In college, we’re mainly taught in hypotheticals; a definitive past allows for the luxury of analysis and speculation of an unknown future, sure to be shaped by our hands. Graduates are schooled in the fine art of the “what if.”

But for those with hurdles beyond the (somewhat indulgent) intellectual ones to jump, AIGA has offered the Worldstudio AIGA Scholarship since 1995 to underserved design students who are in financial need (the next application deadline closes May 1, by the way). After all, we hear a lot about white, Swiss designers—and not to knock our Western European friends, but we know how many other voices there are out there, and we want to hear from them.

Previous scholarship winners have gone on to become game-changing designers and artists. Case in point: Pentagram partner Eddie Opara (won in 1996), fashion designer Long Tran (2009), photographer Ka-Man Tse (2007), and designer Willy Wong, formerly chief creative officer at NYC & Company (2003). And this year, they’re among the first to contribute to AIGA’s first-ever Design Editions, a select group of curated pieces available at our annual AIGA Gala, when we honor the top innovators in design with the AIGA Medal.

Now that these expert designers and artists have the ability to reflect, they have some sage advice to pass on about the challenges they faced when they were first coming up, how they got to where they are, and what their Design Edition means to them. Do you have a pen handy? I recommend jotting down a few notes.

When you don’t know who you are
When Eddie Opara applied to (and was awarded) the Worldstudio AIGA scholarship in 1996, he was newly arrived to Yale from London, homesick, and, after failing to extend his inward-looking undergrad dissertation “into something worthwhile,” was trying to figure out who, exactly, he was.

“My graduate thesis was based upon personas as rendered on the world wide web. It’s all about multiplicity and that’s pretty much coming true. We don’t have one persona—we have many.” That was an intuitive hypothesis to submit what is now 20 years ago—but also is an important insight for looking at oneself: have the patience for trial and error.

Eddie Opara 2006

After graduating, Opara worked for a start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I didn’t give a shit about going to New York City as much as I should have until the [dot-com] bubble burst in ’99. But I thought, ‘I’m not doing anything that interests me.’”

So what do you do when you don’t know what your next step should be? For Opara, he thought, “Let’s throw a coin up in the air and see what happens.” With talent as a safeguard, Opara left it to chance. Upon arriving in New York, Opara secured a position as a designer at Imaginary Forces, then moved to 2×4, and from there, became principal of his own firm, The Map Office. “I didn’t have a plan until I got married,” Opara said, “I didn’t really have a five-year plan. And after those five years [passed], I got a call from Pentagram.” The coin landed lucky-side up.

When it comes to professional development, Opara’s noticed what he calls an impatience “with getting up there.” He continued, “I worry about that. I’ll see ‘art director’ on a résumé and think there’s no way they know everything that’s involved in being an art director. And there’s a lot of sameness. Schools are churning out students for money and profit but it’s the same old over and over again.”

London Riots Eddie Opara
Opara’s second cartogram for AIGA’s Design Editions depicts the varying intensity of the London Riots in 2011, which Opara felt traditional geo-set maps (like Google Maps) were not able to capture.

However, what Opara calls a “beautiful sense of ignorance” can be broken, and it mirrors his grad school approach of looking to others to understand oneself: travel.

“I know that’s easier to say. If you can travel, go to other countries and see how they design,” said Opara. “It just opened me up. You don’t have to go on a student tour. Fuck that. Walk into a studio around lunch time. If you’re timid, call or write a letter and go to small studios and have a sit down conversation. It’s a big family, design. We’ll never lose that. From their methodology, you’ll find your own.” And that seems like a great place to start, no matter the direction in which you head.

When you know who you are
Much like her own work, Ka-Man Tse, a photographer and lecturer at Parsons The New School, Cooper Union, and Yale, explored the theme of “margin” when creating her Design Edition.

“I immediately thought of being on the margins and the marginalized—questions of longing and belonging, and how to navigate those things,” Tse explained. I pointed out to Tse that she dealt with interstitial spaces in her scholarship application from 2007, photographing Hong Kong airports as a temporary space through which people move, and Tse responded with some colorful language: “Shit,” she said, “Am I making the same picture over and over again?”

WS-scholarship KaMan Tse
Photograph from Ka-Man Tse’s scholarship submission in 2003.

