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Four Key Traits for Designers
by Thomas Grove on 04/27/12 11:01:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

These are the traits that I look for when hiring designers. These are also the first things that I teach when training new designers.

Know What is Essential

Designers need to understand the soul of their product plus its constraints (including technology and platform limitations, budget, corporate goals, and their team's skills). Once they have an understanding of what they want to make, and what their constraints are, they can finally set about the task of providing solutions.

Communication

It is no good if only the designer knows what is essential; they must communicate that knowledge to the rest of the team. Designers must be able to communicate ideas verbally, in writing, and visually. They are in a key position to facilitate cross disciplinary communication within a team as they have one foot in the arts and the other in the sciences. They're a better programmer than most artists and a better artist than most programmers. They serve as a bridge, translating artist speak into engineering speak and vice versa.

Right Attitude

Designers must have an open mind. They need to be receptive to critique, others' ideas, and new ways of doing things. They should be eager to learn and to continually improve their skills and knowledge. They must be proactive in providing solutions.

This is the most important trait for newbies since it is the foundation for them getting good at any of the other traits.

Provide Solutions

At the end of the day, design is all about providing solutions. A good habit is to provide three solutions to every problem, stating the strengths and weaknesses of each solution. These solutions need to be presented through clear communication.


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Comments


Bart Stewart
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Agreed on all counts, particularly on not being so personally invested in one solution that one leaps to defend it against even the mildest questions.

I describe design as the process of converting a vision into functional systems. It's not about dreaming or selling the big dream, and it's not about implementing artwork or sound or code -- other people are better at those things. A good designer understands enough of those things, however, to imagine arrangements of art and sound and code that effectively realize the vision.

(Note that this is why I think producers should be co-equal to designers. The creative and the practical need to work together at the same level; when one trumps the other for any reason you either get dysfunctional systems or you never actually finish.)

Appreciation for the aesthetic and the technical (*and* the business if it's a commercial product), along with the satisfaction that comes from elegantly fusing these disciplines to help create a new thing, is what makes design so much fun. I've never tried to hire a designer, but I suspect that five minutes is the most it should take to decide if someone has "the designer mind" or not. The rest is just determining their skill level.

Gary LaRochelle
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I also agree with the basics of the article. But a small nit to pick...

"Designers need to understand the soul of their product plus the limitations of its technology..."

A designer should also know the limitation of the skills of the development team. A designer can come up with design features that have been accomplished in other games. But if the development team doesn't know how to pull off those features, the designer either has to change the design or hire someone capable of executing the design.

Thomas Grove
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I totally agree with both Bart and Gary: Knowing what is essential also means knowing the other project constraints such as business considerations (budget, time, competition) and team skills. I couldn't really think of an elegant way to say it but I'll make another go of it and revise the post.

Another reason why I left them out is that 95% of the GDs I hire are newbies and their first projects are porting projects, not creation. So they really do need to understand the device limitations of the phones they are porting to and they have to make sure that they don't lose the game's soul in the adaptation process, but everything they'll do is within the team's ability. For lead positions the points of taking team skill and business goals into consideration really start to matter.

Thomas Grove
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Ok, post updated. It is a bit less elegant but much more accurate :) Thanks for the feedback!

Brian Taylor
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I love these kind of articles, it actually encourages me to try harder. I'm majoring in IT - Programming and Game Development, and I try so hard to understand every detail about the development process of games and all the things that the different positions should look out for, be it the budget, the programming, art, audio, all the works. I remember me and one of my good friends chatting about where we wanted to be in the future if we get into the industry (not an 'if' for me, I'm making it my priority), and all he could say was "I want to be the guy that says 'build this, and that, do this, and that' and let them make my games for me". I just kind of laughed it off at first, and then got serious with him, haha. He ended up dropping out. : ( Great article!

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Those key points are pretty safe to say, since I don't know who'd disagree. But, the breakdowns are insightful. Of course, designers need to provide solutions, but the suggestion for offering three, complete with pros and cons, is good advice. Also insightful are the brief comparisons between the skillsets of different team members under Communication.

Thomas, you said, "These are the traits that I look for when hiring designers." What have you found to be the most effective ways people exhibit these traits?

Thomas Grove
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First candidates take an aptitude test. Then they interview. Then they have a two month probation during which they do about two weeks of training. So we have a few opportunities to see if the candidates fit our needs. Some of these traits are hard to prove but I'll try to outline some of the ways that we look for these to be exhibited.

Know What is Essential
Have a candidate play some games and then ask them to suggest removing some graphical elements or features and why they chose those elements. Hopefully they don't suggest anything core to defining the game.

Communication
We can see the quality of their writing in the test, their speaking in the interview, and there are also some opportunities for diagraming/labeling in the test. If we are unclear on a point we can ask them to explain in more detail to us. Sometime I ask them to show me what they mean on a white board.

