He spoke of a changing industry where "creatives" were no longer stuck in the wacky room at some large corporate entity but were now responsible for crafting products from beginning to end. Forget consulting work, now anyone could create a thing and sell it on their own. Illustrators learning sales forecasting. Designers learning media buying. Writers building widgets.
How does someone learn new things like this?
By being curious.
The CEO of a company I worked at in the 90s was talking to me about their new website I had built. We talked about some tagline and copy adjustments and out of the blue he fired up an FTP client and dove into the HTML. He had 20 years of experience in sales and didn't know RAM from ROM, but he told me he read some web design tutorials and "knew enough to be dangerous."
He learned something new, on his own, just because.
Learn New Things
You've heard this story before: a "product guy" has an idea but can't do anything with it unless he finds a designer and a coder to make it a reality. Or how about this one: a designer has the grandest ideas and mockups for iPhone apps but has never written one line of code. Or a coder that makes interfaces that look like a FrontPage template. Or user experience professionals who can only make wireframes, not real designs.
What's the common thread throughout all these examples? A lack of curiosity.
Just because your business card says you do X doesn't mean you can't dabble in A, B, C or Y in your spare time. Designers should learn how to code a bit. Hackers should learn the fundamentals of good design. Business guys should learn enough about technology that they don't sound uninformed. Technology folks should learn about finance and economics. Web designers should learn the basics of print design. Print designers should learn how to make a webpage. Marketers should have a deep knowledge of how their products work.
If you do something and then hand it off to someone else, learn about what the next person is actually doing. Talk to them, read books, subscribe to blogs, be curious. Learn in your spare time. Have a side project that makes you uncomfortable. Force yourself to figure things out. Get just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
How I Learned About Design
I've been designing professionally for many years but I have no classic design training. I drew some things as a kid but never considered myself an artist. I learned and experimented and played and worked for many years to develop good design taste and it wasn't an overnight thing.
Here's how I taught myself about design: I read every single design book in my college's bookstore. I'm not lying. There was a huge, comfy, leather chair in the bookstore and there were 4 gigantic shelves filled with design, art and typography books. Every day after class I'd stop in, pick up a few books where I had left off, and retire to the comfy chair to poke through them. I didn't read every word, but I did look at every page and tried to absorb what I was seeing. It took the entire fall semester but I finished the entire section.
And when I was done I started reading programming books. And science books. And math books. And business books. And anything else that looked interesting.
Because I was curious.