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Whether you work as a freelance web designer, developer, employee or entrepreneur, there are certain soft skills that are virtually necessary for your business and career. One of example of such a skill is marketing. Then, there is also another type of soft skills. These skills, when you acquire them, have the ability to transcendent the business part and influence on your life as well. One very good example is selling. Regardless whether you believe it or not, you are selling something every day, even if you are not “officially” in sales.
All parts of the 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series:
7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have Pt5-Critical Thinking
Soft Skill No.5: Critical Thinking
Unfortunately, selling is not the topic we are going to discuss. In a fact, we did that in part 4. Today, we are going to focus on another skill that can have a huge impact on your life, freelancing and business. Also, this skill is one of those you will need in order to become really good designer. So, without further ado, let me introduce you this skill … Critical thinking. Believe it or not, if you are a designer, freelancer and / or businessman, critical thinking will play enormous role in your career. Let me give you couple arguments to support this claim.
Critical Thinking is Necessary for Every Designer
The first argument will be focused on designers and the discipline of design. It’s been a while since I wrote Timeless design – 10 Principles of a good design article. Here, we discussed the ten design principles outlined by industrial designer Dieter Rams that are a signs of a good design. How does this apply to this article? In a short, every good designer must be able to do couple things. First, he must be able to distinguish between good and bad design. Second, he must be able to create a design on his own. Third, he must be able to evaluate design. Sure, there are other skills or abilities good designer must have. However, for this section, we will stick to these.
The good news is that all these abilities are in direct connection with one specific skill. Yes, this skill is critical thinking. Do you think this claim is too bold? I think it is actually very modest. The only way to give the critical thinking the merit it deserves is to go even farther. We should state that there is not a single successful designer in the world that who would get where he or she is right now without critical thinking. You can stone me, but I will not take this statement back. Instead, I will give you evidence to convince you to change your mind.
Let’s say you are about to start a new design-related project, be it for yourself, your employer or some of your clients. What is one of the first things you do, assuming that the task of getting to know the client on the first meeting has been completed? By the way, this question is a great test of one’s expertise and experience as a designer. So, if you are hiring a designer, this is the moment when you can see whether your choice was good or bad.
The Biggest Mistake Designer Can Make
Designer with lack of experience and also without any professional workflow will ask for your ideas for design. Don’t get me wrong. It is great idea to ask your client for his ideas and opinions. However, there are two big problems with related to this approach. First problem is that your client is not a designer. In the end, that’s why he or she hired you. Otherwise, he could take couple days off, do the work by himself and save some money he is going to pay you. The second problem is that his or her ideas and opinions are not substantial. Your client is the person you should focus on.
In other words, your client is not your target customer or user, and neither you. For this reason, asking your client for his ideas and opinions is a waste of time. The same thing applies to telling him your ideas and opinions. If you want to use your time in smarter way, direct the conversation between you and your client on these questions: Who is the person this product will be marketed to? Who is the ideal user? How does this user look like? With the help of these questions, and many more, you will be able to create user’s persona and use it as foundation for the design.
Client (and Rookie Designer) Meets Reality
The conclusion of previous two paragraphs is that you are not actually there to use your hard and soft skills to create rockstar design from vacuum. This is not what designers do. The real job of designers is to create some kind of a bridge between people and products (or services). Our job is to find the best way to convey some specific message to the users or customers. Our job is to find the best way to tailor the product to the user, to make it as easy to use as possible. Our job is to do the research and find out what needs our users have.
Our job is not to close ourselves in a dark room for a week, meditate, brainstorm and use our immense creativity so we can then come back with a perfect solution. If you have sufficient experience in design, this is nothing new for you. If not, sorry for crushing your illusions. This is actually how the work of designer looks like in the real world. I forgot to mention one more thing that is a part of your job … You also have to explain this to your client. Yeah, I know, this is easier said than done. If you want, feel free to use the lines above. Just don’t lie to your client.
Another Responsibility of a Designer
Please understand that part of being a professional is also to educate your clients. This is another responsibility you are taking on when you decide to pursue some profession or career. We discussed this at length in the previous part of soft skills series, so we will skip this now. By the way, there is great book about this subject by Steven Pressfield. Well, two books. The first one is Turning Pro. The second is Do The Work. If you are serious about your career as a freelancer, work or business, I recommend that you to read both of these books, especially the first one.
