Experience the world beyond your computer
It has never been easier to think that the world is your oyster simply because you sit, day after day, staring at a computer screen. And there's never been a more misguided way to think about design in the 21st century.
Like music, design is an international language, and it's evident in everything from text to textiles, shelter to shopping. How we communicate in foreign places stems from the ways in which we engage material culture—not popular culture, but the real, tangible, material worlds inhabited by millions of people you've never met.
Ignore them at your peril, because they're going to be your next audience.
As a student, your job is to learn how to learn; this means training your eye, your hands, your mind. Yet as you hone your craft, you must keep your eye on a much more distant goal, but a much more relevant one—and that is need.
What do people actually need? How can a designer meet that need? How can you actually observe what people need—and where and when and how they need it? Finally, how might you begin to think about design as a combination of the known (read: your education) and the unknown (read: the real world) and approach it as a kind of robust, international language?
You can begin by contemplating a departure from your comfort zone, and going out into the world to see for yourself. Apply for every travel grant you can. Get out there and look. Be strong and listen. Be brave and ask tough questions. Be humble and participate in that which seems so other. Be bold and immerse yourself in a culture that is not your own. This is what it will mean to be a designer in the next 50 years. Start now.
This essay originally appeared in the 2010AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design Salaries.