Working with my share of designers, I have come to realise that not all designers have the same set of skills.

Some might be amazing graphic designers, that can pull pre-press together like nobody’s business, yet lack the digital media skills. Others are able to code a site with two hands tied behind their back, yet ask them to do some printed materials and you are left with a big, ‘huh’.

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This isn’t meant to slight anyone with some highly developed skills.

Let’s face it, we all have our strengths, right?

But it left me thinking – what are some of the most under invested skills designers have today, and what are we going to do about it here at Canny.

Becoming Obsolete, Like the Carrier Pigeon

A recent Facebook newsfeed entitled “Why Don’t We Ever See Baby Pigeons?” led me into a filibustering research session on the various life stages and practices of pigeons. I fell deep down the web pigeon hole and found myself unnecessarily researching messenger pigeons.

My nineteen-year-old cousin happened to glance over and saw it happening.

I immediately tried to explain how totally inventive and amazing the messenger pigeon system was – particularly during wartime – to my cousin. A

nd yet, I was almost completely incapable of explaining the necessity and the usage of this system. It was inconceivable that there was a time where you couldn’t just pick up a phone or radio or Tweet to your commanding officer that the enemy was approaching and instead had to rely on a bird to physically fly the information to them.

Like switchboard operators, lamplighters and television repairmen, the messenger pigeon has become hopelessly obsolete.

And we find ourselves in an age of global web dominance with new and innovative systems and processes changing daily. This swift, technological transformation requires technology specialists to run full throttle toward the ever-changing and emerging trends to predict upcoming advancements and stay current.

This transformative environment makes it crucial for web designers to constantly update their skills and stay on top of emerging trends and technology. CSS grids, Flexbox and WebVR are challenging the ability of designers to keep their skills fresh and integrate the newest technologies into their designs.

Some of the Most Underdeveloped Skills of Designers

I said I would discuss this, so here we go. Before we get to the skills we think designers need to develop more, let’s talk about those underdeveloped skills. I have to admit, this idea for this blog came from a Quora discussion that asked: “What skills do you think most designers have under-invested in?” It made me think.

According to one of the respondents there, here are the top under-invested in skills of designers (I think we could say that this can apply to content strategists, writers, any creative really):

  1. Facilitation. The best designers take the time to develop the skill of working together. No one is an island.
  2. Presentation/Public Speaking. Today, more than ever having a personal brand, and presence is so important to success. I would say that this skill is also important for anyone who wants to ‘sell their ideas’ in any way, shape, or form – including designers.
  3. Grit. This is a good one. Any kind of dream job, and that includes designers, takes a lot of determination. If you want to be at the top of any creative field, my friends, you gotta have grit.
  4. Visual design. Here, we get into a specific skill, but I understand why the author mentioned this. A lot of amazing web designers seem to be lacking the fundamental design principles, the big picture, and the visual.
  5. Coding. Just like the lack of visual design, some graphic designers seem to lack this skill, or just don’t invest the time to keep up with the changing times. It’s not easy to stay relevant, but you have to. So we ask…

How Do Designers Keep Up?

The time we now find ourselves in still involves the exchange of information and communication, the exact same exchange that made the messenger pigeon system so valuable. The exchange of information and communication today is still at the root of our integrative technologies – it’s just different.

But wait, how can designers keep up?

How can designers ensure they are staying up to date, providing essential design solutions to their clients AND not fall into the same fate as the winged messenger? By investing time in the skills that don’t change and will always be essential.

Even with the transforming web design environment, there are fundamental skills that many designers are underinvested in.

Here are some of the best skills web designers can invest in to add value to their service offering:

We’ve Said It Before and We’ll Say It Again. You Aren’t Getting Anywhere Without Collaboration

The days of hiding the web designer in an office far away from the web content creator and smooshing the creations of the two together are long gone. The best websites are created collaboratively with the web designer and the web content specialist working together throughout the entire website design process.

Websites that are created through a collaborative effort are more fluid, the layout is more accessible and the design and content mutually complement each other.

The first step in improving collaboration skills is to be open to collaboration with a website design team. One of the quickest and easiest ways to improve your communication and collaboration skills?

Get rid of Lorem Ipsum and instead work directly with the content specialist and create content to integrate it while you build the design. Your content specialist will appreciate being able to work with you and you will be able to create an authentic design that compliments the content.

Designer as a Hermit: It’s Essential to Know How to Work Independently Too

Now, I know not everyone is good at initiating communication and I think it’s fair to say that most creative people often work best alone.

There is a reason Van Gogh didn’t paint Starry Starry Night in a room with fifty other artists and Beethoven didn’t compose his 5th symphony in front of an audience and orchestra. Thankfully, you don’t live in a time where you have to rely on pigeons or churn your own butter and there is a multitude of tools and apps to help you.

You can easily use tools and apps to create ongoing feedback loops and improve communication within the design team – and still, keep some creative hermitage.

Some affordable tools that are created specifically to improve communication and collaboration among website design teams are Red Pen, Marqueed, Mural and Cage. You can also check out my other blog post Content and Design: How They Should Get Along for more ideas to improve your collaboration and communication skills.