The Brighter Side
Anyway, I just wanted you to see this part of your job because it will make it much easier. When your client will understand how the design process actually looks like, he will be less likely to push you in wrong directions. Also, it will be easier for your client to provide you with the right kind of information. Instead of burying you under piles of useless material, it will be easier for him or her to find the real diamonds – information that will help you move forward and finish the project sooner. If not, you will at least not have such a hard time getting the data you need.
Bad Advices, Bad Assumptions, Bad Environment
Another reason why I think this was too important to be ignored is that there are people who would suggest that you do the opposite. These tell you to never tell any of these things, we discussed, to your client. In their opinion, doing so you are only exposing yourself to the risk of being replaced by someone who can keep his mouth closed or lie better. It is only for the most courageous, the ones willing to take that risk, to try to formulate and communicate these two problems in a way it will look like a friendly advice, not like being hit by a hammer (or Hummer).
Next thing playing into the cards of this delusion that enshrouds the industry of design and web design are job boards and various contests. Many of these, not all, are the worst what can happen to these two design disciplines. In the past, I saw many people who started their freelance career in places like these. I belong to this group as well. Freelancer.com was the first place I started to sell my services as web developer and subsequently web designer. As someone with zero experience (I came from stock exchange) and no idea about professional design process, the only way to make some money in the beginning was to do low-budget projects.
It were only these low-budget of projects where I was able to compete with other freelancers, with price of course. The whole process is quite simple (from the view of a beginner). You take a look at project description, bid on it with a certain price (hour or project-based), pitch yourself and then wait. If you are lucky, and / or willing to offer the lowest price and adequate time estimate, project owner will choose your bid. If not, go and try your luck on another project. When you finish the project, you just repeat the loop. How exciting!
What’s more, you sometimes don’t even know who will use that thing you designed, coded or both. What you know is that joe1234 needs you to finish this project until this date. Sure, you have some brief description of the project, its use and how it should look and work like (remember the “The Biggest Mistake Designer Can Make” section?). However, unless you know something about design process (I will dedicate an article for this topic), you do what you should do. You check out Dribbble, Behance and other sources of inspiration, create a design and hand it over to your client.
Similar “process” works in web development type of projects. First, you get the design, mostly in PSD (hopefully well-organized). Second, project owner will tell you what framework he wants you to use. Third, you do the work. Fourth, you deliver finished work and get paid. Then, repeat the loop. Does every project look and work like this? No. This is true mostly to projects with low budget. You know, something along the lines: “I need a website that looks similar to this website and I have 250$.”
Bad Decisions and Reality Check
Just this one sentence contains at least three flaws. The first flaw is that there is not a single word about what business that person is in or who his customer or user is (or should be). The second flaw is that it is about cloning another existing website. Just these two flaws condemned the project to fail. The third flaw, and the last nail in the coffin is the price. There is no way skilled web designer or developer would ever accept this price.
Let me rephrase that. There is no way professional web designer or developer would spend at least one month doing research, wireframing, designing, testing, prototyping, iterating couple times and finally building professionally looking website that will significantly improve his client’s business for 250$. Yes, this is how, in very short form, design process looks like. There are also regular meetings with client and reviews. Ask yourself, would you do all this work for 250$? Some people may want to argue that you can build a website for $250.
My answer? Sure you can. I can build you a car for $250, maybe even a plane. However, I would never even consider testing it on my own. I would probably kill myself during the first trial, if the car or plane would actually work. What I want to say is that you can get a website for $250, but it will suck. And, sooner or later, you will pay another $250 for “redesign”. Again, done by someone who has zero idea about professional design and development process.
Quick note: Sadly, some people who will hire you are in the business just to make money. Meaning, these individuals don’t even care so much about what they sell. They just want you to create some decent design that will help them build credibility and trust to sell more of their crap. I suggest that you minimize the number of such projects. Otherwise, it is highly possible that work on projects like these will rob you of all your enthusiasm and passion for your craft.
Soft Skills Academy for Improving Critical Thinking
Damn, this was a huge digression from our today’s subject. The best thing, for now, will be to avoid spending any more time talking about different subjects. Instead, we will dive right into individual tips for improving your soft skills, namely critical thinking.
De Omnibus Dubitandum
Latin … Again! You are probably hating me right now. In my defense, the headline is actually a quote attributed to René Descartes and also Aristotle. In English, it basically means: “Doubt everything.” This is the first tip I have for you today to train your critical thinking. Not only will doubting anything and everything help you improve your critical thinking, it will also have influence your other soft skills. Anyway, just critical thinking on its own will help you make a big progress in you career as a designer, or web developer. Reason?
