What is the single most important skill in producing graphic design or visual communication? The ability to draw? Jedi skill in Adobe CS? A good eye for colour? No. What matters most is having an analytical mindset. The ability to process information.
It is commonly understood that when a designer takes on a postgraduate degree or switches altogether to a teaching and/or research career, they need to embrace analytical thinking. Postgraduate courses often include sessions for developing ‘scientific thinking’, such as research methods, critical discussions and so on. But until then they are expected to focus on honing their practical skills.
Even outside the universities, producing visual design is often considered a fully practice based craft. Designers are the image makers, visualisers, illustrators. They are seen as the people who simply give a form to content, as if they were changing costumes on dolls.
Therefore – many argue – what they need most are craft skills. Today these skills can of course range from classical painting to 3D modelling and beyond. They are still all practical skills largely involving manual dexterity, coordination, and so on.
I do not agree with this line of thinking. In most cases, even the youngest designer has to produce something other than just images. They need to take into account factors such as their client’s wishes, their target audience, the competitive environment, and so on. The produced images, layouts, user interfaces, photographs have to be optimised compromises between all those factors.
This means that information processing is at the heart of the design process. Each assignment is a problem that needs to be solved first on a mental level before it can be given a visual form. Craft skills only come into play after the analysis has been done.
Of course, designers don’t have to be consciously aware of this process. They might alternate between thinking and doing and feel that the design solution simply ‘appears’ to them intuitively. They experience insight-moments, like Dr. House, when they are brushing their teeth or doing something else which has nothing to do with design work.
It is also possible to see differences between various areas of design. Perhaps in illustration sometimes the briefs can be so detailed that they leave only a little room for the designer’s decisions. Thus the illustrator has fewer things to process and instead they simply concentrate on producing the specified image relying on their craft skills. On the other hand in visual journalism and information design mental processing is emphasised.
People with different aptitudes probably instinctively drift towards either the intuitive or the rational end of the design work spectrum. I think one of the responsibilities of design schools is to allow students to naturally find their own strengths and allow that slow drifting.
So, designers need to be analytical. They need to have a problem solving mindset. This might be something similar to journalistic or engineering thinking, depending on the field of design they are in.
Can designers then forget the craft skills? No. Craft skills are especially vital for early-career designers, who populate the lowest rungs. People are usually not hired first as strategists but as something like PhotoShop wizards. But even there they should remain analytical and critical. If not for anything else, just simply to check that no major blunders and mistakes go through to the final product, no matter how absent minded the art director may be.
The old cliché is literally true in design: It is the thought that counts.