How to spot raw design talent
How do you spot a great future designer?
Look for people with skills that are hard to teach. In my product design classes, the hardest thing to teach has been this:
The ability to quickly evaluate a design, generate slightly-better solutions, and stay fully engaged in this loop long enough to get a remarkable result.
This is important because in design, the battle is won or lost over countless small details. They all have to be right, and they all have to fit together.
#What to look for in junior designers
#1) The Eye 👁
To quickly evaluate design, you need what designers call The Eye. The Eye is all about good taste.
Do you critique the typography of street signs? Obsess over colors and fabric when buying clothes and furniture? Become infatuated with particular paintings or photographs? Resist the urge to straighten crooked picture frames? You might have The Eye.
Designers use their Eye to tweak thousands of little details, all day, every day. Without it, you can’t create a great result of any meaningful size.
Note that you don’t have to make anything to have The Eye. You just need to recognize what’s good and what’s not.
Steve Jobs famously said that the the problem with Microsoft was that they had no taste. He went on to build Apple into a luxury brand, and now his company is the most valuable in the world.
If you want to see if someone has The Eye, ask them to pick any object in the room. Then ask them to tell you what they like (and don’t) about its design. If they have The Eye, they’ll have a lot to say.
#2) The Spark 💥
Generating solutions requires The Spark, which is all about creativity. Before we talk about creativity, let me give you my definition:
Creativity is simply the tendency to make things.
Creativity is about what you do, not what you say. That cool friend who loves concerts and never quite gets around to starting that screenplay? Not creative. A 70-year-old retiree screwing a board under her deck to stabilize the stairs? Creative.
Do you just talk, analyze, compare, and debate? Or do you pick up a pencil and draw? Creativity is that pure, raw itch to get your hands dirty and create something new. When creative people show up, things are brought into the world (even if it’s a doodle on a post-it).
Creativity is not about making good things, it’s about making literally anything at all. You can’t make good things until you’ve learned how to make, and you can’t learn how to make unless you make a lot of bad things first.
Creativity is hard. It’s summoning something from inside yourself and manifesting it into the real world with your hands. It requires bravery and willingness to be wrong.
Sometimes managers to have to “rein in” the creative instinct of young designers. Creating things too fast can keep us from learning enough—but when it’s time to make, we have to burst out of the gates and make.
If you’re not sure if someone is creative, ask them to draw an idea they’ve been talking about. Some people will hesitate, or go on explaining, but creative people will be relieved to put it on paper.
#3) The Flow 🌊
Once you have taste and creativity, you need practice. And practice. And more practice. It’ll take years before you’re really good. For digital designers, this means sitting in front of a computer for hours on end.1
This is nearly impossible to do unless you have The Flow — the tendency to become lost in your design work.
I named The Flow after “flow state,” the enjoyable and energizing state of absorbed focus that skilled people hit when they’re on an engaging challenge. Athletes call this “the zone”.
The Flow requires grit, but don’t confuse it with hustle. It has nothing to do with summoning charm, nothing to do with getting aggressive, nothing to do with sweat or winning. You don’t even need to wake up early. The Flow can be a grind, but it’s closer to relaxed focus than a slog.
In fact, Flow should feel pretty easy. If you have to try too hard to get into the Flow, you might not have much energy left once you get there.
That doesn’t mean The Flow is always easy to find. Quiet offices and dark early morning hours breed Flow, and noisy workspaces and meetings kill it. You have to make room in your life for The Flow to appear.
If you want to know if someone has The Flow, ask them about how their projects are going. If they’ve been “meaning to find the time,” that’s a bad sign. If they do have it, they’ll tell you about all the things they’ve been trying. You might even see bags under their eyes.
Together, these three traits make up most of a design “natural”: seeing a design problem (The Eye 👁), creating a solution (The Spark 💥), and working on it until its good (The Flow 🌊).
But there’s still one missing piece.
#4) The Heart 💚
I’ve found that great designers tend to express themselves in emotional terms.2
When they talk, they get excited, giggly, anxious, or annoyed. Bad design makes them physically cringe; great design elicits a happy shout. You can see how their work is going by looking at their faces.
Emotional people can have almost any personality: quiet with a cutting wit; vocal and vibrant; nurturing and reserved; jolly and outgoing. The only thing they’re not is emotionally neutral — even if they seem that way at first.
Emotional people aren’t necessarily aware of their emotions either. Our society doesn’t teach us much emotional intelligence, and designers are no different from the rest of us. Some of us are better at sharing our emotions than others.
