"It is what you learn after you know it all that counts."
Over the past year I've read and participated in discussions about design school and the quality of education students currently receive, and thought it would be valuable to share some of my own experiences and what they've taught. The design program I attended in the '70s was a new start-up, with 30-to-1 student-teacher ratios until my senior year. We quickly learned that our instructors weren't equipped to teach everything we needed to know—quite the opposite. Our program's lead professor, in particular, was really behind the times and set in his ways. Disconnected from industry, he had little appetite for embracing new techniques, approaches and technological innovation.
Out of our collective dilemma, we pushed ourselves into new collaborations and individual inquiry, discovering how our profession was led and changing. The understanding and perspective gained has served us well throughout our careers and taught an important lesson—you can't be taught design in the traditional sense of lectures and labs, but you can learn it! We also learned that our design instructors functioned more like coaches—able to provide direction and strategy, offer the voice of experience and inspiration. However, developing and honing the skill set required a commitment to lifelong learning as an individual process.
As students, you must take every opportunity to enrich and optimize your education through inquiry. Having taught design courses myself, I know your instructors will appreciate you even more as they are introduced to new technologies, approaches, insights and experiences you bring to the classroom through this process...nearly as much as they'll take pride in your career achievements. Perhaps you'll even challenge them and they will have to respond in kind.
Be warned your design education will be difficult, painful and never-ending. That said, the reward of creation, of having your ideas become tangible and commercialized while helping improve life even in small ways is truly amazing. The learning pains are worth the rewards—purpose, energy, continual learning, constant challenge and the ability to help others—businesses, the environment and society. As you ready yourselves to the receptivity of learning once again I wanted to share three final thoughts:
1. Experience and failure teach the truly valuable lessons
2. You're not so special—unless you're solving the problems of others
3. You'll have to earn your perspective and that takes time
You'll learn more and retain more through individual experience if receptive to the lessons. Success is career-defining and lends both confidence and credibility to your future endeavors. However, like in most of life, you'll learn the most when things don't go as planned. Failure teaches you to think more holistically, while success often reinforces practices that worked in this instance, but won't translate to others. Be open to the lessons learned through these failures and you'll at least be prepared to not repeat them.
These days we're rarely designing for ourselves. Artistic egos will only hinder your success and you'll have to realize that you're not the focus of design—the consumer is. Remember that design with functional and emotional engagement is special, as are those designers able to remain user-centric regardless of the product or service offering being developed.
Finally, designers are increasingly hired for their perspective and ability to integrate with internal cultures to facilitate change, while incorporating external cultural insights to develop coveted offerings. These developments have laid the foundation for your careers to be more challenging and ultimately rewarding, but they also demand that designers develop a perspective—an approach to their design endeavors that repeatedly offers value, meaning and speed. Perspectives are shaped by your experiences and attitudes over time and the process has already begun. Embrace passionately what can be learned from respected colleagues, stay informed about trends, read varied news sources, really watch people, and make time to reflect on failure, yours and others. In doing so, you'll acquire the requisite perspective in no time.