Right Attitude
This one will come out in the probation period for sure. But you can also get some sense in the test or interview if they might be lazy. For instance, I don't think any of the test questions are very difficult, but sometimes people leave them blank. I'd like to see that they at least gave it a solid try. There is one question that is difficult for a lot of people but can be solved by almost anyone if given enough time. If it was done incorrectly I'll often times ask the candidate to re-do it for me. How do they respond to being asked to redoing something?

Provide Solutions
Quite a few of the test questions are asking the candidate to provide solutions. I care more about their thought process as to how they came up with the solution or why they picked the solution than the solution itself, so if that isn't obvious from their answer I will probe deeper in the interview.

The Wrong Answer
A lot of people like to talk about a game's story or art. When asked to specifically talk about the game rules or systems or activities they still talk about the story or art. They tend to like Final Fantasy :)

Also some people coming from QA are clearly only applying for an increase in salary and not because they want to be a designer.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Thorough and insightful, your answers are most appreciated. Much obliged.

JB Vorderkunz
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Very interesting stuff! I'm curious, have you noticed any demographic patterns, like age affecting attitude, or educational background affecting aptitude?

thx!

Thomas Grove
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The kids who went to really good schools tend to get near perfect scores on my test but also tend to be lazy. Everyone is in their early 20s so there really isn't an age demographic.

Those with competitive hard core gaming backgrounds are generally able to answer analysis and systems questions quite well. There is some data that suggests that they are also able to do well working on social games.

I don't know if someone who only played social games would indicate an aptitude at anything, maybe we'll learn more about that in the next few years.

JB Vorderkunz
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kewl beans. thanks for the response!

Gary LaRochelle
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"Everyone is in their early 20s so there really isn't an age demographic."

Are you saying that no one over 30 applies for game designer positions?
Or do you not hire people over 30?

Thomas Grove
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@Gary: We rarely have senior or lead openings since we tend to promote from within the ranks so 95% of new hires are junior positions.

Also, I'm in Vietnam. I'm not sure many people over 30 had exposure to games during their formative years; relations with the US and I assume Japan were only normalized about 15 years ago. All of the Vietnamese designers over 30 who I know are architects.

This is in stark contrast with my experiences in the USA where some of the studios didn't have any GDs younger than 30.

Rajveer Kothari
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I am sharing this article with my team. Really, really concise and well covered.

Bart Stewart
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> "Also, I'm in Vietnam."

Ah -- I gather that explains the colors of the logo design you use as your image here...?

One follow-up note to "The Wrong Answer" section: there are lots of different wrong answers. ;)

In other words, there are plenty of people who are more comfortable thinking and talking in terms of mechanics/rules than of story/emotion or world/logic or action/sensation, and so on. I believe a good designer (whether naturally or through experience) will appreciate all of those as being valid conduits for fun, and will be able to discuss how to apply some or all of them to any game vision.

----------------

On a related note, I've found it useful when working with technical people to get a feel for whether they're more like a scientist or an engineer.

The scientists will generally carry an attitude that for any problem there is an objectively perfect solution that completely solves that problem. They get frustrated and even bitter when anything interferes with implementing that solution. (Examples would be time or money constraints, leads or suits who use their power to dictate sub-optimal solutions, etc.) It's best to give these folks relatively short-term, well-specified tasks that call for very high levels of technical focus -- this gives them the best chance to be happy applying their unique skills and interests.

The engineers will usually favor a "good enough" solution to problems -- something that meets the requirements to within a reasonable margin of error. They get grumpy when they're given what they consider to be unreasonably tight or illogical requirements, or when Marketing oversells features. The best tasks for engineers are infrastructure and cross-functional systems that need to work but should be a little bit loose -- over-designed systems tend to break more easily than systems that can adapt to changing requirements.

And if you find people who are demonstrably good in both those modes? Hire them immediately, give them architectural and whole-system jobs, and *take their advice*. They will be worth every zorkmid you pay them and more.

Thomas Grove
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I just wanted to make something visually offensive :) Actually the colors are CMY (as in CMYK). But maybe I'll make a red and mustard version.

Thomas Grove
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more on The Wrong Answer: there are people who no matter how many times you try to steer them towards talking about design they keep talking about art. Then you're like "are you sure you don't want to apply to be an artist?" I had one guy, however, who had some programming background and was very interested in art. I think the ideal position for him would have been as a technical artist but we didn't have an opening for that so I hired him as a designer. He's doing fine.

Shern Chong
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Thomas, succinct article. Completely agree to what is highlighted. If we can share a bit of our experience in our studio, here's how the article can be followed up on, by adding some of what we learnt to an already concrete foundation written here. ---New stuff are laid out like this---, with minor shifting around of data to better present the nature of the additions.

