4 Soft Skills Every Designer Should Aspire to Learn

Business of Design

Learnings from design projects

A column by Manik Arora
May 3, 2021

Being a designer of any sort requires a multitude of skills, across a variety of disciplines, making design a particularly difficult profession to master. However, many perceive design as an industry that focuses on hard skills—for which having concrete knowledge of design principles and guidelines and software is enough to drive one’s career forward. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. So much of what designers do on a daily basis hinges on their use of soft skills—whether consciously or subconsciously. Some of these skills are experiential and designers can pick them up through years and years of design experience, while learning others requires mindfulness and introspection.

In this column, I’ll discuss four of the most essential soft skills that expert designers should possess and to which novices should aspire. These skills do more than just assist the design-thinking process. To a certain extent, they define it.

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While designers must have countless hard and soft skills to be competent in their field, let’s look at just a few soft skills—the intangibles that can help any designer take his or her abilities to the next level. These soft skills, in conjunction with the other aspects of a designer’s toolkit, are foundational for a holistic design thinker who can tackle larger, more complex design issues.

Having Empathy

It is difficult for me to categorize empathy as a soft skill because it really seems to be more of a quality or a personality trait. Still, empathy is a soft skill that every good designer should possess. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point at which corporate types are throwing this term around like a buzzword, without fully understanding the value of empathy. UX designers in particular require empathy to execute their tasks effectively. The difference between those who possess this trait and those who lack it is night and day.

Figure 1—Developing empathy
Developing empathy

To quote the Nielsen Norman Group, “You are not the user.” Most of the time, UX designers are not among those who would actually use a product or service. Therefore, understanding the background, context, and situation of your target users is the foundation of any good design. Plus, UX designers must be able to place themselves in the shoes of not only users, but all of a product’s stakeholders to create a product that addresses their needs and wants effectively. At the same time, they must keep all concerned parties happy, something that having empathy makes possible.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

Designers often feel like they’re stuck in feedback limbo, receiving and handing out never-ending cycles of criticism. But the soft skill of being able to interpret and phrase feedback separates great designers from merely good ones. The basic concept of iterative design means feedback is inevitable. As a designer, what’s in your control is how you take in feedback and give it.

Figure 2—Learning to give and accept feedback
Learning to give and accept feedback

For example, every project includes a feedback cycle with the client—whether an external or an internal client. Each side must make compromises to create a satisfying product that meets both user and business needs. Being able to interpret the client’s feedback and understand exactly what the client is demanding—as well as the reasons behind their demands—can help you to devise a better solution, without cutting corners.

Another example in which feedback is an essential part of the design process is when lead designers working with large teams provide feedback to their collaborators. They must be able to phrase their feedback in a positive manner and explain the motivations behind it. Being able to deliver feedback effectively can reduce the number of iterations necessary to make design changes—as can other designers’ ability to receive and understand the lead designer’s feedback.

Having Both Flexibility and Consistency

Being flexible is one of the most important soft skills a designer can possess. Plus, the essential nature of the designer’s work requires this ability. Whether designers are conceptualizing design systems or creating products, there must always be room for improvement and expansion, which makes flexibility a key factor in their success. To build on the feedback they’ve previously received from their clients, designers must be adaptable enough to sacrifice their own vision and better align with that of their clients. In some cases, they must even make wholesale changes to appease the client for whom they’re doing their work and successfully complete a project.

Figure 3—Learning to be both flexible and consistent
Learning to be both flexible and consistent

Because design is an ever-evolving field, designers must also be flexible enough to adopt new design trends, abandon old ones, and regularly question whether their designs are sufficiently modern or relics of the past. However, there is such a thing as too flexible. This is where consistency comes in. A certain degree of consistency is necessary to create cohesive designs that have the space to expand organically. It is essential for designers to find a balance between their own consistent brand of design and the flexibility that is necessary to adapt to the collective design consciousness of their design team or their clients’ design standards.

Learning Time Management

Every designer on the planet is aware that design does not exist in isolation, but is bookended by other processes and workflows, all of which contribute to the final product. For example, UX designers may need to accommodate the reality that, after their design responsibilities are complete, a user-interface (UI) designer might have responsibility for designing the visual elements of the design solution. Furthermore, once the UI designers have finished their work, they must hand the design off to developers, who build the final product. Therefore, taking responsibility for one’s own time dictates respecting that of others, who are collaborating on the project.

Figure 4—Learning time management
Learning time management

Often, designers must work on multiple projects at once, making time management an even more important soft skill. What makes working on multiple projects so difficult is that the projects may be progressing on different timelines, at different paces. For example, one project might be in its UX research phase, while another is in information architecture, and a third is in prototyping. Designers must divide their time and attention between the projects, adjusting to the needs of each product, which is another reason why time management is an essential soft skill for designers.


It is a common misconception that the designer’s toolkit depends entirely on hard, experiential skills that the designer has honed over years of working in their field. But the fact is that, while these hard skills are essential, they have little value unless designers can use them in conjunction with their soft skills.

As I mentioned earlier, soft skills are what separate great designers from merely good ones. While designers can pick up some soft skills simply by being more mindful about the situations in which they are necessary, many of these skills develop only through accruing more and more design experience. Thus, many of these soft skills evolve over the years as designers interact with more and more clients, stakeholders, and teammates. But the most important soft skills, such as empathy, are the most difficult to learn and developing them requires a conscious, mental effort. They require developing one’s design mind. 

Co-founder and Design Director at Onething Design Studio

Gurugram, Haryana, India

Manik AroraManik was introduced to design when he was building Placesso, a ride-sharing platform based on Facebook’s social graph. While they never launched the platform, the experience taught Manik a lot about design and development. Since then, he has stayed with design. He and his friends began spending a lot of time discussing the designs of newly launched apps, exploring ways to improve their user experience. They felt really badly about people using poor designs so, in 2014, launched Ketchup Designs Studio. In 2015, they changed the name to Onething Design. Since then, they’ve helped a lot of businesses design products people love to use.  Read More

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