Learning How to Learn

Question of the week #10

This week’s question comes from Hye Seon Jung, who wants to know, “After school, how can you improve your graphic design knowledge?”

First of all, I like the spirit of this question. Learning doesn’t stop with school, in fact in many ways that’s just where it begins. When you matriculate from college you will be armed with numerable skills but principal among them will be how to learn.

Knowing how to learn—and how to apply that learning to your chosen profession, passion and craft—will be essential to your ongoing development as a designer. There are countless sources for this knowledge and development. Here are a few:

1. On the job 
This is probably the most common and the most valuable. I learned more in my first year on the job than I did in all of school combined. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a ton in school, just that the ‘real world’ environment of the workplace helped contextualize much of that learning. An internship or design position in a firm, studio or in-house team that takes an active interest in their employees’ development will yield more practical knowledge than you can imagine. If you stay alert and engaged, if you look out for new opportunities, if you willingly accept all tasks (even the menial ones), if you embrace challenges and are unafraid to ask questions you will transform this knowledge into new skills. Pay attention. Don’t wear headphones. Take notes. Volunteer for research assignments.

2. Read
By now you should have already started a modest design library. Continue to build it. Buy one new design book every month, and read it. Subscribe to design publications like Communication Arts, Print and HOW. Subscribe to related periodicals like Eye (if you can afford it), Metropolis and Wired. Read the newspaper, select blogs, and other books and magazines that interest you—including fiction and poetry. If you start hearing multiple references to popular business books like The Tipping Point, Made to Stick, Freakanomics, Thinking Fast & Slow or the Steve Jobs biography, read them too. Read all the copy you typeset. If you design a book read it—then make sure to check out other books by that author. People write to share information and ideas. Every word is an opportunity to learn something.

3. Take classes
Just because you’re done with school doesn’t mean you’re done taking classes. Extension classes or evening or weekend workshops are a great way to practice a particular craft such as screen printing or letterpress, or develop additional skills in a particular area of design or technology. Online classes and tutorials are becoming increasingly popular (and available) too. You can take these classes on your own, but many employers will pay all or some of the fee.

4. Join a Community
I joined AIGA when I was still a student and have been a member for 16 years since. I’ve had many relationships with the organization — from volunteer, to student liaison, to member, to chapter president to conference speaker, judge, etc. In that time I’ve been both a vocal proponent and an outspoken critic but one thing has remained constant: involvement.

In my student days AIGA connected me with other students at CCAC and at other schools. Seeing their work and hearing about their challenges gave me perspective on my own. As a volunteer I learned about event planning and logistics, and developed relationships with other volunteers and professional designers, who then became part of a network that I could turn to for support, information and support (and I did). As a student board member I was able to meet regularly with designers and other professionals who helped demystify some of the design profession. I learned a ton about printing, for example, from then board members Ann Worthington, Lori Zarate and Heather Hitchcock — print and paper reps with whom I work to this day.

As a young professional and for the many years since, involvement with AIGA has expanded the network of designers I call ‘colleagues.’ If you’re engaged and open, you’ll learn a little something from everyone you meet and every conversation you have. For me AIGA has been the catalyst that facilitated thousands of these conversations, the sum of which add up to something greater than their parts.

So those are some of the ways to make sure learning doesn’t stop with school. Travel, involvement with other interests, and working with a mentor (something that has been invaluable to me) are some others. In general I’d say be curious, follow any thread that interests you, and ask questions as if your life depended on it — because it does.