The most frequently asked question our mentors here at Designlab receive is, “what are companies looking for in the designers they hire?”

Well, we’re glad you asked! Thanks to our mentors who hold full-time positions at companies like Lyft, Airbnb, and Google, we know just what companies are looking for.

We recently conducted a survey among 64 of our mentors here at Designlab. These mentors have many years’ experience as designers and hiring managers, and are actively mentoring students in both UX Academy and our short courses.

In the survey, we asked mentors to reflect on their experience and knowledge of the industry and indicate which “soft” and “hard” skills are important to decision-makers when hiring product designers.

What’s the Difference Between Soft and Hard Skills?

Hard product design skills are teachable and measurable abilities. They include abilities like writing, reading, math, and other basics you typically learn in a classroom. 

For digital designers, they also include the ability to use specific computer software programs, like Figma, Sketch, or Photoshop, and follow processes like sketching and wireframing.

Soft product design skills can be a little harder to define, and are often a combination of personality traits and learned behaviors. People often use the term “soft skills” to refer to some of the more subtle, but no less important, aspects of being a good team player. 

They include things like empathy, active listening, effective communication, and even small talk and the ability to maintain a collaborative atmosphere.

Top 5 Most Important Soft Skills for Product Designers

#1: Communication

In the results of our survey, 70% of mentors indicated that they believe communication is the number one soft skill for designers. Indeed, in modern workplaces, where asynchronous and remote working is becoming more common, it’s arguably the most important soft skill in any industry.

Communication skills are what enable us to get information to other people, and understand what people are trying to tell us. It’s at the root of all of our relationships—and often what makes or breaks them.

“I would summarize it like this. What is most important for design leads when it comes to hiring (product designers) a new designer is 51% team fit and 49% skills,” says Designlab mentor Chris Django.

“Skills are obviously important, but personality is always a tiny bit more important. Designing in a team requires a lot of communication and interaction between team members, therefore they simply have to get along with each other in a natural way. 

“The team should be able to talk about more things than just purely work-related topics. Every team member should feel free to express their ideas without fear and take and give feedback in a positive way. Other traits that are generally great to have to foster great communication: being able to listen and being curious.”

UX Academy graduate, Rick Veronese, echoes that sentiment, saying: “Good communication is an essential part of our jobs as designers. Joining a product team has helped me to improve my communication skills a lot. I know how to ask for feedback now.”

#2: Critical Thinking

Coming in as the second most important soft skill for designers is critical thinking. Digital designers typically have to take the seed of an idea, cultivate it, and bring it to fruition. Critical thinking is crucial to this process. 

As well as helping designers to understand, define, and ultimately solve design problems, critical thinking can also enhance designers’ communication by enabling them to express ideas clearly.

“We try to test 'out of box' critical thinking by putting the designers in different situations by means of behavioural questions or a white boarding assignment,” says Desiglab mentor Ajay Mittal. “This helps us in identifying how a designer approaches or responds to given situations and problems.”

#3: Collaboration/Teamwork

On the face of it, being a designer might seem like quite a solo role—but in reality, that’s rarely the case. Designers often need to collaborate, both within a team and across teams. This requires solid teamwork.

“For senior level positions especially, we try to look for leadership skills, articulation skills, decision-making skills, and collaboration skills,” Mittal says.

#4: Problem Solving

Problem-solvers are always highly valuable employees, and that’s especially true for designers, since design is essentially a process that moves both users and businesses from problem to solution. 

“Companies love to understand a designer's process—how they approach a problem, develop a plan, and execute the solution,” says Designlab mentor Veronica Swords.

#5: Receptiveness to Feedback

The best way to improve the effectiveness of your designs is to always be seeking quality design feedback. Accepting feedback gracefully is a daily requirement throughout every designer’s career. Many aspects of design are subjective, so it’s essential to be open to other people’s opinions.

“Design is one industry where learning never stops. You learn through experiments and feedback from your team and peers, which might come in the form of positive or negative feedback,” Mittal says. “Designers should always be open to critique.”

Top 5 Most Important Hard Skills for Product Designers

#1: Design Thinking

According to IDEO’s Tim Brown, the design thinking methodology has five core tenets: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentation, and collaboration

Although it can be a bit of a buzzword in the industry, design thinking is much more than that. Expect not only to be asked interview questions based in design thinking, but also to apply it to your work once hired. 

“Design thinking is not just for designers,” says Designlab mentor Andrew Wilshere. “It’s an approach for understanding problems and developing solutions, and this is required in many jobs—whether you’re any administrator, engineer, or even a medic. Design thinking gives us a deeper description of a problem, enabling us to prototype a range of potential solutions rapidly, and identify the right solution robustly.”

#2: UI Design

Often UX and UI are bundled together in courses and job titles, but it’s important to understand that there is a difference. 

UI design is focused specifically on how a user “interfaces” with a product. It’s about designing effective screen layouts and transitions between steps in the user’s journey. UI is about the fine detail of how the user will reach their goals, not the overall user experience.

If the job you’re applying for includes UI in the title, here are some of the activities you’ll be expected to complete:

  • Design each user touchpoint
  • Determine User Interface behavior
  • Craft visual appearance of interface
  • Decide on color and typography
  • Design visual hierarchy
  • Create enjoyable interactions
  • Develop a consistent visual language

“As well as making you more versatile within a product team, the ability to create pixel perfect designs quickly and systematically will free up time for research and prototyping,” explains Designlab mentor Patrick Multani. 

#3: UX Research

UX Design isn’t just all about the look and feel of products. It’s also about usability and how a product can help users reach their goals. So without UX Research, it isn’t truly UX design.

Hiring managers want to hear about both the thought process and the research data behind your design decisions. Because UX design is concerned with every part of how a user interacts with a product, all UX designs should be rooted in research. 

“UX requires empathy and user research—so a background in human psychology can be an asset,” says Designlab mentor Allegra Poschmann. 

#4 Information Architecture

Expect companies to be curious about your Information Architecture (IA) knowledge. 

IA is about the structure and organization of information in a website or app. In UX design, IA tends to refer to the process and techniques used to organize content. This is particularly evident when designing a navigation system that makes sense to the user, and allows them to find the functions that they need.

“UX requires excellent communication skills to convey information architecture, so a communications background can also be helpful,” says Poschmann.

#5 Design Software Proficiency

This hard skill may seem like the most obvious, but companies need to know that you’re proficient in a variety of design software. 

To help our students pick up the basics of industry-standard software, we’ve put together a series of free introductory email courses. We offer free week-long courses in Figma, Sketch, and Photoshop

“It’s important to remember that, however elaborate a piece of software is, it’s still just one aspect of the creative problem-solving process that we call design,” says Wilshere. “Ultimately, any piece of software is a design tool that can be learned and used.”

Good luck on your job hunt!

Interested in becoming a product designer? Check out our UX Academy program, which prepares you with a full set of both UX and UI design skills, and at least four substantial projects for your portfolio. Find out more

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Alexa Harrison


Content Writer

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