Speaking at ‘Design Manchester’

On the 20th October I gave a talk to a group of students at Design Manchester: a festival for design and its role in the present and future of Manchester and the North West of the UK.

My talk was entitled ‘How To Make Yourself Indispensable’ and aimed to give students advice on making a success of their early career. It was inspired by my other half @amycooperwright.

Click to read a write up of the talk on Medium.


After the talk the fantastically engaged audience asked lots of smart questions generally giving me plenty of faith in the future of the design industry in Manchester and beyond.

My three favourite questions:

What is the most important skill you’ve learnt in your professional life?

One of the most formative projects in my design career was designing bus maps. The skill I used the most on that project was not a creative one, it was writing emails. Lots of emails. In fact, more time was spent justifying our design decisions than doing the original design work.

If you think that doesn’t sound like a designer’s job, but you’d be completely wrong. Having a great idea is key design skill, but an equally important skill is being able to communicate your thinking.

No piece of design speaks for itself so developing the ability to critically analyse and justify design will actually be something you do more often than actually designing. Being able to communicate is the more important skill.

I’m a graphic designer working on an architectural environment project, I seem to be doing work that moves away from graphics, is that the right thing?

In short yes!

If your research and design work is taking you to the overlaps with adjacent creative discipline don’t be afraid to go and spend time with the people in those fields.

Learn their language and tap into their expertise: there’s a chance that their deep knowledge will unlock opportunities back in your world. Learning enough about architecture, coding or data science to be able to have a smart conversation with other professionals is a core skill for any designer so the sooner you get into this way of working the better.

The only caveat is this: don’t spend too long away from your own expertise area as you risk becoming a generalist. The downside of being a generalist is that you won’t be able to offer anything back to the architect (or coder or data scientist) you’re hoping to collaborate with.

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What skills are you looking for in new graduates?

Whatever your starting design profession is today the chances are you’ll be doing very different things in a few years.

If you’re a graphic designer today it’s safe to say that, even if it’s still called graphic design in 5 years, it won’t be the same set of skills, tools and activities as you do today. Get comfortable with that coming change: it’s an opportunity not a threat.

The skills that I’m personally interested in are informed by the fact that I’m an interaction designer and do I’m thinking about that and the adjacent disciplines. I’m always in the look out for designers who have strong coding skills.

It’s incredibly difficult to maintain deep skills in both design and coding, but those that do are in high demand. For the digital designers out there code is one of your raw materials and so at the very least you should have proficiency in some of the front end languages. If you can find a way to push both the creative and the programming forward together I’d like to talk to you. I’m also interested to see if designers start to pick up the ability to manipulate data – as another raw material to design with.

Have a look at this Medium collection that I’ve written for, if you’d like to learn more.

Design x Data