Hard Skills and Soft Skills for Designers

Ask an interior designer what’s something they didn’t learn in design school that they wish they had, and they are likely to mention how to deal with clients. The same is true for other creatives. Graphic designers, photographers, architects and illustrators, many of whom are self-employed or work in a small firm, all struggle with this. People skills are not part of the curriculum.

Design students learn how to design, but in most programs they’re not taught how to be practicing designers. If they’re lucky, they may get one course on business principles and practices. As a result, they graduate well-versed in the hard skills they need to design and implement projects. But they’re weak in the soft skills they need to have a successful career.

Hard vs. soft skills

Hard skills are those abilities for which you can be objectively tested. Can you draw an elevation? What about creating floor and lighting plans? Can you measure a space accurately? Could you specify the right amount of carpet for a project?

Soft skills have to do with how you conduct yourself and interact with others. If we’re lucky we may have parents, relatives, teachers, coaches or mentors who, somewhere along the line, gave us guidance to improve our social and communication skills. We may have had an opportunity to develop some small group team or leadership skills. Once we get out into the real world, however, we’re likely to find our soft skills need some additional work.

Soft skills for business success

Operating a business while practicing your profession requires mastering a particular set of soft skills. Chief among these is learning how to communicate and manage interactions with clients and business associates. This involves not only communicating clearly and precisely orally and in writing, but also developing effective listening skills, understanding and adapting to different personality types and information assimilation preferences, negotiating skills, and managing and resolving conflict.

If you have employees or outsourced workers, you need good team management and leadership skills to keep projects on track and employees motivated. Over time, you will also need skills related to personnel development, dealing with employment disputes, and mentoring.

Depending on your upbringing and habits, you may want to polish your own time management, document management, financial management, and interpersonal skills. The better you get at each of these areas, the more control and direction you will have over your business, thus improving your ability to achieve the kind and level of success you are aiming for.

Lifelong learning

Unlike hard skills, which usually need only to be refreshed or updated now and then, developing and improving soft skills is a continuous process of learning, application and refinement. They are tested by experience and need to be constantly tweaked to produce the desired results.

Because they are based in behaviors and perceptions, changing or enhancing soft skills can be challenging. Fortunately, you have a wide range of resources to choose from to assist you. These include books and articles, audiobooks and podcasts, workshops and seminars, and peer groups, mentors and coaches. You have a lifetime to learn what they didn’t teach you in school.

Pearl Collective


  1. Lisa Lovetto on May 1, 2022 at 10:20 am

    This is a great little article, Gail….so right on! I hadn’t thought of hard vs. soft skills, so the “names” and “definitions” gave me better clarity. This will be helpful to keep in mind when interviewing new hires as well. And you’re right…they don’t teach you soft skills in school. There should be a required course called Communication Skills for Designers! 🙂

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