Frankly, I don’t even know that some people DO feel emotion more strongly than others. But my sense is that emotionality varies.
Sometimes designers who do everything “right” and still see their work fail — emotionality might be the missing puzzle piece for them. Making something usable isn’t enough, it has to be something people really want — and want is always connected to emotion3.
#How NOT to find raw talent
I think a lot of design managers already understand these four traits, even if they don’t refer to them as such.
But many other people, especially non-designers, use bad signals when hunting for talent.
- Oddly, looking for great design skills will not lead you to potentially great designers. If someone is already a skilled designer, it’s not raw untapped ability waiting to be developed — its just regular old ability, easily spotted with a portfolio review. Everyone else can see it too, so you’ll have to compete for their time and pay very well. If you want to train a new talent, your advantage comes from finding hidden potential, and hidden potential doesn’t have a good portfolio yet.
- What about an artistic bent? Is a strong talent in art an indicator of great future design work? I think it helps, but it isn’t a very good predictor of successful designers—design is just too different from art. Talents in other areas related to design like academia and engineering are equally less predictive in my opinion.
- Diva attitudes and self-destructive behavior are all associated with creative genius in the public psyche. Of course, they all actively keep designers from achieving their potential. These are negative signals — stay away.
- And while we’re on the topic of design stereotypes: many talented designers do wear black cloths, wear big glasses, and buy mid-century modern furniture. But so many don’t. Don’t judge the book by its cover.
- It is true that introverted people can be well suited to the kind of deep work design requires. But design wouldn’t survive without extroverted designers reaching out to connect with other people. I think hiring a mix of introverts and extroverts is best. 4
- Project management skills, ability to manage employees, ability to work with stakeholders, and skill at presenting work — all of these are important to designers, but they are developed with time. Other core design skills like empathy/perspective-taking, active listening, and getting and receiving feedback can be taught.
- Of course, intelligence and great communication are probably necessary to be great — but those are important for all knowledge work jobs, not just design.
#Why all this matters
There’s kind of a secret in the design world: some people are more naturally suited to design work than others.
Design students suspect it, and some teachers deny it. Experienced designers all know it, but hate to admit it. I’m having trouble admitting it right now.
Maybe it sounds obvious. But we make this idea into a “secret” when we give advice to students like this:
“Great designers aren’t born, they’re made.” “You just need to practice, practice, practice.” “Focus on the work — you’ll get there eventually.”
I’ve said these things to my students because I wanted to encourage them, and I wanted them to work hard. Maybe it was also was a way to tell myself a story: that all of my success was earned by hard work, not by luck.
Despite my intent, the impact of these words can be discouraging. When you imply that talent makes no difference, you can make students feel like they’re just not working hard enough*,* even though others seem to have a magic touch. It’s subtly shaming, and frankly just incorrect: every student I’ve taught has amazing natural talents, they just weren’t all natural designers.
Understanding this “secret” is also important for design leaders building great teams. Good designers are still easier to train than to hire, according to a friend who runs a large agency, but you need to find junior designers receptive to your training for this to work. My experience hiring my own design team tends to support that claim.
So there, I said it. Not everyone is natural designer. Working in this field really is easier for some people. I’m glad you know.
If you don’t recognize these talents in yourself, don’t panic. Learning these things is hard, but maybe not impossible: surround yourself with great design to develop your taste, practice drawing solutions to everyday problems, build habits to develop your flow state, and try working through emotions as you recognize them. The footnotes at the end of this article can show you how.
Of course, you might be a better fit for a different job. Design is common “gateway career” to other truly great roles. Many of these, like product management, are arguably higher-status (and unarguably higher-paying) than design.
If you do chose another kind of work, don’t leave design completely behind. Designers love working with engineers with a passion and skill for design! Product managers with design skills are incredibly hard to come by, as are design researchers with good taste and the creative spark. You might even become one of those rare design-conscious CEOs.
If you do recognize these traits in yourself, congratulations — a career in design might come naturally. Trust in your talent, and focus on developing your skills.
And, above all, count your blessings. Not everyone has the gifts you have. Share them with others, and use them for good.
A great book on getting into flow state is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Also, three books on writing that apply equally well to building flow habits as a designer... Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. ↩
I recommend reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown to anyone who wants to see how emotions and storytelling influence our mental well-being — especially the audiobook version read by the author (free on Libby). A design-specific book is Emotional Design, by Donald Norman, the father of UX and author of the classic Design of Everyday Things. ↩