Future-Proofing Your Creative Career: The Skills You Will Need

July 17, 2020
Career Development

It’s Nice That recently partnered with Adobe to identify the skills you will need to succeed in the ad and marketing industries this decade! We read all 48 pages of the survey and compared it with our data to break the findings down into clear evidence as to where to safely and fruitfully invest your time for learning.

Categorized by Foundational Skills, Skills in Demand, Learning Skills, Future Skills, and Balancing Skills, the insights presented in the report are unique and valuable. So, which will help you advance your career or carry you into a new role?


Decades ago, it was enough to specialize in one skill—copywriting or animation, for example—to earn a living in the creative world; things have changed since then.

Almost 75% of the survey's respondents say developing a 'T-shaped' skill set is the best way to future-proof your career.

What are T-shaped skill sets?

The term, invented by influential consultants at McKinsey in the 1980s, means to have a broad range of knowledge and experience but expertise in a particular area. In other words, a generalist with some specialization.


Read what agency leaders and designers have to say about the T-shaped skill set:

"If you're a specialist in something, your self-confidence does grow. It really depends on your career path. I'd say to work at a creative agency, you definitely have to be more of a generalist. Of course, we do work with loads of specialists, but we tend to seek them out for certain projects. But I don't know if in our industry, or even our agency, there would be space for a super-specialist unless they had other skills to bring to the table."

  • Ana Balarin, Executive Creative Director at Mother London

"...we’ve been looking for a brand designer specifically, but we’re still hoping that that person can also jump around on more flexible projects – not be expected to lead, but to assist. I guess that’s what the T-shaped model is really, being really good at something, but you can help out with something else!"

  • Michelle Phillips, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Studio Yukiko

"I’m definitely team generalist over specialist... For example, VR and AR are important, but you could argue that without UX, we can’t create meaningful AR/VR experiences that people find easy to use or understand."

  • Chrystal King, Product Designer at Depop

With the idea of T-shaped skill sets clearer in your mind, remember that you want to be agile as a professional. This is why a majority of respondents (38%) chose collaboration as the soft skill most essential to career advancement.

Let's say you're a UX designer who can assist with a project using InDesign. You may not be highly skilled with InDesign, but you have enough knowledge that you can contribute to the finished product. If you can work with other members of your team or agency with generalized skills such as these, in addition to your specialty, you'll stand out in a crowded field of applicants and creative professionals!


Among all the respondents surveyed, 53% believe that future digital skills are the most beneficial to learn for career advancement. Notably, 54% also hold the view that future digital skills will be the most helpful for attracting new clients. Furthermore, 66% assert that digital skills are currently the most in-demand. To add some context, film studios are increasingly relying on freelancers for tasks such as motion graphics, animation, and video editing.

Breaking it down:

  • Future digital skills encompass augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics, and the internet of things.
  • In-demand digital skills include coding, web design, digital typography, UX and UI design.
  • Future film skills involve 3D modeling and printing.

Returning to the T-shaped skill set model, note that you don't have to specialize in all of these areas, but having a solid foundation in at least one is your best bet. As the acclaimed graphic designer Marina Willer, a partner at Pentagram, aptly puts it, "It's about having a family of skills; there isn't one single skill that becomes more important than others."

An added benefit of teaching yourself to be competent or familiar with some of these in-demand and emerging skills, aside from your specialty, is that you'll possess knowledge that your colleagues and fellow job seekers most likely do not. So, while it may seem like the time invested in learning a skill is less valuable than time devoted to job seeking, you're actually gaining a competitive advantage over other applicants.


What complicates this are the balance sheets that run our lives; whether you're employed or not, we're all subject to what the report calls 'VUCA'—a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous industry. Adding to this reality is that current in-demand skills, and even future digital skills, are, as Marina added, "a picture of our times. You can't just think of ideas as flat and static; the world isn't like that anymore."

If you're job searching while unemployed, this seemingly endless evolution of skills may raise some concerns. Have no fear, because this is where you could actually have a slight edge over job seekers who are employed: 74% in the survey said that a lack of time was the greatest obstacle to learning a new skill.

There was near-uniform agreement between junior and senior creatives—77%, to be exact—that time for learning should be better integrated into the workday.

When freelance work is hard to find, taking a class to develop a skill is an opportunity that those juggling the needs of agencies and clients tend to miss out on.


Those who can teach themselves thrive in creative industries. Due to the ever-growing demands of clients and thinning budgets agencies have to work with, it's unclear when learning will be centered in day-to-day agency or brand-side work. What we're getting at is that self-instruction is a necessity in your creative career.

Almost 50% of junior creatives in the survey answered that they taught themselves their foundational skills. Half of senior professional respondents believe employers want juniors to have more hard skills today than when senior pros began their careers.

According to the survey respondents, the most necessary skills for junior creatives are:

  • Graphic design (84%)
  • Image editing (70%)
  • Layout design (68%)
  • Motion design and editing (42%)

Knowing what to learn is half the challenge; the other half is knowing how to learn. Katy Kent, a learning facilitator and team coach at YCN, would like you to know that many of us forget "40% of what we've learned in just 20 minutes."

Instead, try to review the material at least three times over one month. Katy explains that by incorporating "follow-ups and ways of monitoring training," you’ll remember close to 60% of what you learn after 30 days. Whether you're taking an online class, watching a tutorial, listening to a podcast, or reading a report, build in these times to review what you're absorbing.

When you're able to explain what you're learning to someone with no experience in the subject and to someone with expertise with equal clarity, you'll know you're well on your way to learning a new skill!


Wrapping it all up, the skills most beneficial to industry success—for the moment—are digital, future digital, and film. According to the T-shaped skill set, you want to specialize in at least one skill while having competency in at least one other, such as UX or virtual reality.

Succinctly put by Hermeti Balarin, co-ECD at Mother, "At a creative advertising agency, generalism has been the order of the day for the past 10 years." Rather than meaning that you have to give up your passion, however, it instead means, "You have to be outstanding in one of your skills." The trick is to be as well-rounded as possible!

Stay curious and forward-thinking,