Cheat sheet for creatives: one skill to rule them all.

What’s the single most important skill that your mid-level and senior-level experience designers need to master?

I recently asked this of 20 friends who lead teams in product design, experience design, UX and service design.

These friends lead well-regarded agencies, productive design groups and in some cases entire companies. All have had success in their careers, along with the challenges and learnings that success is built upon.

I’ve asked them this question because I’m kicking off Chalet Workshop, learning events in Boulder, Colorado focused on helping good design thinkers grow into leaders. I trust their perspective. And I should know my customer. Also, I’m obsessed with how we learn.

Here’s what they said. While it’s tempting to expand this thread into a few extended thought pieces, there’s also utility in seeing the data. So that’s what I’m sharing for now. My only editorial: if you’re looking to grow into a leadership role in the creative or design industry, you might want to take note.

I’ve grouped their answers into five categories: creativity, insights, collaboration, pollination and table stakes.

1. Creativity: step away from the machine.

How to problem solve, how think creatively and how to push past the first obvious solution. And stop going directly to the computer! You don’t solve problems at the machine by pushing pixels, you solve problems by thinking about them. And THEN you execute.

Lateral thinking. To look away from their Macs. Take influence from the world. That ‘CX’ isn’t ‘stuff that happens in browser.’

The ability to think creatively. I think that we’ve become stale in our imagination when it comes ideas and designs. I love working with people who question everything and ‘what if’ possibilities vs trying to make the most obvious thing.

2. Insights: be a human to focus on humans.

The soft stuff. Anyone can work hard to pick up and master technical skills — but it’s relying on intuition, empathy, and understanding to really get to know what problems are lying beneath the surface and make truly successful and creative solutions to them.

Listening and inspiring.

Focus on the user. If it helps the user, enhance it. If it doesn’t, ditch it.

Mid-level designers need a wide knowledge of people and human factors; senior-level designers must synthesize that work to inform an inspired product.

3. Collaboration generates momentum.

A common thing I see missing from design teams is a lack of transparency and openness. Many get by with just a few design reviews throughout a project and call it good. I believe work should constantly be brought before new eyes to discuss, improve, and iterate.

Own it. Own everything about the work: the insights, the vision, and the creative threading that solves the problem you’re addressing. Because if you assume someone else will, you’ll wind up with a patchwork solve. That doesn’t mean you’re a micromanager, but it does mean that you should be able to guide everyone in service of creating and measuring success.

They need to guide their team to success. And I’ve found that success requires emotional intelligence, context, encouragement, and focus.

Find ways to move the team and project forward. Always.

First, they need strong design skills. Second, they need persuasive design skills. Third, the ability to communicate, execute, revise.

4. Pollination: generate influence outside your own tribe.

How to manage complexity in terms of process and organizational relationships when working with other disciplines. It requires designers to have a better understanding of business and engineering/operations processes.

Design skills are easy. They need to get better at communication (brevity and insight) and facilitation (engaging non-designers that make decisions about your work in the most effective way).

Always keep the vision in mind, but know the insides & outs. As a non-designer myself I find experience/UX designers are either too high level and haven’t sorted out the details or sweat the details & lose sight of the larger picture.

5. Table stakes: hone your thinking and skills.

In our organization, they need to be critical thinkers.

Lateral thinking and adopting multiple skills.

Knowing the customer purchase journey and behaviors.

Mastery of typography, flow and proportions.

The best designers I have met have a real passion for technology and design. Some of them could probably code if they had to. I think that kind of deep technology knowledge and passion is invaluable in designing digital experiences.


That’s it. Some of this is likely familiar to you. And it’s surely incomplete, as every organization needs something different. Feel free to add you own productive response.

Meantime: our second Chalet Workshop session kicks off in May—details below. Perhaps we’ll see you in Boulder.

May 1–3: Love Your Unspoken Truths. Design for Massive Change. Find the issues that matter, devise impactful ideas, and craft an unforgettable story with your next product.