Once, while looking for a new gig, I met up with a couple of potential coworkers for food and drinks. We were chatting about their project, what I'd worked on previously, etc., and eventually started talking about recent tech news. At one point, I mentioned having found out about a story on Twitter.
“Oh, I don't use Twitter,” one of them said quickly, with disgust. “Oh? What about it don't you like?” I asked. “Well, I've never tried it,” he admitted, “but it seems pretty stupid to me.”
I pressed further and turned out he didn't know anything about Twitter. Literally didn't know how it works, why it's popular, etc. I was blown away. Not by his lack of knowledge, but rather by his lack of curiosity. It drives me crazy when a new app or service launches and I can't try it out right away. I was baffled that someone working in this industry didn't seem to care about one of the biggest and most influential services out there.
That's when I decided to add a new question to the list of questions I ask both when interviewing and when being interviewed:
“Have you heard of [new app/service]?”
To be clear, it doesn't matter if the answer is yes or no. If it's yes, I'll ask what they think of it and dive from there. If the answer is no, I'll look for the follow-up: “what is it?” And, once explained, will look to see if they push further, to find out why I brought it up in the first place. While everyone else out there is looking for Photoshop skills and interaction solutions. I'll be looking, primarily, for curiosity. The thing is, I can look at a portfolio and figure out your Photoshop ability. And sure, we could (and probably will) whiteboard a design problem just to make sure you think critically. But if you're not intellectually curious, none of that stuff matters.
And if you're intensely curious, I tend to worry less about those other skills. Over and over I watch great designers acquire new skills and push the boundaries of what can be done through sheer curiosity and force of will. Curiosity forces us to stay up all night teaching ourselves a new Photoshop technique. It wakes us up in the middle of the night because it can't let go of the interaction problem we haven't nailed yet. I honestly think it's the single, most important trait a designer (or, hell, anyone working in tech) can possess.
It's not a nice-to-have. It's not optional. It's required. Put it on your job postings, make it part of your interview loops, embrace it as part of your companies' cultures. When you're surrounded by driven and creative people with a constant thirst for knowledge, you'll be glad you did. And when you're surrounded by apathy, you'll be sorry that you didn't.