15 Top Design Skills You Need to Master to Thrive in 2019

Vicky Shoub
April 30, 2019
11 minute read

Being a designer is tough work.

Not only do you have to master the creative side of things, you also have to develop a degree of business and marketing savvy.

After all, as a designer, your products are meant to help businesses (and their users) live and work better.

The intense competition in the design field doesn’t make things any easier. There might be more design jobs than ever before, but the pool of designers you’re fighting against is also the largest it has arguably ever been.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a practicing designer or just thinking of entering the field, you will need to learn many skills in order to set yourself apart.

We’ll look at some of these skills below and where you can learn them.

Changing Expectations from Designers

According to the United States Department of Labor, the field of graphic design is expected to grow by 4% between now and 2026. The BLS itself classifies this growth rate as “slower than average”.

These statistics don’t give you the complete picture either. For example, it’s difficult to truly map out the effect of freelance and contract work on the industry, as well as the shift towards offshoring design jobs overseas.

Play it safe. A growth rate of 4% isn’t that impressive. Workers entering the design industry should expect steeper competition than usual.

You’ll see a similar challenge in newer careers, like social media management. Many companies aren’t certain what such a job entails, and as a result many different responsibilities get attached to the title. Some social media managers only handle coordination and delegation, while others are expected to work on the “ground floor” and design and write the marketing content themselves.

Which is to say, landing a full-time job as a designer is going to be increasingly harder in the coming future.

Tighter markets, hazy expectations, and more graduating designers all contribute to a simple fact: there are a host of skills that you should be proficient in to build a design career.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

What are the Top Creative Skills for Designers?

Design is, and always will be, about creativity first and foremost.

Sure, knowing how to research users, market businesses, and build websites is a great value add, but you will primarily be hired for your creative skills.

As we wrote earlier, designers should strive to be ‘T-shaped’ professionals. Your ‘deep’ skills – the broad base of your ‘T’ – should be core creative skills. Everything else you bring to the table can be the wide top branch.

Given the importance of creativity, let’s look at some of the top design skills you should have to succeed in 2019.

1. Graphic Design

Any design job will undoubtedly expect top-notch graphic design skills.

This is a broad category, covering everything from designing a banner ad to creating the brand guide for a business. The exact skills you’ll need to know will change depending on the job. You might have a narrow brief in some jobs (“logo designer”), an extremely broad in another (“graphic designer”).

So use your judgment. Ask yourself – what field, or niche, of graphic design do you want to work in? Focus on the core graphic design skills required in them.

Becoming an expert in one or two niches is better than dipping your toes into all of them at once. It will also make it easier to learn other skills.

Where to learn

As a broad field, there is no single place to learn all of graphic design. But understanding the core tools and design fundamentals will go a long way. You should know Illustrator and Photoshop like the back of your hand.

Check out graphic design courses from sites like:

YouTube also has a great deal of free tutorials on most graphic design concepts. The only difference is that the learning is a little unstructured.

2. UI/UX Design

If your work regularly needs to be interacted with by the public (which is virtually all design work), you’ll want to know the ins and outs UI/UX.

UI/UX design uses intuitive deductions: what do you, as a user, expect when using a product? How would you structure information in a way that’s easy to consume and use.

But while intuition (or rather, “talent”) is certainly important, a great deal of UI/UX design is about theory, statistics, and research. A good UI/UX designer will rely more on heat maps, eye tracking studies, and theory than on his intuition.

This is one of the most in-demand fields in design at the moment with some of the highest salaries. Great skills in UI/UX design will also make you an asset in accessibility projects and in usability programs.

The demand for UX and UI design has been steadily climbing over the years

Where to learn

Because it is so theory-focused, UI/UX design isn’t easy to learn through ad-hoc programs and unstructured YouTube videos. You’re better off learning it through a well put-together program.

Some places to learn it are:

3. Motion Design

Have you ever noticed the subtle animations in your favorite app – the way icons jump and folders get out of the way when you open a tab or take a screenshot?

That’s all motion design.

Motion design is visual design that, well, moves. Motion designers create everything from the lyric videos you see from your favorite artists to the icon animations in apps and websites.

Motion design is an emerging field. Jobs that demand only this skill are rare, but it’s a great way to stand out. Think of it as an “upgrade” that makes you a far more valuable asset during the job search.

Where to learn

With motion design, you essentially have two paths – learn the basics of animation and add it to your current design skillset. Or go completely into motion design and become an animator.

Most designers will choose the former. In this case, you can try the following learning options:

4. Color Theory

Color theory is closely tied to other creative skills. It is likely that you already know the basics if you have any design training or experience.

The basics of color theory (Image credit: NoFilmSchool)

Don’t get overconfident though – color theory is difficult to master. Designs that are otherwise fantastic can fall victim to poor color matching, and something as simple as the wrong color palette can turn a great design into a decidedly amateur work.

