How to Design for the Next 50 Years, Starting Now

Filed Under: Inspiration , mentoring , students , advice

It has never been easier to think 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 is 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.

Jessica Helfand is a partner at Winterhouse and a founding editor of Design Observer. In 2013 she was recognized as an AIGA Medalist. This essay was first featured in AIGA’s Survey of Design Salaries.

About the Author:

Jessica Helfand is an award-winning writer, educator and designer. A partner with William Drenttel in Winterhouse Institute and a founding editor of Design Observer,  she is a former columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines and has written for numerous national publications including Aperture, Los Angeles Times Book Review and The New Republic. She is the author of several books including Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture, Reinventing the Wheel and Scrapbooks: An American History. A previous appointee to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee where she chaired the design subcommittee, she is a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame and, with William Drenttel, was the first-ever recipient of the Henry Wolf Residency at the American Academy in Rome. A visiting artist at numerous Universities in the US and abroad, Jessica Helfand currently teaches at Yale University where she is Senior Critic in the School of Art and a Lecturer in Yale College. In 2013, she was awarded the AIGA Medal.