The Most Important Skill

About a week ago, the following question was asked by one of our designers: “What is the one skill that can make the most positive impacts in your profession?” If you leave out the obvious answers, such as invisibility or flight, the question is not so easy to answer. A great designer must master several skills in order to be truly effective. After realizing that I didn’t have a good answer, I decided to explore the question a bit further.

What are Skills?

Skills are really only one part of the picture. There are also things that you must know, and there are things that you must be. Skills are actionable, they are the things that you can do. Knowing lots of stuff is not a skill, and simply being a “nice person” is not a skill (there are things that you do in order to know lots of stuff, and things you can do to be a nicer person). Things that you know and your personal attributes are important factors. You can’t have skill in anything if you don’t know how to do it, or if you do not have the attributes required to execute a particular skill.

What Does a Designer Need to Do?

Great designers must perform many different tasks throughout the course a design project. Great designers need to be generalists. They need to have the right attributes, broad knowledge, and good skills in all the areas that they might be required to work. In general, the work that designers are expected to do falls into one of the following three categories.

  1. Understanding
  2. Identifying
  3. Crafting

For each of these sections, I’ve identified what needs to be done, and which skills a designer must execute in order to be effective.


The designer must be able to understand or discover the problems and/or opportunities that they are asked to address.

This can be done by:

  1. Listening to those who will be affected, and to those who best understand.
  2. Empathizing with those whose needs you are trying to meet.
  3. Analyzing the data and facts associated with the issue.
  4. If there are no facts, no data, and nobody to listen to, the designer must creatively find ways to build facts and identify the stakeholders.


The designer must be able to identify and must also be able to demonstrate realistic ways to address the problem or engage the opportunity.

This can be done by:


This can be done by:

  1. Executing the chosen solution in the proper and most perfect way possible according to the available budget and time constraints.
  2. Coordinating and directing the work of others who might be assisting you in the final production.
  3. Evaluating the production work according to the highest standards of your craft.
  4. Presenting the final production ready work with simplicity and clarity.
  5. Educate others about decisions leading to the final design.

What are the Skills?

The above outline is by no means a comprehensive list. Perhaps it is even too simple, but it does provide a basic outline of some of the general things that a designer must do. From this outline, we can extract the following list of skills (the things a designer must do) in order to understand, identify, and craft excellent solutions.

The designer must:

In the case of web site or interaction design, there are few specific skills which come in very handy:

Which skill is most important?

Of all the skills above, I don’t know that you could identify one as being more important than another. The most important skill might be whichever skill you are currently the weakest at, or it might be the skill where you have the most potential or opportunity to excel.

There is one other skill which has not been listed, which is perhaps more important than any other. This sometimes forgotten skill is required before any of the above can ever be obtained. The one skill that I would identify as the most important, and the one that can make the most positive impact on your profession, is that of mastering your capacity and ability to learn.

If you have comments about this article, please send them to john.dilworth [at] or discuss them here

posted by John Dilworth on Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008
tagged with design, skills