You can also use websites like Dribbble and Behance to interface with other designers, virtually!

Listening and Reporting: Everyone Needs to Figure Out These Skills

The design team isn’t the only people web designers have to communicate and collaborate with. Web designers also need communication with clients and members outside of the design team.

One of the biggest complaints of web designers by clients is a lack of communication, reporting and listening. The tools above can also be used to help bridge the communication gap between designer and client, but improving listening and processing skills is also valuable.

And those skills are difficult for a web designer.

Designers are usually presented with ideas and outlines from clients that don’t take coding, visual design or money into consideration.

The ideas brought to designers are usually end products: “I want my site to do this,” or “I want my site to look like this.” The end products are good starting points but leave the poor web designer to process the technological tools needed to create the end product, the amount of money needed to create the end product and the user friendliness of the end product.

That is a lot to process and then explain to a client who is passionate and understandably wants the best website possible.

And this isn’t the way things should work. Clients should present problems to their chosen designers. It’s then the designers job to work with the client and figure out an appropriate solution. Not the other way around.

Design in Stages: Not Everything Has to be Done Right Away

Ah the good old MVP approach.

A client has an idea. They want their website to be bright with lots of pictures, video capabilities, a chat window, marketing funnelling capabilities and all in CSS grid layouts. Oh, and can you also make sure it looks exactly the same on all phones and computers? O, and can you make it scroll? With sound? And a landing page that changes every day? Oh, and I might want to change it in six months.

Clients are often unaware of the amount of information and the processing involved in designing a website. The onus is on the designer to structure these design meetings in a way to allows them to (1) get the information they need, (2) to process the information and (3) report the information back to the client for feedback.

Design sessions that follow this pattern will create a collaborative communication process with the client. This pattern can also be used during meetings with the design team and content specialist.

Learn How to Get the Right Information

These initial meetings should begin with the client talking and the designer listening. Taking the time to focus on listening, asking questions and getting the information needed from the client without worrying about how you’re going to do it. Ask the client what their priorities are, what features do they REALLY want? What is their budget? What are their problems?

Learn How to Process the Right Information

This is where you can be a hermit. Take the time to process the information the client has outlined and identify the priorities. Then create a proposal, outlining preliminary thoughts and findings, costs and timeframes for the client.

Report and Get Feedback

Client and design teams often criticize web designers for not explaining designs or processes enough. Take your time here to meet with the client or design team and present your outline and get their feedback. This will create the basis for ongoing clear collaboration and communication and ensure the site is exactly what the client is expecting.

Don’t Jump on Trend Bandwagons – Be Confident in Your Design Abilities

You know how you have never heard a name in your entire life and then suddenly every kid you meet has that name or a derivative of that name? Like Aiden. No one was named Aidan before 2015 and now every kid I meet is Aidan or Jayden or Brayden or Caden. Website design is kind of like that.

There is a trend and suddenly every client or design team wants the same thing.

Like the name Aiden, bots have been around for years – but at some time during 2016, they suddenly became the new trend and everyone wanted websites with bots or bot features. And as a web designer hearing the same features and the same requests can become incredibly wearisome.

It can become easy to forget the excitement of creating authentic and stimulating web designs that are visually impressive and creatively innovative. Keeping visual inventiveness and creativity at the forefront of your web designs is important in creating a product that clients and users will love.

Web design is more than just creating space to throw in content, taking the time to create a design that is fresh, user-friendly and really compliments the content is a skill to continue to upgrade and invest in.

Nobody is Good at Everything. Know Your Strengths, and Hire Others with Talents You Don’t Have

A good web designer knows how to transform content into a creative and appealing end product. And they are absolutely critical to the design team and process. They are not, however, the great and powerful Oz.

Many clients and design team members get frustrated that once the website is designed, there is no ability to modify or alter the website afterward. You don’t have to give away all the keys to the kingdom and make a web design that is entirely modifiable. But you should be making your clients life as easy as possible.

Especially with the tools available today – modifying a website is even easier. This also creates ongoing collaboration and communication between the web designer, the client and the design team.

And Finally, Don’t Clip Your Wings

While this list does present skills that are often underdeveloped by web designers, the essential skills such as coding, graphic design and core web design skills cannot be ignored and should be continually refreshed and updated.

But integrating and developing these underinvested skills into your suite of professional abilities can transform you from a lowly city pigeon looking for bread crumbs under park benches into a soaring messenger pigeon delivering vital communications across war zones.

Ok, I get it, the pigeon metaphor is tired.

But, if you can improve these skills, your web designs will look fresher, the process will be easier and your clients will be happier.

Be a soaring pigeon.

Ok ok, enough of the pigeons. I promise.

As always, I invite you to comment and share these articles. We’d love to hear from you!

Amy Aitman is the owner of 8menCan, a content agency based in Toronto, Canada. She works to create content strategies and digital marketing plans for businesses around the world. Away from the office, Amy takes her team out for chicken tacos and martins, extra dirty, extra olives of course.


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