Over my career in graphic design education I have interviewed many prospective students and have seen hundreds graduate. I have followed their careers as they have been promoted, started their own businesses and won awards. From this experience I can state the traits that are common to those I’ve seen become successful career designers.
Visual people are able to talk about visual things. They have opinions. They’ll move their hands a lot as they talk – manipulating imaginary images as we converse. Communicators with big personalities will do well in design provided they are talking about what they have done and not what they might do. Beware the talkers with no design work to show – suggest they do marketing instead. Curiosity is important because designers should always ask questions.
The person will show creative flair. This is particularly important for those wanting to become illustrators and photographers. Their portfolio will have pieces that have an experimental motivation.
Drawing skills are always good. I look for smooth stokes that show confidence and speed. Tight nervous strokes often reflect the personality or are traced! While awesome drawing ability is not mandatory every designer needs to be able to draw at some level – even if it’s just sketching layout wireframes. Other technical skills (like software skills) are useful, but not really that important because the student can learn these on the course.
What do they do in their spare time? I look for driven people who use their spare time for interests and pursuits. It’s a good sign if they are self-motivated enough to design outside of their school-work. It is also good to see a hobby, club, sport or other interest that they are involved with. Designers need to understand the special details of their target audiences so it helps if they are passionate about something (anything!) because they will realize that everything has a unique depth.
Good designers have a very strong work ethic. They are focused on getting things done. Students who are not prepared to work hard will usually do poorly in design. An ordinary work ethic with extraordinary creative flair will normally score in the C to B- range. Hard workers with average creative flair generally score B grades. Creative people with a strong work ethic score the A grades. The people scoring in the C grades might actually have been better off doing a fine-arts course because they have creative flair but methodical nature of the systematic design process might just put them off applying themselves in design. (The relationship between personality and grades is mildly-satirised in What do Design School Grades Mean?)
Designers must have an obsessive attention to details (The exception being that their spelling will often contain errors). The trick with good graphic design is to obsess over details until the practicality of delivering the project on time and on budget means that corners must be cut. It’s a fine balancing act – you want detail people who can turn off the compulsion at the right time. These people are the straighteners, fussiers and tidiers.
Graphic design is a diverse field with many different roles that suit different personalities and skill preferences. The above list is a guideline only but if you know somebody that exhibits many of the above traits then perhaps they might make a good designer.
Read "Should I study graphic design?" Jobs, Career and Money to look at employment prospects and some tips on choosing a design school.