2.3 The Educated Professional

The educated designer is eminently hirable. Whether you’re academically educated or self educated, the result should be a broad foundation that articulates your worthiness and prepares you to functionally employ your design skills. Smart employers will base most of their decision to hire or not hire you on things other than your design skill maturity. The components that follow comprise a budding professional’s foundation and indicate what should be, as to familiarity if not fluency, the minimum standard for hirability.

Professional Interaction Skills

Web designers are, first and foremost, professional communicators and crafters of interactions. If you have any hope of excelling in the design professions you’ve got to be highly skilled at all sorts of communication, and Web design demands that you have an unquenchable thirst for understanding of all sorts of interactions (anything from how a person interacts with a doorknob to how a lawyer interacts with a jury to how a cursor interacts with a form button). In order to be any good at this, you’ve got to be something of a psychologist, with a deep understanding of human behavior and contextual habits. Specific capacities must include:

Public Speaking
(face-to-face and phone) You must have the ability to converse and interact professionally and comfortably with clients and colleagues—including the ability to address a roomful of senior executives in a competent manner and not look nervous or behave nervously. A designer spends a lot of time communicating with clients. If you lack skill in this department you’ll never earn anyone’s trust, which means your prospects are greatly limited. And rightly so.
People judge you by the words you use, and for good reason. Your vocabulary is a clear window into your intelligence, your discipline, your overall competence, and what you really care about. And yes, your clients are interested a great deal in knowing what you care about, as it is human nature to discern the interests of those we meet and interact with. Your functional vocabulary affects all other communicative efforts and almost always defines success and failure. Vocabulary is something that you should work to improve every day of your life.
Basic Understanding of Human Behavior
You must have knowledge of how people tend to behave in certain contexts and how various circumstances and stimuli affect individual thought processes in social and professional situations (this is a biggie; it drives many of your design decisions and professional interactions). In the fullness of your professional practice, likely half of your efforts will be concerned with influencing your clients’ actions, thoughts, responses, and opinions…and you are certainly involved in directing much the same for those who will experience your designs. This may sound like you’re supposed to be some sort of Svengali, and that is not far from the truth. A professional seldom if ever does something without knowing precisely how others will respond. That skill is, in fact, a central component of design. Study psychology and sociology like your career depends on it, for indeed it does.
Clear Understanding of Professional Ethics
These are the basic rules for being a professional. Without this sort of understanding put into practice, you’re not one.
Idea Communication & Support
You must have the ability to know how best to communicate your design ideas and describe the reasoning behind decisions—and then defend these ideas and reasons competently, not defensively, in a compelling manner. I hope it should go without saying that these decisions must be based on the constraints and relevant context, not your own preference.
Written Communication
You must have the ability to compose email and other written correspondences in a professional, grammatically-correct manner, with clear and concise expression of ideas and contextually-appropriate tone. A failure here can end your chances.
Business Etiquette
You must have a basic functional understanding of appropriate interaction and etiquette within a professional context.

Foundational Craft Understanding

These skills don’t make you a professional, but they do define your competence. Designers must be, among other things, skilled craftsmen. Furthermore, a designer must understand the challenges inherent to various media and know how to address those challenges contextually. Specific capacities must include:

Artistic Fundamentals
You must have a solid understanding of line, form, texture, contrast, balance, harmony, color theory, etc… and knowledge of how these elements affect the human psyche, and why. You must fully appreciate how these fundamentals are identical for every artistic medium, like painting, dance, musical composition, poetry, photography, acting, etc… This one is a deal-breaker; a designer is incompetent without this foundation.
You must have a functional knowledge of typographic fundamentals and be practiced at using type as a workhorse for idea and theme communication. You must also have a basic knowledge of various legibility issues; generally, and as it relates specifically to the Web medium.
You must have the ability to sketch out any idea in a clear and communicative way (using artistic fundamentals as necessary), for both personal and demonstrative use. The fact that it’s Web design you’re after doesn’t negate your need for this fundamental skill (those who say differently are either pandering to your lack of skill or apologizing for their own).
Usability & Affordance
You must have an understanding of common Web usability issues and the characteristics of contextual affordance. It helps if you’re familiar with all sorts of physical affordances so that you can craft metaphorical ones. You must possess the ability to create, enhance, extrapolate from, and exploit these things in design efforts. For instance, you must have the ability to understand and design for the changing contexts of various screen size and for how user motivations might change according to different rendering devices and screen sizes.

