How to Bridge the Design Gap

June 2, 2021

If you work with designers or aspire to, you must know their language in order to move projects along faster. This article explores how non-designers like entrepreneurs, marketers, and project managers can acquire the design skills they need to bridge the design gap. To dig into the topic, we spoke with professionals worldwide who have taught themselves design skills and work with designers often. From online programs taken in their spare time to institutionalized design training for the whole company, here’s what they had to say about gaining design skills to bridge the gap.  

Start with Online Courses

There are so many online resources that teach design 101. From Udemy to Skillshare to Coursera, there are endless online resources that provide design basics for free or cheap. These classes can be taken on-demand so that they can fit into any busy schedule instead of requiring in-person lectures. When these courses are taken in combination with playing around with essential design tools, it’s quite easy to learn the how and why of design in your spare time. 

Get Certified with Design Tools

Skills are more important than degrees when it comes to design. Entrepreneurs who are knee-deep in their ideas simply don’t have the time to take accredited courses in design, but they do need to know what user experiences that their future customers will enjoy. Many tools like Photoshop and Sketch have training modules that anyone can take for free. It just takes a few hours to get into the ins and outs of the product features and how they are put to use. As an added bonus, many trainings offered by design companies come with a certification badge that you can add to your LinkedIn. This can make product managers and marketers stand out as design-driven candidates that can work effectively with their design colleagues.

Two monitors running photoshop.
There are so many design tools you could learn. Ask a designer for recommendations on where to start.

After taking some online courses and trainings, you’re sure to have many questions. The next step is to get a two-way communication channel going with designers in your life to better understand what you learned and figure out how to turn theories and workflows into actual designs.

Don’t Forget About the Human Connection

Once you have a bit of the basics under your belt, it’s time to reach out to some designer friends or colleagues. Ever shadowed a designer for a day or even just asked to get their perspective on the best way to approach something you’re working on? You can learn so much by opening up your eyes and ears, then asking pointed questions to dive deeper. This doesn’t have to be a big-time commitment. It could be a weekly lunch or monthly meeting to go over what you’ve learned and how it applies to current design trends.

A fun exercise you might try with your design buddy is asking them to break down one of their favorite designs. It could be something they created or the work of a brand they admire. They will be able to explain why the design works so well, what tools were (or may have been) used to create it, and possibly what the goals and outcomes were. This will bridge the gap between concepts and tools and show the thought process that they use in their design process. 

Dive into the Theory Behind the Trends

Beyond design tools that everyone needs to know, understanding the design philosophies that designers apply to their work is the other side of the coin. Olga Tsimaraki, Digital Marketing Consultant, specializing in SEO and Content Marketing, tells us, “What I’ve found most useful is actually having a good grasp of Graphic Design Theory and Fundamentals. Learn the theory and then go online and look at what people are doing. Combine the theory with what you see, and you’ll eventually develop an eye for great design.”

Tsimaraki continues, “If you learn the theory, you’ll be able to understand what designers are telling you. And if you understand how that theory takes shape in real-life designs, you’ll also be able to understand why designers make certain choices.” A multi-pronged strategy is necessary to really become a design ally, but any of these ideas can stand on their own to get you further up to speed with how a design team works. 

 A woman laying on a couch, reading a design theory book.
Take some time to read up on design theory to give additional context to any online courses you take.

Design Skills Should Be Baked Into Company Culture

Some companies like to do “lunch and learn” informal training with members of other teams to help them understand what they work on and how they approach it. Beyond learning design terms to better explain what features you’re looking for, Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations, Force by Mojio, advises: “You also need to be familiar with the software they use, grasp basic design concepts, and know-how to think like a designer. My company has designers working side-by-side with tech hires, so we know how important it is to facilitate those connections. That’s why we provide opportunities for non-designers to receive entry-level training in Sketch and the Adobe suite. At these sessions, non-designers can build a basic vocabulary around the tools and ideas that designers use regularly… Our ultimate goal isn’t to cross-train everyone as a designer. It’s to ensure that we can understand each other and know how to make recommendations or request changes. For the same reason, we provide opportunities for our designers to learn more technical skills like coding.” 

Dholakia brings up an important concept; better understanding members of adjacent teams makes collaboration that much more effective. And it needs to go both ways. Developers and designers can and should get along better. When there is a mutual understanding of what is feasible and how long it takes, it’s much easier to make reasonable asks and finish projects on time. The main reason other team members need to acquire design skills is that they will be enabled to make more pointed requests. When a designer’s workflow is fully understood, other team members can make asks that fit the scope and timeframe they can work within. 

A visual designer sitting at her desk.
When more people on your team have design skills and foundations, everyone can do better work.

Empower The Whole Team with Design Skills

The more your team understands design, the more self-sufficient they can be. Dholakia makes sure that design-adjacent teams have basic training in key design tools. That can help teams like marketing make designed assets they need on their own. Design teams are often busy with several projects at once and unable to accommodate last-minute requests. If the marketing team understands the style guide and basic design tools, they might be able to spin up their own social media banner on the fly. This will help them advance their campaigns faster and save time and stress for both teams. 

Stay up to Date with Design Blogs

There are so many design publications out there, from UX Collective to our very own Proto.io blog. Subscribing to them will make sure that you get the latest in design right in your inbox (or mailbox) at a regular interval. This can be a great way to start your design exploration and keep up with trends as they evolve.

Closing Thoughts

The main goal of bridging the design gap is getting your teams on the same wavelength. There needs to be common understanding and synergy across teams to know how to collaborate with everyone else. Taking the time to explore the priorities and thinking of the design team brings greater awareness to the importance of design. In fact, the more you know about good design, the better your design briefs will get. Having a taste of the best design will make you crave it. And companies with the best-designed products (when coupled with effective sales and marketing) have a greater chance of succeeding in the market. 

Have to bridge the design gap that we missed? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

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