Growing Designers

3 underrated skills every designer needs

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User-centred focus.

Being a whizz on Adobe Creative Suite.

Being incredibly passionate about design.

We all know that there are some key skills to push when we are talking about being a good designer. Thats why every time I read a summary at the top of a CV I see the same few skills repeated over and over again.

Whilst these skills can be important, there are also plenty of other characteristics that deserve to be recognised as key attributes of a good designer. These are the types of talents that I rarely hear people shouting about on their CV’s or during interviews, but more importantly, that I just don’t hear people talk about improving in their design practise.

This post is going to focus on three of these skills that I believe are under-utilised and under-appreciated by designers and include some tips to help you kickstart your development in each area. Let’s dive in!

Attention to detail

Attention to detail isn’t just some words that you use to describe yourself. It’s a type of mindset that shines through everything you do. And in a design context, it’s really obvious if you’ve got it or not – from visual design (have you noticed that misaligned icon, is that shade of blue correct?) to interaction design and usability (does that transition work well in this context? Is that label accurately describing that form field?) all the way to user research (are you the person that would point out that your participants are all basically the same person? Are the directions correct for your participants?)

Steve Jobs quote - "Details matter, it's worth waiting to get it right"

Designers who don’t cultivate their attention to detail end up producing sloppy, incomplete work, which then  distracts from the better parts of their work. It’s amazing how much stakeholders can notice the tiny details, so it’s really important, no matter what level of fidelity or type of task you’re working on, that you make sure you don’t give anybody an excuse to tear your work up.

Inattention to detail also manifests during recruitment processes. I know everybody says, check your CV for typos, but damn, why do I do see so many CV’s and portfolios with typos? Why do designers present tasks where they’ve clearly used the wrong logo or brand colour? Not noticing those small details in a recruitment process just gives the hiring managers an excuse to say no.

How to improve your attention to detail

The good news is you’re not just born with a finite amount of attention. You can train your brain to work differently and to notice things that you may not have before. Here are some strategies:

  • Meditate – I swear by meditation to help reduce my stress and anxiety. It makes you focus on something really small really intently, like your breath going in or out, or the feeling in different body parts. Regularly making meditation part of my routine helped to calm my busy mind down and helped me improve my focus. Try one of the iOS meditation apps like Headspace or Calm to give it a go yourself.
  • Limit distractions – How can you make your workspace more fit for purpose? My desk is situated in an extremely noisy area of the office, so when I really have to concentrate on a task, I put my headphones on and crank up my music. Sometimes, I take myself away to a completely different area. Be mindful of the different types of tasks you need to do and the physical space where you are able to achieve them most impactfully.
  • Use the Three Check system – Get in the habit of checking your work thoroughly before moving on and it will become second nature to begin noticing what you may have missed more.There are generally three areas that it is useful to check your design work for. :
    • Accuracy – is everything correct? For example, are my hex codes aligned to the brand palette, have I used the right template, does this user flow make sense?
    • Consistency – am I applying the same principles throughout my work? For example, am I using the right terminology throughout my document, have I used the same nav pattern in each page of my wireframe, does this responsive web design match what my team mate is working on for apps over there?
    • Completion – have I finished this to the standard that is expected? For example, have I thought of every use case for this design spec? Does this design meet the brief?
  • Have a break! – We aren’t all lucky enough to work in places that value employee rest and relaxation. I’ve certainly done my fair share of time working in environments where the client and the work were king and we had to sweat all day and sometimes all night until the work was done. The problem with long hours is that we get more tired, and of course, when we are more tired, we are more prone to make mistakes and also to not notice those mistakes. Whether you’re currently working a 16 hour day or you just don’t seem to ever take regular breaks at work, know that it is really important to let your brain switch off during a working day. Go outside and have a walk, or have a sitdown and a chat – just make sure you remove your brain from your work during the day so that it is more refreshed when you come back to it. And you might just find you’ll start noticing things that you might not have noticed before!

Growth Mindset

Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, coined the term Growth Mindset in 2007, to describe a way of thinking about oneself that hadn’t ever been categorised formally before – the belief that you can grow. This is in contrast to people with a Fixed Mindset, who assume that their character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which they cannot change in any meaningful way.

Having a fixed mindset in your work can be really problematic because this type of thinking means you can find it difficult to change course. You’re fixed in a very binary view – you see everything as either right and wrong, or you might believe that someone has either ‘got it’ or they don’t. And potentially worst of all, any suggestion of change or adaptation can be considered a criticism against you, with barriers and challenges more likely to make you angry or defensive.

Growth Mindset cartoon from Katherine Lynas

I’ve known designers with both a fixed and a growth mindset. I worked with a designer who was adamant that she wasn’t able to learn Adobe AfterEffects because it was way too complicated for her. I worked with someone who seemed convinced that his design ability was a gift from the gods and the rest of us just didn’t get it on his level. I’ve been managed by a boss who didn’t prioritise my developmental needs for more visual design because I was just a UX-er. In all of these situations, a fixed mindset was at play producing some suboptimal behaviours.

On a more personal note, your type of mindset will also change what you strive for in your work and what you see as success. As a designer with a growth mindset, I’m aware that I’m able to view every challenge as an opportunity. I might be more likely to stretch my skills, develop from criticism, and do more than I ever might have thought possible. By changing how I view failure, I completely change where I place my efforts.