By understanding which colors look best, and how to contrast them with one another, you improve your pre-existing talents. It’s a top design skill that may not be useful by itself, but is sure to enhance your other work.

Where to learn

Any design course will touch upon color theory. Much of it you will learn through experience – what colors work best together and how to select the right one for each project.

There are plenty of mini-courses dedicated to color theory, such as General Assembly’s Introduction to Color Theory and Alison’s Color Theory for Designers. Pantone, the industry standard for colors, remains a great resource if you want to know what’s in, what’s not in colors.

5. Typography and Print Design

Much like color theory, it is likely that you already possess some skill in typography and print design through your work. And yet again, these things are difficult to master.

Specifically learning about typography and the standards of print media is essential to transitioning from a designer who’s pretty good into a designer who’s outright great. Lettering, margins, and nigh-microscopic letter spacing all play a part in how the audience perceives a design. The subtle matters more than you’d expect.

Mastering this skill is particularly important today as more and more companies are beginning to understand the value of good typography. Some, like Apple and Netflix, are even making their own fonts.

Add this to your repertoire to really stand out in the marketplace.

Where to learn

The usual suspects – Lynda, Skillshare, and Udemy – have plenty of courses on design. Coursera, too, offers a small selection of typography and print design courses. Type-Ed is another course aimed specifically at experienced designers who want to master typography to improve their design output.

Top Technical Skills for Designers

Designers are not developers. No job that asks specifically for designers should even expect you to have strong development chops. The two domains are so divergent in their focus, depth and requirements that it is unfeasible to think that a good designer can be a good developer, and vice versa.

Yet, some knowledge of development will do you a world of good. It will also make you a much more in-demand designer. When you can not only make great designs but also bring them to life, you add a great deal of value to your resume.

Don’t go overboard learning technical skills. You just need to be good enough to handle basic development tasks. Leave anything more complex to actual experts, aka developers.

Here are some of the top technical skills you should know in 2019:


Basic knowledge of just HTML or just CSS doesn’t get you very far these days. Most employers, if they want you to know code, will want you to know both languages.

This isn’t as daunting as it sounds; both HTML and CSS integrate incredibly well with one another and, in reality, one needs the other. Especially in today’s visual-heavy online environment.

Learn both—you won’t regret it. You can get fairly competent in a little over two weeks.

Where to learn

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to learning HTML and CSS. There are so many websites offering both free and paid courses that your biggest job will be figuring out what not to learn.

Try out the following:

7. JavaScript

Knowing JavaScript is perhaps less common in the industry. And for god reason – JavaScript used to be a fairly basic language that enabled simple interactivity on web pages.

Today, JavaScript is one of the most popular languages online that’s powerful enough to build complex apps and change the way we interact with the web.

The total number of JavaScript users far outpaces all other languages (Image credit: HackerNoon)

This is a good coding language to learn if you have ambitions to integrate your work with web development. Creating PSD code-ready templates, for example, can become much easier if you understand the principles of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

While this is a top design skill to learn, you don’t have to master it. Just get good enough to add some interactive elements to your HTML/CSS pages – some jQuery, some AngularJS, and maybe a bit of ReactJS.

Where to learn

Most platforms that offer HTML/CSS courses will also help you learn JavaScript. Codecademy’s web development path, for instance, focuses heavily on JavaScript. JSforCats is a fun and quirky introduction to absolute beginners. And Mozilla’s JavaScript guide is excellent for anyone to learn the language in-depth.

8. Technology/Apps/Frameworks

Depending on your niche, the programs, apps, and frameworks you should know can differ dramatically. You don’t need to know a software like Dreamweaver if you have no intention of working in web design.

But you’ll definitely need to know vector design software like Illustrator or CorelDraw if you want to get into logo design.

Similarly, you’ll want to know Bootstrap if you’re even remotely involved in web development. And you’ll want a handle on WordPress if you intend to work with small businesses.

Essentially, you’ll have to find out what other industry professionals in your niche use, and learn them yourself.

Top Business Skills for Designers

Designers aren’t CEOs, but knowing how business works is always helpful.

For one, it makes you better at your job. Your employers and often, end users, are going to be businesses. Picking up a few business and marketing skills will help you create better designs.

Two, these skills can help you launch your own freelance business or even grow it into a full-fledged agency. This can open up a ton of opportunities further down the road.

So what are the top business skills designers should know?

Here are our top picks:

9. Social Media Management

The social media industry is booming. There are over 2.4 billion social media users active today.

It’s a ripe market for companies to take advantage of, and as a result social media management is becoming more important. Many businesses integrate social media management into their design departments, so learning about how to tackle its different technologies and metrics can be a great addition to your skills cupboard.

Plus, being good at social media will help you build your own business, should you decide to take that path.

