What do good designers have in common? pt.2

In following up with the first part, What do good designers have in common?, I’ve used your helpful comments and added a few of my own in an attempt to quantify concrete characteristics of career designers.

The core elements I was looking for transcend design per se because if one only wanted design direction, one could hire stylists, consultants, merchandisers and/or subscribe to trend forecasting services. That said, Sarah’s comment bears airing:

A good designer is one whose ideas sell and make a profit. Nothing else is essential. He/she can be knowledgeable or not, can be pleasant or a total (your favorite epitaph here). It doesn’t matter. If they sell, they are a good designer. If they do not sell, they are not a designer for long.

The most important skills (if not least liked tasks) required of a designer have always been managing projects, people, product and processes -today more than ever and apply equally to entrepreneur and employee designers. With a primary focus on project and or product management, the most important skills are organization and communication. Here’s what I have so far, your comments are noted in parenthesis:

Practical skills of accomplished designers:

  • Computer literacy; competency in Illustrator, Photoshop, Excel, Word and PDM.
  • Effective visual communication: sketches that accurately convey proportion, dimensions and styling (Rocio).
  • Knows how to measure a garment, knows how to inspect a garment, knows and employs terminology effectively to articulate desired effects (Willetta).
  • Construction skills, understanding how garments go together (Heather).
  • Anticipate construction requirements to meet price points (Rocio).
  • Being aware of the number and order of steps in given processes as opposed to their costs.
  • Has the spatial ability to visualize in 3 dimensions (Sally).
  • Understand textile characteristics of drape, cut, weave, and maintenance/cleaning requirements (Willetta, Kimmie).
  • Shorten cycle time by understanding how design intersects with drape, fit and production needs (Rama).

In managing relationships, a good designer:

  • Knows the difference between authority, responsibility and accountability. The designer needs to permit compensatory authority to subordinates to get the job done if a team member is accountable for a given outcome.
  • A designer needs to manage challenging relationships with vendors, subordinates, supervisors and customers appropriately.
  • A designer must be clear with vendors as to the limits of their purchasing authority.
  • Recognize their technical limitations and give credit to those he/she turns to for guidance; listen to technical design, patternmaking and product development (Rocio, Mary & Barb).
  • Takes responsibility for their decisions and answers questions without getting defensive (Rocio).
  • Knows when to defer to team members and subordinates with specialized skills and to not take their direction or suggestions personally.


  • Keeping sourcing information updated and paired with materials.
  • Keeping to schedule (Willetta), updating the T&A as applicable.
  • Maintaining or contributing to an annual calender of sourcing shows, training events, market shows and research opportunities.
  • Know how to direct fit models and run fit and style meetings well.


  • Regardless of whether the firm is a leader vs follower, careful study and analysis of trends in color, styling,  silhouette, fit and function (Willetta).
  • Reads and collects information from a broad variety of sources (when purchasing magazines, also buy the magazine at top left or lower right of the one you select).
  • Hangs with the customer, participates in the activities they do.
  • Regularly visits stores to examine complimentary products.
  • Listen to the sales and marketing team to understand the feedback from consumers (Barb, Mary).
  • Listen to the marketing team to learn what they think the market will be receptive to (Barb, Willetta).
  • Knows how to take direction without taking it personally.

Of all the needed skills, effective communication is the most critical and cited by nearly everyone who commented. Communications sounds so obvious and common that nobody really pays attention to what it means but communication is so important it can be subdivided like so:

  • knowing when to communicate,
  • knowing what to communicate,
  • knowing to whom to communicate,
  • knowing how to write well,
  • and lastly, being accessible.

Since much of your communication is written, being effective with writing mechanics to instill confidence -especially these days with offshore contractors who are confused by prepositions, syntax, subject/verb agreement- is critical. The best way to become a better communicator is to read good writing.

It is important to know what and how to communicate -being succinct so people will hear you. We all know people who blab blab blab and don’t say much at all so you tune them out. Saying too much can be worse than saying too little because the message is lost in the noise. Being long winded is a sign of a cluttered mind in that the writer or speaker doesn’t understand their own topic or their thoughts are poorly organized. Blaise Pascal is credited with saying, “I apologize for writing such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”. My own long winded point being, I’ve never met a commercially successful designer who did not write effectively.

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  1. Paul says:

    This is a great list of qualities/skills/competencies/aspirations. This list really can be applied to many industries, substituting “project manager” or “project architect/engineer” or other title. Thank you!

  2. Vineca Gray says:

    Shortly after graduating from design school, I ambitiously embarked on a freelance career. After a few years struggling to make ends meet, as I didn’t seem to know how to grow the business, it became clear to me that public relations, project coordination, marketing and advanced time management were my ‘skill gaps’. I spent 4 years growing these skills – as an executive assistant to the executive staff at a leading design school in Canada.

    I am now ready to jump back into the creative pool, and the skills you describe here are exactly what I consider essentials in my toolkit. Thank you for your reassuring words.

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