Hierarchy of Designer Skills

This post originally appeared on the visual.ly blog.

When I evaluate a designer for potential inclusion into the Visually Marketplace, I have very little time to assess their work and portfolio. Usually, fewer than 10 seconds. This may sound like far too short of a time to get a sense of someone’s work, but in most cases the decision is obvious.

In less obvious cases, I work from the hierarchy below to see if they pass the test.

I created this specifically for infographics, which is the medium we work in most — but it may apply to other design disciplines as well. As a designer becomes more skilled, they progress up this pyramid, usually – but not always – in this order. Let’s go through these skills one by one.


The effective use of color is one of the most basic skills to learn. An inappropriate use of color is the largest and most immediate red flag I spot. Do the pallets fit the mood and tone of the content? Are the colors overly muted, too contrasted, or just off? These are some of most common mistakes I find.


The use of space is very important for infographics, as there is a lot of information to convey with limited real estate. The first mistakes I look for are the overcrowding of elements and not letting them breathe. Then I look for the use or non-use of white space. Efficiency of space is important in an infographic, but if it’s too dense, the viewer will find it off-putting.


Effectively working with type is a skill that can take a long time to master, but an understanding of the basics is required for any successful design. Choosing the right font will only get you so far. Appropriate weighting, leading, and tracking should be applied every time. Kern those headlines, too.


You would be surprised how far a designer can get with stock images and icons. But to take it to the next level, a designer should be able to transform or create new graphics. This certainly includes traditional skills like illustration, but also modern skills like Photoshopping. I personally can draw slightly better than my five year old, but I can certainly create anything in my mind’s eye using Photoshop. This skill, above others, takes lots and lots of practice and there are no shortcuts. A high degree of customization skill will provide you a near infinite tool box.


Being really creative involves having the design say more than merely the pixels on the screen or paper. Creative design makes connections between elements, ideas, and concepts that have not been thought of by the client, or the viewer. It often involves asking yourself, “Is this the best way to represent this?” and “How can I say more, without adding more”.


Many of the projects in the Visually Marketplace have a journalist assigned to them, to craft the story. But the final product is always more unified when the designer is also a storyteller. This doesn’t mean they create the story, but design is a language, and a collection of pretty words does not make an interesting book. Successful designer-storytellers pay attention to the evolving tone of the narrative and incorporate that into their work. The client may be too close to the subject matter to be objective, and so the designer needs to use the right tone, structure and imagery to guide the audience through the graphic effectively.


If you have got a handle on all of the above (or below), then consider yourself a very good designer. Now, master being able to bring those skills to a wildly diverse range of styles, and you will be an invaluable designer. Specialization is good, but can be limiting, especially in a freelance world where clients can come from all walks of life. Can you create something that is minimal and clean? Loud and audacious? Suitable for a 19th century antique book seller? Or a 21st century aerospace company?

Every designer has their own preferences, but it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. Force yourself if you have to. I cut my teeth in design doing concert posters for a local music venue. I did one for every band that came in the door, whether they were death metal, experimental noise, traditional singer-songwriters, or hippie jam bands. Hundreds of posters later, I have picked up a deep collection of tips, tricks, and ideas that affect my personal preferences.

Jun 2013

design, visually

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Charting Female Popstars

Visual.ly just released this interactive that charts all the Female artists who have achieved a #1 album since 1985


I was curious about how big the current pop stars are vs those my generation, like Madonna and such.  While the data isn’t in on the longevity of Beyonce, she is off to a good start.  Below is a capture of the interactive, Beyonce vs Madonna vs Alanis.

Feb 2013
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Notes from a Thousand Portfolios



Part of my role as Creative Director at Visual.ly is to evaluate infographic designer candidates and make sure the best are members of our Marketplace. Mostly, this involves reviewing around 20 to 100 portfolios per week. After looking at thousands of portfolios this year, I have come up with somes tips for designers to stick to if they are looking to get the attention of a creative director.

Your own domain vs hosted portfoio sites

Having your own domain and website is an opportunity and a risk. It allows you to immediately show off any website design skills you may have and this should be required for website designers. It isn’t needed for illustrators and other designers, but can still be an opportunity to show off your creativity.

My process when reviewing hosted portfolios is pretty automatic and routine. Stumbling onto a really well done personal website can immediately peak my attention.

The risk, however, is that most personal websites I’ve seen are not well done.

Regardless of your abilities or client references, it often is hard to get past a dated, sloppy, or out-of-touch site design. Remember: if you are applying for an open position, you can assume many more are applying as well, and the reviewer or creative director often has seconds to make a gut decision.

If you can’t put together a well crafted personal site, just direct me to a hosted portfolio.

