype: clean test results. Don’t sabotage hard work with dumb decisions. Seriously, this is my biggest pet peeve.

You can balance curiosity with productivity. As a creative spirit and an individual contributor, you must balance thinking with doing. And you must be able to manage your time effectively: Time to question, time to think and create, time to do, time to develop your rationale, build and practice your presentation, time to present, time to revise. The design process requires quickly sizing, planning and executing — preferably in a single, seamless graceful arc. You will never have “enough time”. Quickly learn how to work within the time you have, and create time to do the work necessary to deliver something awesome.

You can interact with a complete stranger. You must be innately curious about the audience for whom you design, and comfortable engaging a stranger to make your work better. This can be awkward and takes practice. Real designers always start with their users and keep them close. Intuit designers regularly schedule visits to accountants’ offices to sit quietly and just watch. It’s a skill.

Use prototypes to get behavioral feedback. What people say and what they actually do are wildly different things. It could be a paper prototype, an InVision prototype or a wacky 3D doohickey made out of pipecleaners, tin foil, hot glue and acetate. Whatever it takes to set context and mindset, and drive action. Strangers LOVE prototypes. So do I. Can’t wait to see the prototypes you’ve created to validate ideas with customers!

You can kill your favorite ideas. You must have a tough skin and a passion for delivering a magical solution. Design is a contact sport. There will be disagreements, disappointments and set-backs. You will gain new knowledge which paints a different picture of the problem to be solved. You will uncover technical limitations. You will encounter time and budget constraints that force you to reduce and rethink. You must fall in love with the problem — not your solution. Be flexible. And be willing to start over, again and again. Go broad. Intelligently and ruthlessly, narrow those ideas. Go broad again. Show me the process behind your design: your methodology to go broad, and the principles you used to narrow.

You are comfortable being wrong, and uncomfortable being right. The best designers are constructively dissatisfied. They celebrate failure for what it teaches them, and question successes if they’re not sure what worked and why. This may be counter intuitive for students who were encouraged to arrive at the right answer the first time. Design is not math. Design is an art and a science. It requires research, hypotheses, experimentation, iteration. It also requires play, trial-and-error, failure, unreasonable expectations, believing in magic and embracing the impossible. You will get things wrong often, and you will learn to love the data that backs up your successes and makes your failures opportunities.

You can make any criticism constructive. You will be given tough criticism. People will tell you your work sucks. Managers will point out your growth opportunities. Maybe they’ll sugar-coat their feedback. Or tell you “you tried hard.” Maybe you did. Real designers crave constructive criticism. And dig deeper into the problem using words like “why…?” and “for who…?” They also take tactical feedback from clients, executives and other stakeholders (“make that button bigger, redder and shiny”) and use it as an opportunity to better understand the problem. Be tenacious. Get the feedback you need. Keep digging until the real issues surface. Eventually, you will literally hear the click. Like a seatbelt. Keep digging until you hear it. Why? Why? Why?

Be persistent, but be humble. The odds are good that your solution is not perfect. Digging for constructive feedback requires you to admit you may have missed something. The more you defend your work, the more defensive you become — the less productive feedback feels.

You can diffuse a bomb. Sometimes, nothing goes right. The projector melts, the laptop dies or the strategy that falls flat. Being able to improvise in a tense situation is not just a valuable skill, it’s a critical component to meeting prep and making the most of a bad situation. Using that time to break down an important question, capture the audience, rebuild confidence and trust — all tremendously valuable. Humility goes a long way, but it must be tempered with confidence.

You will also have to mend relationships, with a client or with your team. You will hurt someone’s feelings. You will have to eat crow. Apologize. And get past it. You still have work to do. Real designers acknowledge that it takes a village of engineers, QE, project and product mangers to deliver a great idea. Ideas and design alone are not enough. Apologies, incentives, shout-outs, the occasional box of cookies or tacos — these things build the good will you’ll need to make the cool stuff.

You are comfortable asking for help. Everyone around you is busy all the time. And yet, everyone has a few minutes to hear your rationale, test your prototype, question your logic, offer a few suggestions, analogs or another person you should talk to. Ask designers. Ask engineers. Ask your manager. Ask users. Early and often. Capture their suggestions. Rework. Ask them again. Trying to solve a problem alone, without exposing your thinking to users and peers for criticism, is counter-productive.

What questions, suggestions and criticism do you have?



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.