Last June, I received an email from M–, a creative director at a local design firm:

Hi K—
I took a look at the UW website for this year’s [graduation] show—–some good work in there. Would you mind sending a few of the best students my way? We’re looking for interns, and I’d love to talk to whoever you think is on the top of the heap (both in terms of work and attitude). Hope all is well.

I was bit peeved at what I thought was an unwarranted sense of entitlement (after all, this is a studio that has a major account for dog food packaging). But hey, at least they are hiring during the recession! And I suppose no sensible person actively seeks to employ the bottom of the heap (or even the middle of the heap). One mustn’t be judgmental, all projects are worthy, it’s hard to find clients with money, etc. Therefore, after grousing to my colleagues (and anyone else who would listen), I eventually sent back a list of names, along with some insincere good wishes.

But later, I began to think about being “on top of the heap”—in terms of both work and attitude. What does that mean, really?

Of course, it’s easier to define what makes a good attitude. Are you easily frustrated or unnecessarily anxious? Find it difficult to take criticism? Plagued by negativity? Tend to procrastinate? If so, switch majors! The design field is not for you. Every design project (even a sack of dog food) requires the development of multiple variations in concept and form. Your ideas will be questioned and negotiated in minute detail over numerous client discussions. To survive, you need to stay positive, flexible and resilient in the face of adversity. Good designers learn to see problems and restrictions as opportunities in disguise (although some private whining to friends is quite understandable).

Now, for the more difficult question: What kind of design work is at the “top of the heap”? At the most basic level, I suppose this means design that looks good. But of course, looking good means many things to many people. I personally prefer a modernist aesthetic—hard edges, use of grids, strong contrasts, clarity of composition. I know this isn’t everyone’s ideal, and I’m always nervous when dealing with designers who worship other gods (the god of grunge, the god of irrational whimsy, the god of dancing sprites, for example). I once received an e-mail from a designer at Starbucks, who chastised our program for failing to produce graduates who could embrace the Starbucks visual brand attributes, which were: “handcrafted, artistic, sophisticated, human and enduring.” I like to think our program has some humanity – and even some sophistication – but I suppose not everyone agrees. At any rate, there’s no point in sending these sorts of complaints. No school can be all things to all people, and anyway, one must teach from one’s own design philosophy. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to change design religions.

Perhaps when looking for the top of the design heap, it’s wiser to think about design on a deeper level than style (or brand attributes). The graphic designers that I admire certainly have control over aesthetics (they know how to make things look good), but I admire them most for their ability to really surprise you with interesting ideas. Sometimes a good idea is transformative—it makes a mundane product into a surprisingly appealing object of interest. Other times, a good idea is analytically brilliant—it works to simplify or clarify a complex topic. Some of the best design ideas are visual concepts—for example, graphic marks that can simply yet eloquently communicate the essence of an organization.

Finding a designer who can come up with smart ideas is much harder than finding a good visual stylist. You are searching for an individual who combines visual judgment with intelligence—someone who has curiosity about the world and an understanding of the different tribes, cultures and societies that populate it. You’re looking for someone who is a good listener, who can figure out what it is that a client really needs (not always what clients think they need). And of course, you’d probably like to have someone who works hard, is disciplined, is organized, is ethical, pays attention to detail and takes responsibility for his or her actions. Is this too much to ask? Probably. Therefore, this magical paragon, as described above, only lives in the rarified air at “the top of the heap.”