The 7 Skills Every Design Professional Needs Today

Today more designers are finding themselves having to be well rounded with diverse skill-sets, when competing in the job market. While having a specialty and distinct design style is important, the ability to provide a range of services to employers and clients will give you a competitive advantage. Here is a list of skills every professional designer needs today to remain competitive.

Retouching and Masking

Designers will find that the highest-paying positions in their field are usually related to advertising. Working in advertising requires a variety of skills, but more often than not it will require a strong emphasis on using photographs and creating composite images using Adobe Photoshop. 

Though Photoshop is the program most associated with graphic design by the outside world, within the creative services industry there is distinction between designers and photo retouchers even though their skills can overlap. Photo retouching is an important skill set for graphic designers who want to work in advertising, particularly if they are going to be creating banner ads, posters, and flyers.

Masking is a non-destructive technique for removing people and objects from backgrounds. This is probably the most practical use of Photoshop when it comes to graphic design. By combining photo retouching and masking, designers can create stunning visuals that communicate the values of a product or brand in a way that a simple photo just can’t accomplish on its own.

Illustration and Fine Art Skills

While you don’t necessarily need to be able to draw or be a fine artist to be a graphic designer, it certainly doesn’t hurt. There are several benefits to having illustration and fine art skills such as sketching, technical drawing, and painting. Being able to create basic sketches allows you to brainstorm ideas faster as a designer. You can test layouts and typography mockups through sketches before having to work in the computer and quickly make revisions or try new things with a minimal amount of effort. 

Technical illustration skills allow designers to be able to create more elaborate and complex logo designs, as well as do editorial illustrations for magazines. Painting skills can translate into Photoshop through digital art using tablets like those made by Wacom. Traditional painters are becoming digital artists and finding that they have the freedom to experiment and make mistakes without worrying about the cost of paint and canvas. Also, by that selling their creations in online marketplaces on a number of products, they are able to build better business models.

Digital Photography

While you don’t have to be the next Scott Kelby, some basic digital photography skills will have a tremendous impact on your overall ability as a designer. Photography will help you gain a better appreciation for composition, lighting, and value in images. Plus you can benefit from being able to take your own stock photos, capture unique one-of-a-kind textures and backgrounds that you can use as assets in Photoshop and other programs.

Digital Print Production

While many graphic designers tend to focus on the photo manipulation and illustration components of design, given their focus on creativity, sometimes the technical aspects of craftsmanship get overlooked. While creativity and the ability to execute on it are certainly important, it’s also valuable to be able to act as a technician use those creations in a meaningful way.

Digital print production skills are essential to designers who want to take their creations from the screen into the real world. Learning about ink density and saturation, dot gain, bleed, packaging design and die-cuts may not be as glamorous as working in Photoshop, but it is just as important and in many case more-so. If you intend to work in advertising, editorial, or even as an in-house designer at a company, print production skills need to be a part of your arsenal.

Typography and Typesetting

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you just need one. Typography is one of the cornerstones of graphic design and it should not be neglected. Logo designers in particular have to understand the finer aspects of typography including choosing, manipulating, and even creating type faces.

As for typesetting, you can’t underestimate its value. Today websites are often plagued by a lack of good typography, which takes away from the experience of an otherwise well-designed website. Understanding how to create grid systems and balance the relationship between body copy and headlines makes all the difference in establishing visual hierarchy and readability.

Basic HTML and Web Design

There was a time where you were either a print designer, web designer, or motion graphics designer/animator. That era of specialization is slowly coming to an end. While there is still a market for specialist and it is possible to succeed in your career as one, you are less likely to do so early in your career. Consumers and businesses are valuing unified experiences more and when individual designers, teams or agencies are able to provide a complete experience they are likely to have more business.

To give yourself an advantage in the marketplace as a designer you need the ability to create basic websites. While there are many tools that allow you to create websites without coding today, you shouldn’t consider that an excuse not to learn HTML. HTML coding is still the most reliable, consistent, and respected way to build a website. But learning HTML is not enough. You will need to apply your other design skills such as typography, color theory, and layout to be effective as a web designer. Too often “coders” style themselves as designers, resulting in websites and experiences that are functional but lack presentation value and fail to communicate the intentions and tone of the brand or product.


