Six Things I Look for in a Digital Designer

By Scott Theisen

I’ve been evaluating, hiring, nurturing, and leading designers for quite some time. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to ‘lead’ a whole Discipline of digital ones. Fresh ones, seasoned ones, cranky haters and hipster go-getters.

VSA has a unique advantage, however. Our agency doesn’t only “do” digital, but we also specialize in brand design. That experience has presented me the contrast to understand the critical differences not only of those who major, and those who minor in digital, but those with the aptitude for it. I’ve been able to witness knowledge and skill gaps, but also the mental approach needed to take on an ever-changing medium that is not like the other.

To visually break down the evaluation of a digital designer, I made a little sketch:

Experience on the one axis, and skills on the other. Some skills are technical and can be easily taught, some are mental and harder to coach. While some level of attainment for each skill is important, each carries a different weight (as reflected in the column width).

1. Software
Pretty straight-forward here. In the ever-changing spectrum of digital design tools, where is the candidate at? Still in Photoshop? Sketch? Have they heard of or worked with Abstract, Figma and Principle? Are they dabblers, or are they up late at night pounding away, experimenting with plug-ins, learning their workarounds and idiosyncrasies? Or alternatively, do they claim to want to work on digital and turn up their noses and stick to their old ways?

2. Code
Designers that can code are as rare as a unicorn. (A semi-joke.) In reality, I’ve met very few that can code and design. But, a stronger digital thinker has a sense of what CSS, HTML and JS can do.  I’ve seen digital designers with 12 years of experience who can design and manage large digital projects without knowing code, and that’s ok. This is one of the hardest additions to a designer’s repertoire, as it requires a desire to learn a new language. If a candidate can’t code, I like to make sure they have ample references online to share with development teams, along with cracking code open with them from time to time to show them the correlation between their specs and reality. In fact, there are a lot of great browser plug-ins that are helpful to make those connections—things like WhatFont, Color Contrast Analyzer, and Wappalyzer.

3. Configuration
What the heck is this? In any Content Managed System there are hundreds of variables and dependencies between the interface content and the backend input required to feed that interface. Things like Titles, Sub-Title, Body copy, Date, Author, Image, Microcopy, etc. all require a Developer to configure and a Content Manager/UX to establish all required elements. This isn’t critical for a digital designer, but it can be incredibly valuable for choosing who to staff to a particular project. Understanding the critical relationships of how the info gets piped into the interface, its parameters and limitations, enables smarter outcomes and less wasted time.

4. Systems
What’s their digital experience been like? Landing pages, marketing sites, or complex design libraries and products? Experience (or lack of) in small systems and large systems from a designers body of work can give you an idea of where they are best suited. Small digital work (landing pages, for instance) may be more suitable those uninterested in longer-term and regimented design workstreams. But some designers relish the opportunity to build and maintain a large system (product) for the long haul.

5. Style
How are their aesthetics? What’s their level of craftsmanship? Do they have a sense of trends in digital whitespace, compositions and type sizing? Are they out of touch, copying from everyone else or breaking new ground? Are their aesthetic interest drawn only from the digital world, or are they into art, photography, and knows the difference between Jan Tschichold and Alan Fletcher approach to typography? Some designers are great at applying an aesthetic, some are great at creating one. Knowing the difference can be critical to choosing the right candidate.

6. Flexibility
What I look for the most, however, is the right mental attitude. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift your thinking to new stimuli. It’s usually the most important trait I think about when looking to add a digital designer to a project. For someone who adopts a learning mindset, home is a place to always be growing and learning by asking questions such as “how might we” and “what if.” I can see this when a designer sends me a link of new software, or asks me ‘can our developers do this?.’ Sometimes there’s a humility to it, and sometimes there’s a hunger. Things always change during a project—client decisions have shifted or the requirements change—and having someone who is open versus rigid, can have a massive positive impact on the project’s outcome.

To bring this idea to life, here are some “potential” designer candidates and how I’d plot their skills:

Designer 1
This designer, is always ready to jump in. Even when not visibly enthused, they are even-keeled and accepting and ready to roll with the punches. Their aesthetic style is great, and they are growing in their understanding of the behind the scenes necessities of code.

Designer 2
This designer is curious and adventurous when it comes to code, software and systems thinking. Can take on a project and own it, but as the lower flexibility shows, sometimes begrudgingly. Placing this person in the right scenario isn’t always easy, but better results can happen.

VSA is currently hiring Digital Designers, along with Design intern for Summer 2018 (applications will be available Feb. 2). Visit our careers page to see more opportunities at VSA.

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Scott Theisen is Associate Partner, Interaction Design Lead at VSA. For more than 15 years, Scott has led creative teams of brand and digital designers on projects for clients such as Thomson Reuters, IBM, Google, Northern Trust and Harley-Davidson. He specializes in concepting and developing new online visual experiences with the rest of the larger Digital team. Since receiving his MFA, his work has been recognized by the Chicago Emmys, The Webby Awards, Graphis, Communication Arts, AR100, the American Association of Museums, CASE, Coupe and Print magazine. Scott can be contacted at stheisen@vsapartners.com.