The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

When young designers enter the workplace, they are expected to have hard and soft skills. The hard skills are the technical parts of being a designer; how to work between programs, save a file, mount projects, etc. Soft skills include how to apply for jobs, communicating with professionals and clients, how to explain concepts, etc. The spring semester ends this week, as does my Senior Portfolio Review course, which includes frequent discussions of those hard and soft skills. In the capstone class, students polish their portfolios for the intent of getting a design job and prepare themselves for the design industry. In addition, we've been discussing cover letters, interviews, and résumés as well. It’s not an easy class to take—or teach, for that matter.

As I look back at the past four months of the semester, and the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve realized that students are not learning as much as they should about soft skills, and it’s not an isolated to one program or one school. Time recently released an article confirming my suspicion, titled "The Real Reason New College Grads Can’t Get Hired". In the article, Martha C. White writes

Overwhelmingly, [employers] want candidates who are team players, problem solvers and can plan, organize and prioritize their work. Technical and computer-related know-how placed much further down the list.

It seems a lot of these skills are missing in recent grads, both designers and non-designers. And White admits that these skills are hard to teach. I know many schools assign group projects, ask students to approach each project as a problem to solve, and try to keep them on task, so why are these some of the issues? I think a part of it is that there is lot more for present day students to think about. Is the etiquette of job seeking different, thanks to technology? Are we teaching it the right way for something we didn't experience the same way? Is the four-year system now too short for what students need to know? Are they taking useless classes or too many? Are teachers expecting each other or internships to teach it, while internships and entry-level jobs are expecting teachers to teach it? Are students of generation Y just lazy? Or overwhelmed? I ask myself a lot of these questions, and frankly, I’m not sure what the best solution is.

I can say or hope, though, that if we all did a bit to solve the problem, we actually could. Maybe, students could realize that schools/jobs aren't going to teach them everything and actively take control of their education in and out of the classroom. Perhaps, teachers need to spend a lot more time giving students "real world" projects and them holding them accountable for deadlines and outcomes. Professionals could get involved in the educational system so they actually get the type of designers they're trying to hire. When should soft skills start then? Earlier? High school? Middle? Or replace a trigonometry class freshman year? When would faculty make even more time above their grading? Professionals? All of this requires like more work and time and that’s where things seem to fall apart. Everyone is busy, including students. If I had to narrow down advice about soft skills, it would be the following:

  1. Write. Form your own opinions on design. I once had 19 students all turn in the same list of “favorite website designs” because they all Googled the same link. If I wanted to find out what Smashing Magazine’s favorite designs were I would have Google the list myself rather than asking students to form their own opinions. The more you read the more you can form your own opinions about the field you chose to go into for the rest of your life.
  2. Read. It shocks me that so many students don’t understand the value of Twitter and reading design blogs. Again, this is an industry you chose to go into, why wouldn’t you want to know as much as you can about it? How do you expect to grow without reading? Education doesn’t end with a cap, gown, and piece of paper.
  3. If you don’t know the answer, look it up first. Teachers or bosses aren’t going to be around all the time to hand hold. Google it. Be resourceful and smart. You don’t have to always know the right answer, but know where to find it. This is one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned from my first boss. Saying, “I don’t know, but I can find it” is a great way to answer a question.
  4. Stop looking for the easy way out. Cut your teeth. Earn your stripes. Enjoy all the things you could learn about design and be a sponge, rather than a know-it-all. Earn your way before thinking you deserve it all.
  5. Admit your faults. Excuses waste everyone’s time. Admitting fault and finding a solution is a mature and efficient option.
  6. Be polite. Technology makes it seem like everyone and everything is available all the time. If you contact someone, don’t think that just because you have their email address, they owe you something. I see designers and devs do this all the time, and it’s not cool.

At the end of the day, it comes down to effort from students, faculty, and professionals. I’d love to see this industry grow and nurture itself. If we all put in a bit of work we can get there.

Further reading: 20 tips for preparing for a career in design