Business Understanding

For both your own practice and your responsibilities to business clients, you must understand the fundamentals of running a business and how economic pressures and market factors affect different sorts of business models. Specific capacities must include:

Business Fundamentals
You must have a fundamental understanding of capitalist economics and how various business models work. It will help you greatly if you understand how various economic pressures affect businesses of various types.
Marketing Fundamentals
You must have a fundamental understanding of the basic forms of marketing (push, pull, etc…), market segments, demographics, and how they match with, affect, and are affected by various business models and branding characteristics.
Branding Fundamentals
You must have a basic understanding of how brands are built, how their characteristics affect success, how to extrapolate design choices from brand characteristics (via the fundamentals of artistry), and possess an understanding of brand/consumer relationships in the marketplace.
Project Management
You must have a basic understanding of the life and timeline for design/development projects and an understanding of the typical intervals for each phase and how to arrange them. To do this you must understand how project composition addresses billing and production issues.

Technology and Web Craft Skills

Design craft isn’t just about line, form, and contrast. Web designers must also possess the ability to bring most of what they design to life. For web design, the static comp image is NOT the design, since no one will ever use that artifact in that form. The fully-developed web page IS the design as web pages are to be used, not merely looked at. You cannot design for what you do not understand, so these factors are mandatory for responsible Web design professionals. Specific understanding must include:

Browsers and OS
You must have a basic understanding of differences between the various operating systems and modern and older browsers, and how web experiences differ on these different browsers and operating systems. OS fetish is common among designers—as a fault.
Form Interactions
You must have an understanding of how forms (contact forms, signup forms, etc…) factor into branding and user experience. You must possess a familiarity with modern best practices for form design and form interaction theory. You must also possess an understanding of how people think when confronted by various types of forms and how internal and external pressures and individual motivations affect their behavior (i.e., issues of cost/benefit, desktop vs. mobile, etc.).
You must have a thorough understanding of modern HTML and CSS, along with the ability to craft functional web pages using quality markup and CSS—written without the aid of a “design view” or visual editing tool. This understanding must include a working knowledge of DOCTYPE declarations, character encoding, and the theory and benefits of markup semantics. Your CSS skills must include a working knowledge of cross-browser development and common browser-specific rendering issues. A web designer who cannot craft quality, functional web pages is not a web designer. Again, the fully-functional web page IS the design.
Scripting & Rich Media
You must have a basic understanding of how JavaScript, Flash, and other dynamic media impact user experience and how they work and play with HTML, and CSS. Not that you must necessarily be able to craft these technologies (though that would be beneficial), but you must understand how they fit into and work with your own development work so that you can write markup and CSS that will best suit script-driven experiences.
You must have a basic understanding of common accessibility issues and challenges for website visitors. It is best if you also know how to design for and mitigate these issues—for both humans and various accessing technologies (human eyes are, by significant proportion, the smallest audience for web content).
The Current State of the World
Your ongoing curiosity should not be relegated to design pursuits. You must have a working knowledge of what’s going on in the world that touches your profession—updated daily. You must keep up with technological trends and innovations, market issues, popular websites and applications, business and communication news, people and happenings in your profession …and more. If you’re not interested in what’s going on and what’s new or different in your world every day, you’re aiming for the wrong profession. Part of your educational preparation is to develop important habits. A daily appetite for information should be one of them.

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It should be clear that this educational menu is not something one can check off by graduation date. This is not meant to be a list of things in which you’ll be fully fluent when you start work as a designer but, you should have some level of competence in all of this by that time. Know that your mandate is to work on these things daily; every day for the rest of your professional life. It’s a lot to commit to, but no one said it would be easy. It’s simply what is required of a responsible professional.

Using This Information

Having this blueprint for professional preparation should allow you to script your educational path according to your needs, desire, and appetites. What remains then are the decisions about your career path. Such deliberate preparation should allow you to then deliberately choose a career path. And this is important because without appropriate preparation you won’t be choosing anything, but will have to take what you can get.

As we’ll examine next, there are different paths into and through the design professions, including the agency-related and freelance ones. Like educational preparation, your career path should involve deliberate choices