How My Geography Major Prepared Me to be a Product Designer

I am a Geographer-turned-Product Designer. In interviews and otherwise, many people ask me how this came about. I happen to think that the transition is a rather natural one. After all, Geography examines how humans shape environments and vice versa. I am sharing my story to encourage and motivate Geographers to consider a design career (or at least not to disqualify themselves from it). I also want to encourage those hiring to consider candidates with a Geography background.

What is Geography?

When people find out that I majored in Geography, the first question many ask is: “What’s the capital of [insert country name here]?” And while I know many world capitals, I didn’t learn them in my Geography courses at Dartmouth.

Here’s how my department describes the field:

Geographers study the material and symbolic transformation of the earth in relationship to both human and natural processes. In keeping with contemporary global shifts in culture, the environment, politics and economics, the boundaries of the geographic discipline are dynamic. For example, environmental change, international development, globalization, and new spatial technologies exemplify important arenas of study in geography. Theories of space, scale, location, place, region, mobility and displacement allow geographers to critically analyze change in both human and physical environments. Geography is both a natural science and a social science as it examines people and their environment and serves as a bridge between the physical and cultural worlds.

Is anyone starting to see the connection between Geography and user experience yet?

Geo Skills as Design Skills

I can confidently say that every single course I took for my major has benefitted my design career. To graduate, I was required to study cultural-social (e.g. geopolitics and third world development), GIS (Geographic Information Science — spatial analysis and mapping), nature-society courses (e.g. food and power) and physical geography (e.g. geomorphology). All this culminated in a two-quarter senior seminar focused on qualitative research methods.

Many of my courses focused on international development and geopolitics. I was drawn to them, because we often discussed how development institutions (e.g. World Bank, USAID) were blind to the actual needs of those they were trying to serve, and, instead, created ineffective “developmental solutions” rooted in their own biases and assumptions about the needs of the people in these communities. A different approach, of course, would be to start by understanding the problems from the point of view of those they wanted to serve. This was the academic version of Human-Centered Design and I didn’t know it.

In my GIS courses, I learned about spatial data and how to represent complex trends visually to communicate a message. I learned about databases and other technological foundations, which later on allowed me to speak to developers intelligently. I also learned about the importance of visual communication, which serves me to this day in my design work.

One of the most valuable pieces of my education was my department’s emphasis on research and storytelling. They encouraged (and sponsored) me to conduct field studies to truly understand existing problems, my own biases, and then to tell other people’s stories.

The combination of research, visual/spatial thinking, and social science theory created a meaningful foundation for my future career in product design.

What I Would Do Differently to Prepare Myself for a Design Career

I don’t have regrets, but if I were to go to college all over again, there are a few things I’d do differently.

First, I’d enroll in that Design Thinking course at the Engineering School. At the time, I was convinced I would go into academia, so I naturally focused on political philosophy and similar courses. However, I think this course should be fundamental to any new grad and I would encourage everyone to take it.

Second, I wish I gave myself permission to be creative. That’s where I have had to catch up the most as a designer. I didn’t take art classes in college, because I thought they weren’t worth the tuition costs and that I should focus on more “serious” things. In retrospect, an art class or two would have fundamentally changed my path to design. I’ve done art and visual design classes since (such as pencil drawing and basics of graphic design), and seen how valuable they have been.

Alternatively, I could have spent more time in the Jewelry Studio or signed up to do graphic design for a campus publication. There are so many options on campus to create, it’d be a pity not to take advantage.

Finally, and most importantly, I would not tie myself to a specific career track. Geography attracts many “do-gooders”, those who want to positively impact the world, give voice to the voiceless. I’ve seen many Geography majors put themselves on the academia/public sector/ international development/ NGO track without ever considering the direct positive impact they could have in the private sector. That’s how I approached it as well. I wanted to be a professor. I realize now that if I had kept an open mind, I could have diversified my internship experiences and coursework to make the transition to a private sector career easier.

Advice to Geographers Exploring Tech

There are many different ways to design, especially the newer fields like Product Design. If you’re a Geography major interested in exploring a design career, you should absolutely do it and not discount yourself because of your non-traditional background, or because “you didn’t do graphic design”, or you aren’t “creative”. Just like other social sciences, Geography taught you critical thinking, research and social theory, all of which are essential to design. You’ve spent time thinking about visual communication. In addition to that, Geography taught you to think about the contextual dimensions (cultural, spatial, environmental), which are incredibly important to developing products and services.

That said, visual foundation is helpful in addition to the research and critical thinking skills I outlined above. So take those extra GIS and mapping courses, where you can design beautiful maps to communicate important information. Or sign up for a graphic design course.

In Product Design, diverse perspectives are essential to building effective and useful products. Geographers can bring fresh ideas and relevant skills to create solutions that meaningfully and positively impact end users.