Where to learn

Learning social media can be difficult. Most University-level courses are woefully behind this rapidly changing field. Online courses do the job, but trends in this industry shift so fast that you’ll have to keep learning constantly.

Our suggestion is: learn the basics through a course (DIYGenius has a great list), then complement it with hands-on training. Try managing your own social presence. Experiment with different content formats and see what sticks.

10. Content Marketing

Understanding the fundamentals of content marketing can turn you into a powerful asset. Your newfound ability to integrate marketing best practices into your work without needing to go through revision or QC saves clients a lot of money.

Learn about click conversions, bounce rates, what does well and where, and you’ll go a long way towards making yourself a great addition to any company’s marketing design team.

Where to learn

Like social media, content marketing is another field that’s difficult to learn through formal channels. Much of your learning will be through experience.

Bookmark sites like Backlinko, Content Marketing Institute, and HubSpot’s marketing blog to keep pace with the industry. This will help you figure out what’s working right now, plus the basics of creating and distributing content.

11. Content Creation

Content creation can mean different things – videos, webinars, eBooks, and even social media content.

In this case, let’s focus on the more common blog posts and landing pages.

Obtaining skills in copywriting, content writing, and in conversion-focused writing is an immensely useful skill that marketing departments would be very interested in.

Being able to create both the visual content and the written content makes you versatile and allows you to guarantee a specific “feel” for any content you design.

Where to learn

Any place you learn content marketing will also help you learn content creation. But really, all you need to do to become good at this skill is to copy what the best in the industry are doing.

Look to your favorite blogs and websites. What kind of content are they creating? Can you replicate it? If yes, can you somehow improve it?

Top Personal Skills for Designers

You might have all the technical and creative skills in the world, but if you can’t meet a deadline or send a clear email, your career will suffer.

Which is why it is as important to focus on your personal skills as you do on your other “hard” skills.

Become frightfully good at communication, develop a strong work ethic, and network well and you’ll never be short of jobs.

Here are the top personal skills you should develop:

12. Communication

Keen communication skills are something we could all use.

Keep in mind that many designers work directly with clients to find the best solution to a problem. You need to be capable of working with many different kinds of people across industries.

What’s more is that you’ll also need to explain your thoughts and ideas in a way that people can understand. While you don’t necessarily need to be a great speaker, you do need to be a great communicator.

Misunderstandings can sink projects. As a result, good communication is a top design skill even though it’s not specifically about design.

Interestingly, most hiring managers rated communication as the number one soft skill for new hires in a survey:

13. Networking

All the experts claim that networking is important, and the basic theory is relatively easy to grasp: connect with peers in the industry, find work and opportunities.

Executing that theory and maximizing your investment is tricky, but it’s a skill that can be learned like any other.

Learn how to network to ease the feast-or-famine symptoms of freelancing, build a potential client pool, and land opportunities that aren’t always advertised.

14. Work Ethic

A good work ethic is essential as a designer. This could be argued for all careers, but designers often face tight deadlines and vague conditions from the client. An ability to take that in stride and see it through is important.

15. Public Speaking

If you advocate for yourself, and as a result tend to take charge of situations, becoming skilled in public speaking is a serious asset.

This becomes especially true if you are a freelancer or seeking a more senior position in a company—situations where you’ll find yourself justifying and explaining design decisions to clients and upper management.

Do you need to learn everything?

After going through the comprehensive list above, you may be overwhelmed. You might be thinking to yourself: Do I really need to learn all of that stuff?

The answer is no, you don’t. But—and this is a fairly important but—the more you can learn to at least an intermediate level, the better.

Employers tend to look for employees or contractors who can wear many hats. If a company needs a social media manager and a graphic designer, having skills in both can increase your chances of earning a spot on their roster along with additional pay.

At a minimum, try and obtain proficiency in at least one thing from every skill category. It’s an excellent start in figuring out what comes next. Being able to focus on need-to-have skills is easier when you’re picking between one or two skills instead of over ten.

Look at it this way: a graphic designer with great public speaking skills and pretty good skills in HTML/CSS and content creation is uniquely suited to take charge in a company’s marketing department as they’ll understand the marketing process (and know how to talk about that process with others). This hypothetical employee can craft marketing graphics, design landing pages, write blog posts, and hash out the details of the project with colleagues and client points-of-contact.

Keep in mind that proficiency in one top design skill also likely gives you a head start on learning another. If you know all the fundamentals of graphic design, you’re likely at least a beginner in things like color theory and UI/UX design. Use your pre-existing skills to your advantage—what you already know can make it easier to learn something else. Many of these skills connect to each other.

Your next step

Whether you’re looking for a traditional job in an office or something a bit more freelance, it’s important to have all your bases covered during the job search. Workamajobs is designed to help talented professionals find work that might not be posted or visible on popular job boards.

All you need to do is create an account and upload your resume to find hard-to-find opportunities at the world’s best creative agencies.

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