Is there such thing as General Design Skill?

OK, here’s the question -

You’d think that design sensibility would be quite broad. Like athleticism, for example. By that, I mean that if you are an athlete, say a runner, you are probably also pretty good at other sports to a certain extent. Of course design as a creative and intellectual pursuit is different than a physical trait, so excuse the messy metaphor.

In practice however (non-scientific, just my own observations), I don’t see too often one type of designer that is strong or has an aptitude/interest/sensibility in other design areas.

As an example, let’s take 3 different kinds of design: Fashion, Graphics, ID.

I’ve seen tons of fashion designers that make strange product design choices and have a terrible understanding of graphics.

Lots of IDers have pretty much no fashion sense and many are weak in graphics.

Lots of graphic designers likewise have no interest/sense of fashion and don’t seem to have much of an appreciation of product design.

Am I just crazy? I’d think that having an understanding of design would translate more to other disciplines… Maybe it’s just because my own work/experience is kinda in the middle of these three areas, I just notice differences across the spectrums more.

Is this something that relates to the ongoing discussions about design school specialization? It seems that perhaps in the old days, there was more cross over and if you were a Designer, you could do almost anything. As an example, look at Charles and Ray Eames (furniture, architecture, graphics, textiles), Dreyfuss, a lot of the old Italian guys…sure there are more examples…


This is an interesting topic Richard.

I think there are some people, non design professionals, with a really good eye for design. That is, they can select nice stuff, like a curator, and tell you why it’s nice. If you asked them to create something “new” though, they’d be a little stuck but might be able to come up with something.

Then there are the truly, really creative people who do unexpected and new things with their current medium. There are some skill set things that may be obstacles but, they generally learn and adapt, then synthesize something new. I’d throw the Eames in that category. These people are pretty rare.

Most designers I’ve encountered (across disciplines) fall somewhere in the middle; they have a pretty good grasp of what’s hot in their particular focus area and can come up with something evolutionary that builds on that. It’s usually good enough to keep them employed in the design industry, but no books and essays and movies are going to be written about them.

I have some more thoughts on this but it’s dinner time.

The sports analogy is a good one. Many athletes play other sports in the off season, and even take up totally different physical activities to train. A lot of football players play basketball to get their cardio in if they don’t like running, they do yoga, play baseball, ballet, do speed drills, build hand eye coordination through specially develop exercises… in short, their life is built around physical excellence and athleticism.

Can we say the same for design? Are we training designers to be well versed in multiple design disciplines? Or are we distracting them with trying to be scientists, marketers, researchers, and MBAs?

Look at Raymond Loewy’s work. Industrial design, architecture, furniture, graphics, packaging. Most of it still looks good today. I think we should be training designers to be versatile in this way. Not all designers, but there should be at least a few programs with this “Ultra designer bent”.

I think some disciplines relate to others more. For example, my dual major of Industrial and Interaction design works very well together because of the emphasis on research/iterative design processes in both fields. However, in terms of visual design of interaction/interfaces, Communication/Graphic design relates better.

I think the sports analogy works better within each field. For example in Graphic Design there’s print, web, packaging, identity… as a trained Graphic Designer you should be well equipped to hop in and out of any of these fields (whether or not you’re good depends on how hard you work…). In Industrial Design, you can switch between industries like consumer products, softgoods, electronics, and be able to work your way around (not necessarily as an expert).

I think it depends on your specific “gifts”. For instance, I like to work with the physical usability of something, what it feels like in your hand, what it does to allow you to enhance a physical encounter. So a lot of my decisions and talent with design comes from that angle, something I have to hold a certain way or that lets me turn my body into a superhero of sorts. I’ve never been much of a pure stylist which is where those 2d skills that would cross over into doing Graphics comes in. I have some sensibility with it, but nowhere near enough to want to do a project when there are other real graphic designers that could do it much better. Kind of like doctors…a general practicioner might be good to have if you’re stuck on a deserted island for misc. duties, but when you have a brain tumor, you want a specialist.
I think for small firms, etc…it works well if you have people that can kind of do it all. But there’s SO much specific stuff to learn in each of those respective fields, only a small number of brains can pick all of those up well enough to compare with someone that specializes in only one of them. Hell, we have people in our one field that just specialize in 3-d or drawing, etc… let alone to be able to match industry standards for 2 other separate fields with the technical knowledge needed for each. I feel like I’m smacking the real graphics guys in the face trying to do their job. I may be good enough for someone untrained, but I’m nowhere near the true specialists level, wouldn’t dream of coming close to saying anything like that, too disrespectful to the real guys.

