Tuesday, August 16, 2011

“What makes a Great Designer?”

When you envision an iconic “Great Designer” you might picture someone flanked by super models, dressed head to toe in black, wearing sunglasses while flash bulbs pop off around them. Does this sound like anyone you know? Me neither. Realistically, the majority of exhibit designers driving the creative solutions of our industry are grinding it out in relative anonymity. 
If you ask around “What makes a Great Designer?” your answer will vary depending on whom you ask. While this debate makes for great conversation, let’s explore what makes a great designer for the purpose of working with or hiring. Like any profession, the attributes of the successful are elusive, but there are a few common threads among great designers: Education, Personality, Portfolio and an X-Factor that they bring to the table.


Education may seem like a fair starting point. Unlike a lot of other professions, the University attended, Major studied and GPA received are not necessarily the best indicator of how good a designer will be. Most Exhibit Designers will have some kind of Bachelors or 4 year Degree. Industrial Design, Architecture, Theatrical or Set Design all produces great designers due to their well-rounded “3-dimensional” orientated design curriculum.

However, when it comes to creative types, you can’t rule out a designer who never got their degree. On the flip side, someone with a Master’s Degree does not necessarily mean they are more creative or experienced. 


Childhood: Most designers grew up as creative young artists, and have probably been working through their creative appetite most of their life. Sketches, doodles, crafts, crayons, Play-Doh or Lego’s; you name it they were into it. As they grew older, they began to channel their creativity into what they admired most. Be it cars, super heroes, fashion design or architecture they explored their passion through creative repetition.

Good Listeners: Great Designers learn to listen, because unlike talent, they are rarely born with it. As young artists, their creative instincts encourage selfish pursuit. If it’s more fun to draw Superman than Broccoli, then they are going to draw Superman. In time, great designers learn to listen and identify with their clients’ needs without letting their personal opinions get in the way…even if it means drawing Broccoli.

Drive: Or Passion. One of the most underrated designer attributes. There is no “good enough for now” just because it is 5 o’clock. Great designers lose them self to their creative exploration…unless of course they are thirsty, because there is always time for beer.

Pride: Similar to Drive, because pride is their internal gut check that motivates them to do better. It is the voice that pushes them through every project and does not let up until they can step back from their work and say “that’s sweet”

Organized: This is one of the most defining attributes that separate an “artist” from a “designer” because their ability to organize touches so many aspects of the design process and their ability to execute a project from start to finish.

Brainstorming: Most Great designers want to work with other great designers, because designing alone is the creative equivalent of working in a vacuum. Whereas, working as a team has quite the opposite effect and creative solutions can seem to appear out of thin air.


A designers portfolio is one of the best insights into their creativity and experience. Years of creative solutions and project depth can be summed up in a nicely bound collection of hand sketches, computer renderings and show photos.

Seems pretty simple, right? Well, not exactly. This would be a pretty short article if the defining mechanism of greatness were a designer’s portfolio.

Like a lot of things in life, people are not always honest about their portfolio. When reviewing a designer’s portfolio, the key is to peel back the layers of their portfolio content and determine what they actually “created”. Ask questions about their process and execution. Also consider the quality of their work as a whole. Most of all don’t fall into the “they have potential” trap. If their portfolio falls short or they have difficulty coming up with ideas, they are unlikely to improve with time or “exposure” to the right creative environment.

A good designer will have enough content to draw from that their portfolio should provide an accurate cross-section of their creativity and skill sets. A great designer’s only struggle will be narrowing down which designs to show in their portfolio.

The X-Factor:

Talent: Great designers have it. In life, there are a lot of things you can learn. Being “talented” is not one of them. You’ve either got it or you don’t. A designer can learn to channel their creativity, be better listeners, organize their thoughts, manage their time and focus their ideas, but they cannot learn to be more talented.

Visual Sponges: Great designers are rarely stimulated by one discipline alone and are constantly absorbing other types of design. Magazines, books or newspapers on design all feed their appetite. Great designers are admirers of all things creative and they “absorb” anything that catches their eye like a sponge.

Timing: There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Great designers seem to have a sense of timing mixed with a rogue sense of ambivalence that allows them to take the necessary risks that takes them to the next level. This can either be defined as business sense or good old-fashioned ignorance. Either way, it seems to work for them.

Gift for the Gab: Aka: Bulls**t. Some designers pick it up in school, while others hone their skills professionally. It’s the ability that comes with explaining your ideas. Some have it. Some don’t.

Horrible Spellers: A common thread among some creative designers I have seen is they are horrible spellers. I’m not sure if creative types spell by visual shape as opposed to the letter sequence, but we’ve seen it enough to know it could be the sign of a great designer.

Design Process: Pen, Sketch Pad, Cad or computer rendering are all tools of the trade. At the end of the day they are all merely tools that help a designer communicate their ideas. While some designers want to jump straight into the computer, great designers seem more likely to explore their design “on paper” first. However brief, this doodling or sketching encourages loose creative exploration to flow before the issue or concern of the “how” comes into the equation.

The Complete Package:

Most Designers grind out an existence in relative anonymity with their success acknowledged by a desk that can actually see a window (if they are lucky).

Good Designers must understand, identify, organize and execute their client’s goals. Great designers achieve those goals and make it look easy.

Great Designers are the complete package: Personality, Portfolio, Talent & some kind of X-factor. They manage to pull a creative three-ring circus of information and ideas together, under pressure and within a finite time frame.

What makes them great is they do all that by Tuesday afternoon. And without a news conference or press release, they will get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

That’s not just great. That’s amazing.

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