As a designer, or web developer, your daily job is basically a two-step process. First, you are looking for problems to solve. Second, you are creating solutions for the problems you found. Both of these steps require applying various soft skills, and critical thinking is one of them. The role of critical thinking is to, as the headline says, doubt and question everything. In the first step, critical thinking will help you see things from different perspectives and think about potential issues.
It is especially the second step, solution creation, where your critical thinking is more prominent than other soft skills. It is in this second step, where you have to consider various potential solutions because your goal is not to solve the problem with the first thing that comes to your mind. Your goal is to find the best solution, the most elegant. Otherwise, you are doing disservices to your client, employer, users and yourself. Remember: “How you do one thing is how you do everything.”
Before moving to the next tip, I have one tip for taking “doubt everything” method to another level. This tip is to apply it on your all your assumptions, habits, routines and biases. Not only will this train your critical thinking, you may also find that some of your assumptions or beliefs are not valid. You may find that you do or believe certain thing without any evidence of its usefulness. As you can see, aside from your work and career, you can use your critical thinking skill to improve your life. You can also apply the same method to find people holding you back in your life.
This one is my favorite! Questioning authorities, laws and rules imposed by other people. Truth to be told, I’m not doing it with the purpose of working on my soft skills, but because it feels natural for me. You can think about questioning authorities as an extension of “question everything” method. Although it seems that this could be a part of the previous tip, I think it is too important. Why? You can tell people to question everything again and again. However, when you or a person with a high status will give them order, they will do it immediately.
In some cases, you can even pay people to question everything. However, some individuals will always get back into their default mode of thinking – follow the order without questioning it. There is a good reason behind it. We, at least many of us, were raised in this fashion. Your parents told you to do something, like clean up your room or take out the trash, and you did it. Otherwise, you would be punished. The same process reappeared when you started school. Teacher would give you an exercise or homework and you did it. Otherwise, you would get a bad grade.
Then, you entered the career or work phase of your life. From then on, your employer or client would tell you what to do and you did it. Otherwise, you would be fired. Whatever the case is, all of them have one thing in common – you obey authorities around you and follow their orders. We have been led to obediently listen for almost your whole life. It is, then, no surprise that changing our mind is so hard and requires so much effort.
Unfortunately, it is necessary not just to improve your critical thinking and other soft skills, but to develop healthy personality, mindset and attitude. Sometimes, we give too much credit and put too much trust in people just because they have a diploma or more work experience. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t suggest that you start to rebel for the sake of it. Instead, I suggest that you dare to think about and question authorities around you. Don’t blindly follow orders without thinking.
Another great tool to improve your critical thinking is asking three “why” questions. In order to use this method, chose one problem or topic and ask some “why” question. Then, you ask another “why” question. This, second, “why” question focuses on the answer of the first “why” question. Then, you repeat this process one more time with the second answer. I will give you one simple example to show you this method in action.
The main idea behind this method is to simply never stop with the first answer. Instead, you dig deeper and try to find out whether there is another problem under the surface. You can also use this “3x Why” method to solve problems of your daily life. So, the next time you will look for solution for any problem, use these three why questions to inspect the problem first. Doing so, you may find out that you are trying to solve the wrong problem.
Change of perspective aka Switching Shoes
The next way to improve your critical thinking-related soft skills is to make yourself very good in switching perspectives. In other words, you must be able to see things from different views. Along with considering the aesthetic side of the design, you have to be able to look at it from the view of the buyer or user. Otherwise, the design might look better, but it is unusable. In case of business, you need to look at your offer from the perspective of your customers. Otherwise, it will be hard for you to find out why they should buy your product.
In case of employee, when you want to pitch some idea to your boss, you need to look at your idea from his perspective. Only then, you will can find the best arguments to convince him and get him on your side. The exact same thing also applies to client work. When you have an idea, look at it from the perspective of your client, think about how he will benefit from it.
One way to get better in changing perspectives is by thinking and asking. The application of this exercise is simple. First, you choose subject to focus on. Next, you will look at it from different perspectives and write down your observations. After that, you will find people with the perspectives you were training and ask them on their thoughts about the subject. Finally, you will use their feedback and compare it with your notes. This way, you can find the areas you either consider to be unimportant or didn’t consider at all.