I think maybe my original point was not that clear. I’m not speaking about how different skills cross-over from one related sub-category to another (i.e graphics to packaging) or how attuned we are to the specializations of different types of design, but rather how I think it’s odd that Design skill/appreciation/interest isn’t more “universal” in designers.

Another (also perhaps poor) example would be music. Like design, there are different types, but I would think most people who have musical talent/skill appreciate and cross-over boundaries of different instruments, disciplines and genres…


I think part of it is when you specialize in something, your awareness of things outside the specialty diminishes the farther away you get from your own specialty. So the fact that I can’t name drop ten great graffiti artists (because I don’t spend a lot of time looking at graffiti) doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the skill and talent in a great piece of graffiti - it just means I don’t spend much time in that world.

So hypothetically speaking, is it important for me to spend a great deal of time appreciating other areas of design versus appreciating the creativity of applied physicists, economists, policymakers, musicians, and athletes?

Yes, there is such a thing as General Design Skill. It’s the process of problem solving and the craft of production.

I think those who struggle to work in other media tend to be too narrowly focused on execution of a specific aesthetic or craft. I like to pick those people out on Project Runway because you know they’re going to fail miserably when forced to take on a project that’s outside of their comfort zone. Like the designer with the strong punk POV that suddenly has to design a prom dress for a client. Not gunna work.

From a polling perspective, it would be interesting to correlate cross-experience with initial interest in design. Such as, how many designers entered school knowing they wanted to design footwear and then ended up designing something completely different? I’m guessing that those that went into design with a particular focus tend to stick with that focus.

Personally, I was looking for a general education and a job at a consultancy. And over the years I’ve held many different titles and worked in many different mediums, industries and disciplines. I’ve never felt a particular passion for designing one type of product, aesthetic or using one type of tool. For me, it’s all about finding innovative solutions for the context that delight the client and user.

Bingo. That’s exactly why those who were mentioned earlier (Eames and Dreyfuss, along with others Lowey, Mies Van der Rohe, etc.) were able to look beyond their primary design education and utilize those skills in every thing they did.

To relate back to your athlete metaphor, most athletes in a particular sport are indeed good at other sports, but it’s not like they’re instantly good at every sport after focusing on just one. In high school the 3 sport athlete who was good at all 3 sports spent a third (well at least a quarter) of each year playing that sport. It may not have been their primary focus, but they still got a considerable amount of practice in. And even if they weren’t on the volleyball team, they probably played it enough times for fun that they were able to develop a base skill set. And each time they learn a new sport they are broadening their general sports skills, making it easier to pick up something new. Same with musicians - the second instrument is easier to learn than the first, and the third is easier than the second, etc.

Back to design, if for a few years I split my time between Fashion, Graphic, and ID, and then went on to do one of them most of the time (but still dabbled in the others, as athletes do with other sports), I bet I’d be pretty good at all of them. And if presented with a new disciple, I bet it’d be easier to pick up. Like Yo said, perhaps more designers should be trained in this way to be more versatile, instead of distracted by other non-design disciplines (and I say this as someone who has “distracted” himself with becoming good at engineering).

Overall I think there is such a thing as a General Design Sensibility, but to have Skill in any specific area requires some work. And even if you have a good foundation, that doesn’t mean you have the house.

To R’s original point there are some designers who are just not interested in other problems, of even into understanding/appreciating them. I know some designers that don’t have an interest in their personal fashion, designing their personal space, don’t spend money on well designed high quality experiences in food and drink… I think it is important to not fit into a mold, but instead to do it for yourself, to apply design filters to to the consideration of everything around you, even if it is just through a purchasing decision, and to broaden your experience base. A friend of mine used to call it shopping for ingredients that he would put in his design kitchen and use at some later date… of course when people go to far with it, when it becomes a tool to judge others, or a chase to have the latest greatest, it can be bad. Certainly, I’m not the best dresser, nor do I have the line on the latest music, nor go to the trendiest hipster dive bar (I hate dive bars), but having a healthy interest in what other creative disciplines are doing is a good thing, and I think it is necessary if you want to at least hold your own in some other areas.

Like CG said “It’s the process of problem solving and the craft of production.” Based on the above, I’d add it is also about having an active interest in design problems in general, and being able to creatively apply what you know to bring something new to a problem outside your comfort zone. This was a big reason I left corporate for a bit for a large consultancy that largely does interaction and software along with a core foundation in physical objects, spaces and experiences. Even when I was corporate, I tried to collaborate with other product divisions and design disciplines, as well as take on approved side projects like the Icon Jeep. Staying sharp doesn’t just happen, it is an active pursuit.