How communication turns a good designer into a great designer

Throughout my career, I have been continuously learning. Starting as a developer, I was building websites using HTML tables for layout and Active Server Pages to integrate with databases. Then CSS came along and changed everything, and my growing appreciation of how you could make a simple webpage look completely different just by changing properties within a different file sent me down the path of specialising as a front-end developer.

I then worked more and more closely with the designers whose Photoshop compositions of web pages I would bring to life in the browser. I began to pick up the skills and knowledge of how to design webpages and applications to solve a problem for the client, whether that was getting people to sign up for a newsletter, request a valuation on their house, or buy the products that they were selling. My working life in an agency environment was truly varied. Aspects of visual design and the psychology intertwined with it began to fascinate me as I moved along the path towards a user experience designer.

Upon leaping to a full-time UX role, I began to understand the importance of research, not only in how we design and build a digital product but in whether we were even building the right thing in the first place. Throughout my whole career, I was learning new tools and techniques to implement the knowledge and understanding I had gained throughout those years. I always prided myself on being technically proficient, applying the best possible solutions to the problems we were trying to solve in the constraints which we were given.

Although this technical proficiency and the ability to deliver work on time and budget were great skills to have as a team member – whether a developer, designer or any other role you may find in a modern multi-disciplinary digital team – there is one area that, if you cultivate and improve your abilities within it, will lift you above others in your field and will have you held in high esteem with your work colleagues. I am, of course, talking about communication.

Communication skills are undervalued

Although this sounds like a click-bait heading, I'm referring to how communication skills within the design practice are not valued in how they are communicated. That sounds a bit meta, so bear with me here.

Take a look at any design job description for a design role. It will no doubt require good communication skills, and may even be fleshed out a little in the description of the role into a sentence along the lines of "candidates must show the ability to communicate with stakeholders, and have experience in running workshops". Now, to be fair, these are only job descriptions - essentially a single page blurb which will usually be easily interchangeable with another similar design role in another organisation - and although it states that it is an important skill for you to have, I don't believe it accurately represents the need for clear communication in a design role within a large organisation, in a team, and with your wider user base.

As a designer, you are working on communication both in and around your work.

The interfaces and interactions you are designing are the way in which you make an otherwise static digital thing to communicate how it works and how it is intended to be used by the person interacting with it. You are a specialist in communication through a medium which the vast majority of the human beings on the planet have access to.

On the other hand, your day-to-day work rests upon you communicating with the members of your team, having the conversations to help you make decisions to move things forward, listening to your users to make sure that what you're doing is right for them, and convincing the powers that be that what you're doing is the right thing for them and their users. These days we have to do this in ways that may have seemed impossible not so long ago.

Remote working requires better communication

Now that remote working has become more commonplace in larger organisations which previously held the belief that you get better work done by being in the same physical space - some may still believe that and are itching to get back to that familiarity - the ability to work remotely has come on leaps and bounds in individuals who aren't as tech-savvy, and enables us to carry out the same work we would have done in a room together by harnessing the tools and technology at our disposal.

Using any manner of tools from Google Docs to Confluence, Trello to Jira, Slack to Zoom, every type and avenue of communication is possible through the technology we have on our computers as we work predominantly in the digital space.

But these tools do not do our communication for us, they are just the conduit through which we can work more effectively with our teams. The onus is still on us to make communication happen, to make time for the conversations we need to have to do better work, and to keep people informed of our progress and to plan our next steps forward.

Better communication is not more communication

As was also the problem whilst working in the same physical location, the number of meetings when working remotely can spiral out of control of you don't stay on top of them, and enforce a strict ruleset of when you should be spending your time in meetings.

If you are in a meeting, and it becomes clear that none of the discussions will benefit from your input, speak up and ask if you are still needed. There are likely more constructive things that you can do with your time and you can always catch up on the outcomes through meeting minutes or quicker catch-up calls.

Better communication is about efficiency and relevance. If you're making a point, be clear and concise. If you're in a discussion or a workshop setting, create a framework which gives everyone the time and platform on which they can share their thoughts without being sidelined. If you're there to listen, just make sure you're on mute!

Communicating your design work

The previous points I have made are more general and can apply to most people working in multi-disciplinary teams, whether that be colocated or in a remote working situation, but there is a more nuanced understanding of communication required when it comes to design work and how you present this to your team and your stakeholders.

Your ability to communicate your design process, the decisions you have made in your work, and more importantly why you made them, are the three key areas in which you will need to excel to go from good designer to great designer.

Any designer can share a link or throw a bunch of screen designs in front of someone without explanation or reasoning; something akin to the use of Dribbble or Instagram to show off your user interface design skills in purely visual terms.

But as a certain Mr Jobs once said, "It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Your true value as a designer is in your ability to bring people along for the ride, to involve them in the process, to share your thoughts and decisions with them so that they understand the why behind your decisions and ways of working.

Providing your colleagues with this kind of understanding will not only build their appreciation of the design process and the work that goes into the design process, but it is also what will elevate your professional standing from a good designer to a great designer.