Growth mindset cartoon, which step have you reached today

I think it is vitally important for every designer to cultivate a growth mindset as this will help move you closer to your career and developmental goals.

How to bolster your growth mindset

In true inception-style, the first step out of a fixed mindset is to recognise that you are not fixed in your fixed mindset for ever(!) Let’s look at some tactics to get there:

  • Be realistic about time and effort – First up, I think it’s important to set some expectations. It takes time to learn and master new skills so remember not to be discouraged when you don’t happen to master the complete back catalogue of Creative Suite in an afternoon!
  • Try different learning tactics – There are many different ways to learn and not all of the techniques and tools will be appropriate for you. If you’re struggling with something, don’t automatically assume that its you, that you’re somehow unable to grasp this thing. Instead, try learning differently. Maybe listening to YouTube videos about how to create an empathy map isn’t the way forward for you, but finding a colleague who is shit hot at them and have them explain it in person will work better.
  • Be mindful of your language – Research has shown that when a child is praised for an ability, like “you’re really smart”, this can cultivate a fixed mindset. They begin to believe in the binary of “You’re clever” and “You’re not clever”. In contrast, praising their efforts have been shown to foster resilience and a belief that they can get it if they work hard. This is a great insight to be mindful of in your day to day. Have you ever said the words “I can’t”? Praised an employee for their innate sense of design? Talked about your failures instead of your learnings? Think about your phrasing and how it might foster a fixed or growth mindset.
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect –  it is oh so easy to rush through every day and not take any time for thinking about yourself, your goals, your accomplishments and your learnings. Something that is a valuable habit to get into is scheduling specific time for yourself to think back to what you’ve accomplished and where you want to get to. Maybe its the last 5 minutes of your day before you leave your office?


I find it pretty interesting that so many designers focus development goals around their presentation and creative facilitation skills, but not that many of them are talking about how to improve how they listen.

Quote on listening from Karl A Meninger

Listening is the bedrock of good communication, and one of the most important skills a designer can cultivate. Far from a passive process that takes no effort (this is just hearing), listening needs focus and engagement from the listener to be fully involved in what the speaker is saying. This is sometimes referred to as active listening by people who like to make things sound a bit more complicated than they are. 

Quote on listening from Larry King, "I remind myself every moning, nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening"

I come across plenty of situations every day that I feel can be attributed to a breakdown in listening skills:

  • When a designer is interviewing a user, but misses an important research insight because he is so eager to get through all his questions
  • When a designer and their Lead are in a design critique reviewing work, but the designer disagrees with the feedback so shuts down and refuses to engage
  • When a designer and a developer are talking at complete cross-purposes because both expect the other to understand some critical assumptions
  • When a designer is talking to another designer that she mentors, but doesn’t notice that he needs help because she’s worrying about her work presentation later on

And this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Imagine noting down every situation in which you have to listen during just one day at work – I expect it would calculate into a sizeable percentage of your workday.  In fact, research shows that adults can spend about 45% of their communication time listening, compared to 30% speaking.  It’s really staggering to think about how much time we spend receiving information in an auditory fashion, that it only makes sense to dedicate some time to improving the process. 

How to listen better

There are lots of techniques available to help improve your listening skills. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Keep an open mind and ask what you can learn – It can be really difficult to listen without judgement. Especially if I’ve got low expectations of a conversation, its hard to not hear along without criticising mentally. Try and keep value judgements out of it and instead, as they’re speaking, focus just on what is being said. This will help to stop your thoughts overshadowing the other person talking so you can better focus on them. Secondly, go in with a mindset that there’s always something you can learn from someone, even if you think you disagree. Make a goal that you’ll learn something from the conversation and actively listen out for it.
  • Summarise! – Get into the practise of recapping what someone has just said to you, particularly when it involves an exchange of important information and future plans. This will help to make sure you’re focusing on what they’re saying and will help with the retention of that information by recapping. Something I like to do is ask “what are the key takeaways from this and what are the next steps from here?”.
  • Take notes, written or drawn – The best practise I ever got into was taking a physical notebook and pen to every meeting. The worst practise I ever got into was only to use that notebook to write down words. For me, taking notes via sketching or drawing is far easier; once I started doing that instead of forcing myself to write words down, I found that the practise of taking notes was actually really beneficial to helping me retain information and to listen what people were saying.

Your next steps

Do any of these areas resonate with you? If there’s one that feels like could do with some optimisation, start with that one. Pick one thing you can do to start improving that skill and make that one thing your mission. Comment below with what you’ll be committing to starting in your work practise – saying out loud to the world will help set your intention.

What are you waiting for??


Design lead, watermelon addict, Leuchtterm notebook obsessive. I just enjoy designing great experiences for people that just work, writing about my craft and connecting with designers everywhere. Find me on Instagram, Twitter and Google+.


  1. This post is exactly the sort advice I’ve been looking for if I had a mentor. And I need a mentor. It’s perfect. Attention to detail has tripped me up enough for me to feel embarrassed about it. Mediation, if I can make it a daily practice will help. Also listening for me is much easier with customers than with stakeholders. Going to have a think about why this is. Thanks for the excellent post.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment and glad you found my advice helpful! Yes, meditation is such a fantastic habit to get into, even if its just 5 minutes a day. Interesting you find listening easier with customers than with stakeholders – sounds like you’ve got all the right tools but might just need to shift your mindset when with the stakeholders. Good luck! 🙂

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