I personally think “Design for the Real World” should be required reading. Yes, it starts off a bit bleak and contemptuous of contemporary (1970s) design but his point is that designers can make the world a better place and not just design junk that ends up in the trash.
Design has evolved (and Papanek updated the book admitting where he was wrong and right) but I think he still has a point: do you, the designer, really want to make the world a better place by finding and solving problems? Are you doing that by skinning junk products or designing things that you know are overpriced bits of plastic that will just end up in the trash?
Even if you think have no choice but to work for some outfit that designs stuff that just ends up in the garbage dump, why not donate some of your design skills/time to those who can’t afford a designer in the first place? My last doctor spent two weeks every year working at free clinics in poor countries, how much of your design time do you donate to people who need design but can’t afford design? Not everyone can follow Papanek’s ideal and go live in third-world countries for months at a time, but look around your home town or neighborhood for opportunities. Could you help teach drawing and basic design skills to schoolkids? Maybe donate some time to a local non-profit helping them redesign their cut-n-paste web site or their brochures made from InDesign templates?
Maybe you have a great idea that you’re just waiting to sell to the right investor — how about giving it away instead? Open-source software (and now hardware) is making a huge change for the better in the world as top engineers give away their work so that others may benefit.
What work have you given away?