Communication is the single most important skill a designer needs, and it cannot be limited to visual communication. Designers need the ability to communicate with other team members, clients, employers, and consumers. It’s important not be isolated and connect with as many individuals and groups as possible when you are a designer, because you will expand your creative vocabulary by doing so. Learning to listen, and to see things from a perspective outside of your own is essential and in many ways is the difference between being a good designer and being a great designer.

Posted on: October 17, 2014

Roberto Blake

Roberto Blake is a Graphic Designer helping Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses improve their branding and presentations. Roberto also teaches Graphic Design and Adobe Tutorials through his YouTube channel and community. Roberto's Photoshop artwork has been featured in publications such as Advanced Photoshop and Photoshop Creative Magazine. See

6 Comments on The 7 Skills Every Design Professional Needs Today

  1. Hate to say it, but these skills won’t even get you a cup of coffee in today’s publishing industry. Companies are asking for twice the amount of the skills shown above as a starting point of employment, and then it’s dog eat dog to find and maintain a job. 

    I’ve been in graphic design and publishing for over 35 years, and what was once a group of of talented creatives working together to fulfill a client’s vision is now one person wearing 18 different hats competing with India and for a living wage. 

  2. Hello Max, while it can be frustrating adapting to changes and shifts in any industry, the above list is a starting point for skills that creative professionals in the design industry should leverage to give them an advantage. While it’s true that employers may be more demanding than every and require designers to have a more diverse skill set, that is becoming the norm. In many industries technology has made generalist  more of the norm as processes become more streamlined and efficient.

    For many the ideal situation of a group of talented creatives working together still exist, but instead of gathering around in a studio, in many cases it is a team of creatives working remotely across the world to create something amazing, not limiting clients choices to the local talent pool.

  3. Good article. I thought to myself when I read this article that I have all 7 of the skills highlighted, yet I am unable to convince a design firm or in-house agency to hire me. Got me thinking. I suspect that businesses that hire generalists like myself and the design professional described in this article are only thinking about getting more for less. In other words, cheap, on the project management triangle. Being a generalist my entire career and based on my own experience, generalists like myself are “generally” average at many things, but lacking in speed and quality. I guess it’s the productivity focus issue. Multi-tasking is inefficient. So, maybe it’s that I’m too slow and/or lack the high level of quality that design firms expect. Other than, “range of skills,” I think it’s also important to consider the “fast” and “qood” quadrants. Someday, I can hope to master one thing to the point where that one skill is in such high demand that there would be little time and so much income to do anything else. 

  4. The 8th unmentioned skill here that I should cover in another article is “Self Promotion”. I suspect you are being hard on yourself as a generalist and that if you are convicnced you are not “Great” at any single one thing that you may be subconsciously selling yourself that.

    Consider positioning yourself as a Creative Director with hands on skills. Between your project management skills and broad range of skills it means you can direct others in there work while having realistic expectations and being able to assist them in executing. Far too few Creative Directors and Art Directors have that capacity and are just “idea people” and “managers” but can not particpate in every aspect of creative development and execution.

    While it’s true that employers want more value, this isn’t a bad thing, range of skills means that you won’t be typecast into irrelevance later in your career due to shifts in technology or industry standards. Just think about where all those Flash Design specialist have been for the last decade… largely thanks to Apple’s stance on the platform.

    Rather than waiting until you develop a single great skills, focus instead on how to change the perception of your value and current knowledge. As a designer altering perception and communicating value is something that gets overlooked when it applies to one’s self.

  5. Very insightful Roberto. That’s feedback I can use. Thanks!

  6. There is one VERY important thing you need to get work in the creative field these days that has not been mentioned here. I have mastered all the skills mentioned and have a lot of experience as a creative in advertising (including several years as a Creative Director at a couple of agencies) but the one thing I am lacking in the eyes of most people commissioning creative work these days is youth. If you are over 30 you are considered to be unable to think creatively by many people. I am still doing exceptionally creative work whenever I get the opportunity but being over 70 means the opportunities are few and far between. In most fields of the creative arts, such as fine art, music and writing, people get better at what they do as they get older – this is also true of creative designers and ideas people but you would never guess it by looking at the people being employed in the commercial creative world.

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