(a big part of What is the Why, and I am by nature inquisitive so I hope you don't mind if I went ahead and put down what I understand of Why for each of your What, Thomas)


1. Know What is Essential – (I understand this heading best as 'Cognitive Discipline')

"Designers need to understand the soul of their product plus its constraints (including technology and platform limitations, budget, corporate goals, and their team's skills). Once they have an understanding of what they want to make, and what their constraints are, they can finally set about the task of providing solutions.

At the end of the day, design is all about providing solutions. A good habit is to provide three solutions to every problem, stating the strengths and weaknesses of each solution. These solutions need to be presented through clear communication."

---This is because a designer with a disciplined mind has logistical focus, a clear direction for all efforts, who grows comfortable with working within progressive limitations, is aware of cognitive traps in his game rules, and, can create emergent design framework each time his understanding expands.---

2. 'Thematic Perception'

---A designer must have an internal library of human understanding taken from outside material, personal involvement and contemplative insights. Culture, art, behavior, education, economics, aesthetics and so on, form one part of the designer tools, with another part being the ability to create mental constructs embedded within a game system for a person to interface for player agency.---

---This is because a designer who lives an enriching life, and understands other people’s lives, knows how to weave themes and powerful principles into the rules, mechanics, systems and aesthetics of a game. When this is done well, a player resonates with the game with increasing involvement, and allows the player to tap into her own self to exert her choices seamlessly into moments of play.---



[the two sections above touch on the inner landscape of a designer, and the two sections below delve into how a designer interfaces, or connects, with the outer landscape]



3. Communication – (I understand this heading best as 'Propagate Vision')

"It is no good if only the designer knows what is essential; they must communicate that knowledge to the rest of the team. Designers must be able to communicate ideas verbally, in writing, and visually. They are in a key position to facilitate cross disciplinary communication within a team as they have one foot in the arts and the other in the sciences. They're a better programmer than most artists and a better artist than most programmers. They serve as a bridge, translating artist speak into engineering speak and vice versa."

---This is because a designer is usually the most active agent in the early stages of a project, which determines the direction and essence of the later phases of development. The base of the entire project is the vision, which is intangible yet driving the energies of all participants towards a common goal of propagating the game, the digital construct of the vision itself. The transformative nature of the vision benefits not just the developers, but also the players. The passion, belief, focus and themes of a vision is, until otherwise, informally the responsibility and privilege of the designer to offer to the other members of his studio right at the start.---

4. Right Attitude – (I understand this heading best as 'Learning Posture')

"Designers must have an open mind. They need to be receptive to critique, others' ideas, and new ways of doing things. They should be eager to learn and to continually improve their skills and knowledge. They must be proactive in providing solutions.

This is the most important trait for newbies since it is the foundation for them getting good at any of the other traits."

---This is because a designer with a posture of learning attains great flexibility in the complex sea of operations that goes on within a studio. The best teachers are those who retain the open mindset of a student. A designer with a teachable mind responds to changes and problems with speed, intuition and interest. Each challenge that arises in a studio will not crush his resolve but instead feeds his spirit, expands his skills, and enriches his experience.---

Thomas Grove
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Thanks for the analysis Shern! I'll give my own plus maybe some comments:

1) Cognitive Discipline
Wow, I guess what you've stated does describe the work of design. It is a bit more philosophical than what I was going for though and I wonder how disciplined I really am.

Here's my why for Know What is Essential: because this discernment is the activity of design itself. It is picking option 1, instead of option 2 because you feel it is "better". I guess that's what you said too.

2) Thematic Perception
Lots of great designers recommend learning about stuff outside of games. To become well rounded so that you have lots of material to draw from. I agree.

3) Communication

Not only to Propagate Vision. That's a big part of it for sure, but designers can help in communicating much more mundane things as well. Also, it isn't just cross-discipline communication within the development team -- designers can help make arguments for a feature when responding to HQ/Publisher feedback and they need to know how their game is communicating to the end user. Level design, puzzle design, puzzle design, UI, menus, tutorials, story, combat design -- all of these things need to communicate clearly to the player.

4) Right Attitude
I agree with your why. This is like the zen story: A Cup of Tea. I like how you mention flexibility in addition to a teacher with a teachable mind. Some of the most talented designers who I know are not able to be the best designer in their organization due to a lack of flexibility.

Shern Chong
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Welcome, Thomas. The capacity to discern is already design, I can see that. Nicely done. Communication - Comm Design? Very valid. We won't have the privilege to be sitting with the player and explaining; we will have to rely on our work to speak with the player. Thanks for covering that. The 'Wrong Answer' section made me smile. We get that over here too, heh.


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