Being late spring, it’s that time of the year when hundreds of newly minted design graduates join the “real world” of design practice. So what would I say to someone eager to join the community of professionals dedicated to improving the human condition through useful/usable/desirable products and services? Other than some pithy trite axiom, I’d rather plant the seeds for reflective engagement in the spirit of Donald Schon’s “reflective practitioner”What kind of designer do you aspire to be? This question is often in the back of my mind when starting new projects or with a new employer.

The kind of designer you are/will be is dependent, I believe, upon the following set of questions pertaining to some of the fundamental elements of “being a designer”:

* What kind of Questions intrigue you? Tactical (tools and techniques and matters of tangible craft), or Strategic (lifecycles, flows, process, architecture, etc.) or Conceptual (the “what ifs” and “why nots”, envisioning new paradigms and possibilities, not necessarily practical but to provoke new thoughts and attitudes, or anticipate novel directions)

* What kind of Problems and Domains excite you? Financial data visualization? Healthcare service improvement? Enterprise tools for business analysts? Lifestyle devices for consumers? Automotive telematics? (hint: there’s a TON of design potential in the non-consumer sectors that desperately need a consumer-oriented outlook to tap into it!)

* What kind of Artifacts do you like to work on? Interpretive (site maps, object models, taskflows, product architecture diagrams), Exploratory (wireframes, visual comps, prototypes), or Implementation (production assets, documentation, etc.)

* What Activities and Phases do you prefer and excel at? The upfront discovery phase of research and domain/problem analysis, with ethnographic studies? Intermediate phases of conceptual sketching and brainstorming and iteration? Later phases of production and implementation and documentation? Are you better at evolving existing designs, expanding features and markets, or envisioning new paradigms?

* What Purposes motivate you as a designer? Or in other words, why do you design in the first place? To make something really cool? To demonstrate improved usability and better user experience benchmarks? For cultural expression and advancement of the field? To become a rockstar celebrity with idiosyncratic quirks?

These questions will undoubtedly lead oneself on a path of discovery and understanding about what it is that drives you as a designer and the evolution of your philosophy/outlook/attitudes and also those values/principles that anchor you as a designer.

The wonderful and sometimes frustrating thing about the design profession at-large is the diverse plurality of perspectives across a wide range of intellectual traditions (social sciences, fine arts, engineering, business) but that’s what makes the conversations so stimulating and the possibilities for learning and growth so rich.

To all newly graduated designers and those seeking a refresher on your paths, asking deep and serious questions will enable an amplified sense of your goals and desires…to truly discover who you really are as a designer! And believe me, this is no easy thing, will take years, decades even. I myself am still just starting out after 8+ years of doing this…but it’s an incredible ride no matter what.