To be a great designer, you need to be creative. But did you know that along with the slew of technical design skills you might already possess (like composition, color theory and software proficiencies) you need something called ‘soft skills’? Yep, they’re a thing! And just like knowing your way around Photoshop, they’re critical to your success.
Soft skills are more like your personal attributes and interpersonal skills. Beyond your raw talent, they’re the aspects of your personality that make people want to work with you.
The good news is that these skills are mostly already ingrained. Even if you’re a new designer, you can harness soft skills from your past life experiences and roles. Others might not come as naturally, but they can—and should—be worked on if you want to develop both professionally and personally.
We polled our 99designs community and, along with insights from other design leaders, we’ve pulled together the most important soft skills to hone in on to take your freelance design career to the next level.
Soft skill #1: Communicate efficiently and effectively
Design is fundamentally a form of communication—whether it’s communicating ideas through text and visuals, or solving complex problems with colors, shapes and forms.
But good design doesn’t stop at the deliverable itself. Running a freelance design business requires effective communication from start to finish, and often includes dealing with many different (opinionated) stakeholders. So how do the most successful designers stay cool and communicative?
It starts long before the project begins, with making sure you have a thorough understanding of the brief and your client’s needs. Know exactly what you’re delivering and when, by creating a scope document that outlines feedback milestones, due dates and any other specifications.
At the same time, you should clearly communicate your own terms and requirements. These could be anything from your regular working hours, your preferred feedback collection method, or the best ways for your client to reach you. By setting the tone and expectations up front, you’ll make it easier to troubleshoot any issues later. And, you’ll look professional as heck! Win–win.
Only with effective communication can we really understand the given task and deliver a great product at the end of a project.
As 99designs Top Level designer FriendlyLabel explains, “Only with effective communication can we, the designers, really understand the given task and deliver a great ‘product’ at the end of a project—a logo, a catalog, a website or any other item that will ‘speak the language’ of the brand and send the right message.”
The takeaway? Clear communication upfront, and throughout every meeting, email or call will ensure that you have everything you need to do what you do best: produce great design.
Soft skill #2: Be an amazing collaborator
We’ve all been there: difficult clients whose phone calls we dread, revision requests that appear from thin air, stakeholders coming out of the woodwork at the very last minute, and team members who don’t deliver on what they promise. Ack! However irritating other people are being, though, you want to make sure that you’re consistently professional.
There are the givens, like delivering on-brief and on time. But don’t slack on treating people with respect. Remember that collaborating across time zones and via screens is no easy feat. It takes patience, understanding and ultimately experience. And most of the time, everyone is just trying to do their best.
I don’t think you can go wrong approaching any type of work as if you are in the customer service industry.
99designs Top Level designer green in blue shared her perspective: “I don’t think you can go wrong approaching any type of work as if you are in the customer service industry. I want the client’s experience to be smooth and easy.”
We agree with her approach. You always have the option to not to work with a fussy client again, but it doesn’t mean you have to burn a bridge in the process. That’s the beauty of working for yourself. And when you have a reputation of being easy to work with, you’ll never be short of clients.
Here’s how Top Level designer bayuRIP summarizes it: “There are many important soft skills a designer needs. If I had to pick only one, it would be having the right attitude. That’s what sets you up to build good relationships with your clients.”
Soft skill #3: Harness your confidence responsibly
Confidence is an incredibly important soft skill for your development as a designer.
It means, above all, knowing your worth so that you can charge the prices you deserve. When unreasonable requests roll in, it’s confidence that gives you the strength to push back. 99designs Top Level Designer 3AM3I reminds us that you must “respect yourself and your work, and don’t go under your limit quote if you think it’s not worth your time.”
Finally, confidence enables you to push yourself out of your comfort zone and experiment (within reason)! Kimberly Bartkowski, now Executive Creative Director at IBM iX (via Medium), recognizes that “As a junior it’s easy to be intimidated […] If you can learn to acknowledge the fear and be ok with it — because it’s not unique to you, everyone has been there — you’ll be free to try new things. To contribute at brainstorms. To throw out ideas in the hallway. To interrupt meetings. To share something funny.”
You’re being paid not just to do as you’re told, but to bring your experience and expertise to the table—so do it.
Soft skill #4: Give and receive valuable feedback
It can be painful when someone criticizes work you’ve spent hours on and believe passionately in—but it doesn’t always have to be. You can train yourself to welcome constructive feedback by simply shifting your thinking, and remembering that every critique is an opportunity to grow and learn.
It’s not enough to be good at absorbing feedback—you need to be comfortable with giving it, too. How about getting a group together to review design trends and ideas, outside the context of a paid project? It’s a great, low-stakes way to practice giving and receiving valuable feedback. And, it allows you to ease into discussions you might otherwise avoid, improve your design vocabulary, and build a network you trust.
As Kevin Sharon, Principle and Creative Director of National Design Service (via Medium), puts it, “A skill that designers rarely know intuitively, but can be learned easily, is to feel comfortable about giving and receiving feedback. In receiving feedback, I advise people to assume that whomever is giving feedback only has the good intentions about the project at heart and isn’t trying to undermine their hard work.”
At the end of the day, many of our anxieties stem from the idea that critique is either ”bad” or “good”. Don’t let this twisted thinking hold you back. Instead, remind yourself that critique is essential to making your work and future projects even better.
Soft skill #5: Stay curious and humble
Even the most experienced designers never stop learning. Things change, trends evolve and every project presents a different set of challenges. So go with the flow. Only when you put your ego aside can you truly open your eyes and mind to unexpected perspectives and possibilities. You never know where you’ll end up when you do.
Web designer Brad Frost (via Medium) feels that “The most important skill everyone should strive to master is to learn how to learn. No one person has all the answers in an industry that changes every day, so the ability to efficiently seek out resources, information, and solutions is vital to advancing your knowledge.”
Stay on top of the latest design trends and techniques by signing up to newsletters, reading relevant articles and maybe finding a podcast or two to listen to. If something really speaks to you, lean in! And ask questions! Rett Martin, now Creative Director at The Big Know (via Medium), touts the importance of “being humble, listening to others and then after gathering the facts, stating your opinions and beliefs without an ego.”
It’s simple. Be open to others’ opinions and stay curious—that way, you’ll stay on your toes in an evolving industry and have fun along the way.
Soft skill #6: Practice resilience
Running a freelance design business is hard work. Even when you feel like you’ve reached a certain level, new challenges can spring up from seemingly nowhere. But it’s the small moments—the freedom to create and an ecstatic client at the end of the day—that make the journey worthwhile.
One aspect that will help you on your way is to be patient. Top Level designer Freshinnet says: “I think the most important skill in working with clients is patience! It pays off in the long run.”
Successful freelancers acknowledge the inevitable hardships and choose to focus on the bigger picture, rather than getting beat down by each perceived setback.
Educator and designer Jason Tselentis (via Medium) asks, “How well do you bounce back from a failed design? A crushing, and perhaps mean critique of the work? How do you handle long nights, with little to no sleep to meet a deadline? What about difficulty with tools or technology, or even vendors? Resiliency enables you to persevere, and now as a design educator, I find myself constantly reminding students of how valuable this is.”
This may just be the most critical soft skill of them all. So take a deep breath, lean on your support systems, and keep your head up. We’ll be right here cheering you on.
How many of these soft skills do you feel confident about? Where do you see an opportunity to grow? Reflect on what’s missing from your soft skill toolbox and seek out ways to practice so that you can become a stronger and more successful designer.