Not all hosted portfolio sites are the same. Some are a pleasure to work with, others I would count as a strike against the designer.

Showcasing your best work

The ideal portfolio, whether hosted or your own, will allow the viewer to be able to quickly get at your best work. This means big images and good categorization. Some thoughts on the most popular sites out there:

Behance: This is by far the most popular service, which is unfortunate becaus

e it requires a lot of clicking on my end. The categorization is rolled into the same hierarchy as individual projects, so portfolios are often a mix of collections and one-off projects, which is confusing. If you have a diverse set of skills, Behance will not show them off. Also, the preview icons are small, which necessitates a click to find out what’s going on. Behance also has all sorts of useless information on the page, which reduces the amount of your work you can get on the screen and increases my inefficiency.

Cargocollective: Another popular one and it can do some impressive formats. The problem is that people don’t use them. The typical Cargocollective portfolio I see is a righthand text list of projects or clients, usually in a small type and a smattering of 200×130 thumbnails. There is no real hierarchy, which results in a lot of wasted clicks. Cargocollective does strip out all the useless info that surrounds Behance portfolios, but it often leaves a hole for content, which few designers opt to fill with further design or useful info.

DeviantArt: I’m a big fan of DeviantArt and have been a member since 2003. The portfolio offering does a lot of things right. This is different than the gallery on your DeviantArt page: please don’t send me there, it’s a mess. The basic structure of daportfolio.com is a list of categories, which take me into the projects or samples. The project images are nice and big, which is what I am looking for. The images roll through in slideshow format and I can usually get a good sense of your work in 10 clicks or less. My main gripe about daportfolio is they afford the designer little room for personality or personalization and the fixed-width/ non-responsive design is a bit dated.

Carbonmade: It’s generally a pleasure to view a Carbonmade portfolio, as they do much of what daportfolio does right — hierarchies and large images — but also allow the designer to express some of their style in the portfolio design itself. While some Carbonmade portfolios are put in a clickable slideshow, there is also an option for a scrolling presentation. I generally prefer to use the scroll wheel on my mouse rather than click to view content.

Visual.ly: I am certainly biased, but it’s worth noting that some sites are really geared to certain types of content. Often, video or interactives will be displayed poorly on the above sites. Likewise, infographics — which are often very tall — end up displayed awkwardly. If you have infographics in your portfolio, I suggest you get them on Visual.ly.

Recipe for a successful portfolio page

There seem to be portfolio sites popping up all the time so if they can follow this basic recipe, you can have a winner.

Use categorization. If you have 20 illustrations, 10 site designs and 6 infographics, group them! Ditto, if you have 5 projects for Coca-Cola and 4 for Adobe. This helps me get an overview of what I am looking at and I can focus on the quality of the work rather than deciphering the context.

Go big or go home! I suspect most creative directors like myself have some pretty big screens. Do not be afraid to use big images, even in thumbnails, to show off your work. Large images stimulate more of my cerebral cortex and if the work is good, this will easily put you in the “memorable” category.

Don’t get too fancy. Please refrain from unnecessary fading or moving effects; those just slow me down. They may impress a wide-eyed potential client, but it’s just friction to me. Krop uses this technique and it’s irritating as hell. Not the frame of mind you want me in when looking at your work.

Do you need the network? Many portfolio sites are network and community oriented. Dribbble is a great example and Behance goes down this road too. A community of your peers can be a great asset to your progression and networking ability but it’s superfluous to someone who is evaluating your work. Please do not send me any Dribbble profiles! I do suggest designers maintain an active Dribbble, Forrst or Behance account for the community benefits but also have a separate profile that they link to when showing clients or employers.

Your portfolio is an expression of yourself, but always remember the intended audience. If you are actively seeking clients or a job, you should try to stand out but err on the side of efficiency and ease of use. Employers who have a stack of 100 portfolios to go through will thank you for it, maybe with a job!


Jan 2013

marketing, visually

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Ballot Prop Round-Up: California

Rushed this one off the presses this morning.  Really interesting to see how much money it takes to defeat a popular idea (prop 37) and how much is hugely wasted pushing an unpopular one (prop 38).

Click or larger…

Nov 2012
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Visual.ly Marketplace launch

The Visual.ly Marketplace has launched today.  If you are looking for to get a professional infographic done, there is no better place.  I’ve hand selected designers to work with and we have a sweet project management system to back it all up.  This isn’t 99 designs and we are starting with a price point of $1,500 but you get what you pay for and we have a string of success to back it up.

Here is the official video.


This video will give you a bit more about the actual process.  Please pay no attention to the epic-overload into (it didn’t make the final cut).

Any questions you can certainly reach me at jess at visual.ly.

Oct 2012
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