One last thing. The ability to change perspectives is one of those soft skills you will need a lot in your design career. This and “question everything” concept, I think, should be part of your core set of skills. Without these two skills you, a designer, will have a hard time creating high-quality work.
Debate and Argue
Next incredible way to improve your critical thinking and other soft skills, such as active listening, is attending debates. By attending I mean being active in these debates – discussing and arguing with others. Don’t get me wrong. Being a passive participant will teach you to think better and create arguments to support your claims as well. However, it will take longer longer and you will have to put in more effort and additional practice. Having said that, being active participant will not make you a master in debates in one day and without any effort.
The biggest difference between being active and passive participant is the pressure you have to deal with. When you are on the passive side, you have nothing to lose. You don’t have your skin in the game. When you switch to the active side, it is whole different story. You have to cope with the stress, listen closely to other participants, prepare your arguments, react quickly and speak clearly. If the debate includes audience, potential inconvenience of the situation will reach new level. Paradoxically, it is this pressure what helps you learn and improve your soft skills faster.
If you have any doubts just think about the moments when your ability to learn was at its peak and your brain was like a sponge. Depending on the setting, most of these moments will probably include uncertainty, inconvenience, even danger. Common examples could be learning to ride a bike or to swim. In both of these examples, the speed of learning was directly proportional to the danger and inconvenience of the situation. The reason is simple. When your life or health is in danger, you want to learn as quickly as possible in order to lower the risk of injury or dying.
One easy and more comfortable way to get started with debates is doing organize regular debates with your friends or family. Another way is to look for some kind of public speaking or debating club in your neighborhood. You can also search for meetups focused on the topic of debating. And, if you can’t find any, you can always start your own.
Read Great Books
The last but one tip to improve your critical thinking and soft skills in overall is to read great books. By great I mean books that passed the test of time. The best genre to start with is philosophy. Nothing will push you to deeper modes of thinking than book by some of those great thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Lao-c’, Confucius, Buddha, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, Noam Chomsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Dawkins, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Taleb and Nick Bostrom.
However, I have to warn you. Although books about philosophy are great way to work on your soft skills, you have to be careful with choosing where to start. The thing is that books about philosophy vary a lot in complexity. Meaning, you can read some books without having any background knowledge and you will be able to understand it. Then, you choose another one and it will squeeze all the juice from your brain on the first couple pages. For this reason, you had better start with ancient philosophy because it is often easier to understand. Then, you can go higher.
If you have no previous experience with philosophy, I strongly recommend that you avoid books by Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In other words, stay away from phenomenology, existentialism, logic, and metaphysics. These are often the most complex branches of philosophy and you need to have some background and a lot of thinking capacity to understand the concepts. So, start slowly with Plato and Aristotle. From today’s thinkers, start with Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman.
The last piece of advice to work on your critical thinking and soft skills is to try games such as Chess or Go. These two are probably the most difficult games to master, especially Go. It was only recently when computer defeated human in Go. Until then, Go was the only game where computer were not able to keep up with humans. Anyway, if you want to work on your soft skills, such as critical thinking, focus, planning and strategy, and have fun, Chess and Go are great options.
Easy way to get started with Chess is a website British Go Association.. Here, you will find lessons, exercises and various chess puzzles for any skill level. Whether you are complete beginner, intermediate or chess master, you will find something useful. For Go, this will be a little bit harder. Although it is great game and is getting more and more popular, there is still small amount of good resources for self-directed learning. For this reason, I will suggest that you try to find local go club or player who can help you get started. Okay, one online resource –
Before closing this topic there are two things that are true for both, Chess and Go. First, you should focus on mastering the basics. Don’t try to rush your progress. Wrap your mind around the rules first, and only then move farther. Second, don’t confuse computer player with real person. Through my life, I’ve played hundreds of games of Chess and couple dozens games of Go and I can tell you that playing with real person is always better. You will also learn much more from their feedback. Also, Chess and Go can help you find new friends.
Closing Thoughts on Soft Skills and Critical Thinking
This is it for the fifth part of 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series. Today, you’ve learned how to become a better web designer by improving your critical thinking. The tips and ways we discussed today included questioning assumptions and authorities (challenging the status quo), 3x Why method, changing perspective, attending debates, reading great books about philosophy and playing games such as Chess and Go. Now, it is up to you what will you do with these information. And, in the next part, we are going to dive deep into soft skills of marketing!
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