Being a professional designer means you’re always learning on the job, extending and expanding your repertoire of expertise from prior contexts via the current situations as they unfold. Inherent is the notion of being a “reflective practitioner” (echoing Donald Schon) channeling what you’re observing, hearing, and doing into valuable lessons safely stored for future use. (Or you might publish them on a blog for the community at-large ;-)
Learning happens in other ways too, not just through skills workshops or reading books. It’s vital to be constantly learning from the people you’re working with, including those that inspire you, and perhaps even frustrate or anger you.
Below is a proposed framework of identifying a range of personal learning sources, beyond the commonly valued “Mentor”:
Peers: Co-workers who enable a kind of ambient, incidental learning in immediate context through conversations, collaborations, and creative outputs. Tends to be more free-form and serendipitous.
Leaders: Senior-level individuals managing or directing you or your teams and projects. You can learn from their observed actions and statements, how they communicate, convey and embody their values/goals/beliefs, particularly in times of stress and challenge, while confronting obstacles or new unsavory information. Leaders can become an effective role model or a mirror for what not to do, as well.
Mentors: Highly experienced professionals who may be assigned (or requested), whose relationship is a targeted one, with dialogue specific for your professional needs. Mentors serve as a coach or critic that challenges your assumptions and beliefs, offers healthy skepticism, and generally raises other considerations, as well as useful validation and personal encouragement. They are considered the sage guide with a personal connection for you and your career.
(Note: lately there has been popular business world discussion of having “Sponsors” beyond just Mentors, who can actively enable your professional ambitions and growth tracks in a more participatory manner…Hmm!)
Heroes: Ideal, loftily held up figures of prominence, perhaps some proven legendary status via rigorously developed, esteemed body of work or significant influence. This is most likely someone you have never meet in person (and probably never will…and it could be someone who has died long ago as well), but you feel some kinship to their philosophy, vision, work ethic or temperament. Heroes are aspirational, certainly not perfect…but they hold admirable qualities that you resonate with individually and want to express in your own work.
Villains: Yes, this sounds dramatic but there are certain individuals that we simply don’t like and strongly disagree with, who hold a contravening point of view that clashes with our deeply held beliefs…but you can learn from them too! It’s not just “negative learning” of what not to do, but by studying their ways, applying a Socratic method to their suspicions and challenges, you can discern some kernels of wisdom. And remember the old saying “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”—and in the game of design, it’s often a back-and-forth game of politics and influence, nothing personal just business ;-) Villains can be very useful to your career development, without their knowing it.