But if Tse recognizes the strong thematic threads through her body of work, there’s reason for it: “[Lack of representation] has always been an issue—the lack of protagonists. Who’s imaged? And by whom, and how? It’s impossible to see the Asian Pacific Islander (API) and queer API community. Things have shifted in the last 10 years, but at the same time I need to make these images because I don’t see them.”

The fact that Tse has been so consistent over the years speaks to the kind of work ethic she feels emerging designers should adopt. “What’s worked for me is being true to myself and getting away from compartmentalization,” Tse said. “Instead of working in mutually exclusive communities—teaching, art, practice, LGBTQ, and API—work in a way so it all feeds together.”

“So many people have imposter syndrome. You have to unlearn it. In the arts, asking questions is a good thing—not a vulnerability. I believe in radical vulnerability,” Tse said. And like Tse, you may come to the realization that you have a clearer sense of vision than you once supposed.

“Sai Wan Piers,” photograph by Ka-Man Tse for her Design Edition.

When you have growing pains
When fashion designer Long Tran received the scholarship in 2009, he had already come a long way: originally from Vietnam, Long moved to rural, western Kansas with his family when he was 13. To pursue a career in fashion design he moved again, this time to Chicago to study at Columbia College Chicago.

As Tran said in his original application’s statement of purpose, “Even though my parents did not want to leave their homeland, they saved money, gave up their jobs and left behind their families so that we could move to America. I feel a sense of duty to finish my education and to be successful. This motivates me to be the very best I can be.”

men shoe vamfim
Men’s shoe detail. Image courtesy Long Tran.

Indeed, boundaries of any kind do not seem to stop him; Tran had a clear vision of where he was going, and he was moving fast to get there by setting an ambitious goal for himself: to start his own brand by the time he graduated, and have his first show within the same year. But when you set your sights and your expectations so high, how do you navigate the hurdles that come along the way?

“When I applied for this scholarship the biggest challenge I faced was fear,“ Tran said. But those fears can be either allayed or channeled by two key tactics: maintaining focus, and surrounding yourself with a network that supports you. “Giving up, losing direction, and not focusing on the goal is the biggest reason people don’t make it,” Tran said. “It’s all about the mindset you use to approach challenges and difficulties. Build a healthy belief in yourself, surround yourself with positive people, and don’t give up.”

Image by Long Tran.

When you’re grown
When Willy Wong applied for the scholarship in 2003, he was encouraged to do so by his professor at Yale, who taught him to “think about visual language as part of the wider popular culture.” It seems that is something that has stayed with Wong ever since, and is a valuable piece of advice to remember when you feel you’ve reached the apex of your career: you can grow outward as well as up.

“We all have a diverse career path,” Wong said. “[At the time,] I was concerned that I had jumped from field to field. Now, it’s commonplace to move from job to job or to freelance. I tell my students: ‘Keep a sense of purpose and bring it wherever you go… It may be that you’re increasing your skill set to bring to another role where you’ll fit better. You don’t know where your future is headed, so increase your network, and learn who you are.’” By the time Wong was pursuing an MFA at Yale, he had a broad career already—in tech, finance, and design. Now he wanted to learn design as a way to effect change.

So when Wong accepted the offer for his former position at NYC & Company, he understood that “as designers, we were a Trojan horse, with functional capabilities and a seat at the table with a different point of view of assets. The space of designers [is] expand[ing]. Designers are now having founding roles in start-ups and are having influence in different fields” beyond design.

Willy Wong’s Design Edition. To Wong, it exemplifies his approach to design work: there’s the initial quick read, but beyond that he aims to layer in as many ideas as possible. In this case, the ping-pong set is a fun idea on the surface, but dig deeper and it points to change, community, and bridging divides.

The theme of Wong’s Design Edition is “modulation,” and the piece itself, a set of custom-designed ping-pong balls, is a riff on the idea of “ping-pong diplomacy”—that through sport, you can bridge cultural differences. “I looked at ‘modulation’ as change; as ‘progress,’ which is change for the better,” Wong said. “We’re in a time in history when we need a form of subversion; a changing of minds in a subtle way—and this is an example of that.”

So maybe our idea of a standard career journey needs to be changed: it’s easy to visualize a 2-D line graph; with that line we view as progress moving elegantly and swiftly up and across the page. But we grow in latitudes, and sometimes, in ways that can’t be quantifiable within two axes. “Be helpful and provocative in places we haven’t been before,” said Wong—and while the future might be unknown, it just might be yours.