Skip to content

How do we define design skills?

How do we define design skills?

6 December 2017 Written by By Stephen Miller Research and Evaluation Manager 2015-18

As debate rages on as to how the UK best capitalises on the technological changes being brought by the fourth industrial revolution, Design Council has been leading the conversation about the key role design skills can play. But what do we mean by design skills?

Why define design skills?

Ten years on from Design Council’s work to increase the use of design skills across the economy through a Design Blueprint, more still needs to be done to convince business and government that design can play a key role in developing solutions to the key challenges of our time. We must become better at demonstrating the value of design. But this isn’t about caging our creativity – it’s about realising its potential.

How did we identify design skills?

Our latest study, Designing a future economy explores the skills used by designers, providing for the first time an estimate of the economic value of these skills. It fuses US and UK data to map the skills associated with a range of design occupations, and then identify which skills designers themselves deem most important to their work.

Using the US Department of Labor’s O*NET database, our analysis started by mapping 177 skills to each of the 23 design occupations identified in our 2015 Design Economy study. The O*NET system asks workers to rate their skills according to how important they are for their role (importance), and how intensively they use them (the level). Using ratings of importance, we created an index score (or ‘Importance Premium’) which helped identify skills which were deemed by designers to be of above average importance for their role (compared to what might be expected across the whole workforce).

The importance of a design mindset

Our analysis shows the list of skills varies for each occupation – for example in Architecture and the Built Environment key skills include building and construction, design and geography, while in digital design programming plays a key role. What unites these different occupations are their cognitive abilities – and in particular their knowledge of design.

In O*NET workers are asked to rate their ‘Knowledge of design techniques, tools, and principles involved in production of precision technical plans, blueprints, drawings and models’ in terms of how important this knowledge is for their role (on a scale of 1-5), and the level at which they apply it (on a scale of 1-7, with examples ranging from ‘drawing a straight line’ at the lower end to ‘developing detailed plans for a high-rise office building’ towards the higher end of the scale). While the definitions used in O*NET may not align with everyone’s conception of design, we believe these are the best proxies available for mapping and measuring the value of design skills, and provide a common reference point for debate and discussion.

Knowledge of design is a distinguishing feature of the occupations in our sample, and its prominence may go some way to explaining the high value these roles contribute to the economy. But what other skills might be considered ‘design skills’?

Looking across all 23 design occupations, 12 other skills stand out with high ‘importance premium’ scores. Many of these feel intuitive to design, reinforcing the conception of design as a creative endeavour requiring critical faculty and imagination, alongside specific technical skills:

Fine arts

Knowledge of the theory and techniques required to compose, produce and perform works of music, dance, visual arts, drama and sculpture.

Thinking creatively

Developing, designing, or creating new applications, ideas, relationships, systems, or products, including artistic contributions.


The ability to imagine how something will look after it is moved around or when its parts are moved or rearranged.

In addition to these cognitive abilities or mindset, a further set of skills emerge which reinforce the technical nature of design.

The technical nature of design

The technical skills associated with design often involve applying particular tools, processes and approaches to either tangible structures or intangible systems. In particular our research found the oft cited ability of designers to understand and respond to user need comes through strongly:

Operations analysis

Analysing needs and product/service requirements to create a design.

Drafting, laying out, etc.

Providing documentation, detailed instructions, drawings, or specifications to tell others about how devices, parts, equipment, or structures are to be fabricated, constructed, assembled, modified, maintained, or used.

Technology design

Generating or adapting equipment and technology to serve user needs.

Engineering and technology

Knowledge of the practical application of engineering science and technology. This includes applying principles, techniques, procedures and equipment to the design and production of various goods and services.

Academics such as Krippendorf argue that ‘design makes sense of things’, and in doing so makes products, services and systems useful, usable and desirable for those who use them – and effective, efficient, and distinctive for those who supply them. It is easy to see therefore how this fusion of cognitive ability and technical skill chimes with the longstanding narrative around how design and designers add value.

Augmenting design skills

Our analysis also identified a set of skills specific to only a select few design occupations yet which were rated very highly in terms of their importance. So in addition to knowledge of design, architects score the following skills as being very important to their work:

Building and construction

Knowledge of materials, methods and the tools involved in the construction or repair of houses, buildings, or other structures such as highways and roads.


Knowledge of principles and methods for describing the features of land, sea and air masses, including their physical characteristics, locations, interrelationships and distribution of plant, animal and human life.

Similarly digital designers also identify a number of particular skills as being of high importance to their work:


Writing computer programs for various purposes.

Computers and electronics

Knowledge of circuit boards, processors, chips, electronic equipment and computer hardware and software, including applications and programming.

These four skills also appear in the list of the 13 most important skills used by designers – not because all designers use them, but because for those that do their importance is so much higher than for compared to the wider workforce. These skills strengthen the mindset and technical skills of designers, and vice versa. It is this fusion of knowledge, technical and creativity skills identified that people are using in their day-to-day work.

Yet this does not mean that everyone using programming is a designer. The skills in our list were rated as important by a clearly defined and small sample of designers, which in the process has pushed our understanding of the skills used by designers beyond the sometimes ambiguous notion of ‘creativity’ to concepts with clear definitions.

This evolution is clear from the final skill on the list of skills deemed most important across all 23 design occupations. It makes sense that in the 21st century, ‘Interacting with computers’ (defined as ‘Using computers and computer systems (including hardware and software) to program, write software, set-up functions, enter data, or process information’) would be rated as important by designers.

What next?

Designing a future economy is the first study of its kind. Previous studies investigating design skills either compartmentalised or generalised design as a homogenous activity, or produced findings which did not enable generalisation across the economy. For instance, the UK Innovation Survey covers over 15,000 enterprises, though is limited in terms of its list of design skills to only four. With this new study we have sought to address the issues of coverage across the economy and recognises the heterogeneity of design activity.

We are interested to know what you think and how this chimes with your experience. You can comment below and/or explore the data for your sector here.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Want to keep up with the latest from the Design Council?

Sign up