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The 3 Key Traits Of An Exceptional Designer

In today's fiercely competitive product development climate, being a good designer isn't good enough. Here's how to be great.

[Top Photo: Paolo Cipriani/Getty Images]

As the director of countless design teams over the past 20 years, I’ve gotten pretty adept at identifying the traits that set good designers apart from exceptional designers.

Exceptional designers have strong human values such as empathy, respect, and honesty. These values not only influence a designer’s approach to developing products, but also their approach to working with colleagues. After all, building great products doesn't happen in a vacuum. When collaborating in cross-discipline teams, designers must bridge the divide between design and business. With that in mind, I’ve outlined three values that set exceptional designers apart from the rest:

Hero Images/Getty Images

1. Empathetic with a twist of business-savvy

Traditionally, designers advocate for user experience, and product managers lobby for business requirements. Exceptional designers take an empathetic approach to not only understanding the person they are designing for but also the mindset and requirements coming from each stakeholder in the process. Designers who can blend the two, in my experience, are the most successful.

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

2. Open and respectful, builder of relationships

Building relationships and respect are a bit like the story of the men and the elephant: A group of men in the dark touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement about what they’ve found.

Exceptional designers not only reveal parts, but illuminate the whole. They build relationships across product management, marketing, and engineering. They wear multiple hats—regardless of their position in-house, at an agency, or working for themselves—to filter through various perspectives coming from bosses, clients, coworkers, users, and more. They work with, not against, the differing perspectives. They're open to ideas that improve the business as a whole. They sit down with product managers and business leaders to understand their goals to improve their own designs.

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

3. Selfless advocate, communication bridge

Designers are the visual voice for customers. They make a product beautiful and user-friendly, but an experience that is only skin-deep will not sustain a product or a user base long-term. Exceptional designers put themselves in the shoes of the person they are designing for. In doing so, they become the communication bridge between the user and the business requirements, and they listen to both to find the best solution. Exceptional designers help transform business and product development into a human-centered endeavor rather than a numbers-based one.

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