I had the rare privilege to deliver the commencement address recently at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. In preparing these remarks, I asked my Facebook friends to contribute advice and words of wisdom. The response I got was overwhelming! Thanks to all who contributed—I couldn’t possibly include all the comments, but please know that the collective whole had a tremendous influence on these words.
To the members of the faculty and administration; my former colleagues on the CVA board; parents, friends and family members; and of course today’s graduates of CVA, it is my humble honor to be with you today to help celebrate this remarkable life moment and impressive achievement. The honor I feel is compounded by the deep connection I have to this school, which began more than 15 years ago when my good friend John DuFresne called me to say that he had just taken the position of chair of the design department at CVA and would I be interested in joining the adjunct faculty and teaching typography. Serving on the faculty for those three years was energizing, and it cemented my connection to this school. In the years that followed, my kids attended summer programs at CVA, I served on the board of trustees, I have helped to plan the CVA Leaders of Design program for the last several years, and my brother Andy is a long time member of the illustration faculty here. Indeed the Powell family roots at CVA run deep and strong.
Recently CVA has helped connect me to an experience I had long forgotten. On occasional Saturday afternoons I’ve been quietly sliding into the CVA studio building on Selby and Grotto for the weekly open figure drawing session. Before I began doing this I had not made a piece of art purely for the fun of it in probably 20 years. I had completely forgotten the sheer joy of transforming a blank sheet of paper into…well, in my case, a sheet of paper with a bunch of scratchy marks all over it. For me this is a mesmerizing activity through which I’ve rediscovered why I became a designer in the first place—the pure thrill of making art just for the fun of it.
I come to you today from several distinct points of view. First and foremost, I am a working designer with an independent practice focusing on design for healthcare. I am also the president of AIGA the professional association for design, a nearly 100 year old organization with 22,000 members in 66 local chapters and over 200 student groups, including one right here at CVA. Finally I am a parent of two amazingly talented young adults; our son Zev has just completed his sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis, and our daughter Maya will be starting her own art and design education next fall as a freshman at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. So as I prepared my remarks for today, I was thinking about this palpable milestone through each of these three lenses.
It is a remarkable time to be entering the world empowered with the skills of that an art and design education builds. Terms like “design thinking,” “innovation,” and “creative problem solving” are now commonly used in even the most traditional quarters of business and government. When my wife Lisa and I graduated from art school nearly a quarter century ago, the essential question on our minds was “how are we going to make a career out of this?” While I don’t want to dismiss the significance of that important question, and the subsequent answers prompted by it, it strikes me that the essential question facing today’s generation, and this class of graduating artists and designers is something quite different.
Our country and world are faced with challenges of an almost unthinkable scale. In virtually every aspect of society—from healthcare to the economy, politics to the environment—we are broken. The leaders who have been trying to fix these massive problems are running out of ideas and are looking for help. I believe artists and designers—creative thinkers—are uniquely qualified to contribute meaningful answers to these critical social questions. But wait, creative thinkers can make a meaningful difference? How could that possibly be? As Amanda said earlier in her excellent valedictorian speech, “we are the weirdos.” We’re the quirky, flaky outcasts who hang out on the edges of society, how could we possibly have something meaningful to contribute? Let me make the case for you with three points:
First, when the traditional leaders of business, academia, or government address these big issues, they are trying to find the shortest line between problem and the solution. They are trying to be as efficient as possible. They are trying to eliminate risk. Creative thinkers, on the other hand, embrace risk, because we know that by embracing risk we will find truly surprising and innovative ideas.
Second, creative thinkers are experts at making the confusing clear. One of the basic skills we learn in a school like CVA is how to push our ideas beyond the obvious, we constantly refine, synthesize, and clarify. The result of this process is creative solutions that resonate.
And third, the quality that is absolutely central to our work—whether we are fine artists, illustrators, photographers or designers—is a quality that is so often ignored by other disciplines. That quality is empathy; the ability to identify on a purely human level with the audience, the user. We know them. We understand them. And we are their advocate.
Risk. Clarity. And empathy. These three qualities are so absent in our world today. These are the qualities that creative thinkers will always bring.
My own journey as a creative thinker has informed my ideas on this topic. Nearly ten years ago, after Lisa and I had run our design business for more than a decade, our daughter Maya was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. This was a life changing experience, and an enormous challenge for our entire family, and in the process Lisa and I discovered a glaring need for kid-friendly, visually oriented tools for kids and families living with this disease. Using the skills that we learned in art school, we responded to this need by developing a set of design-driven learning tools, which we eventually built into a successful business called HealthSimple. Had Lisa and I been encountered with this challenge without the skills we developed in art school and over the subsequent years as professional designers, we might have recognized the glaring need, but we would not have had the skills to find a creative, innovative, and human-centered solution that we did.
In my role as AIGA president I’ve spent the last year traveling around the country visiting communities where designers are making a difference. In Birmingham, AL, Hartford, CT, Grand Rapids, MI, Savannah, GA, and right here in the Twin Cities, designers are engaged with local community leaders using the creative process to develop surprising and innovative solutions to issues as wide ranging as improving the water quality of a polluted river system in central AL, to helping Somalian immigrants integrate more successfully into their new neighborhoods just across the river in Minneapolis. In each of these communities we are making the case that this approach is more than just a novelty; that the creative process is an important method that can lead to real results—and not just to create cool posters, logos, and pieces of public art, but to address the core issues of these complex problems. Creative thinkers are emerging as leading figures in this new movement.
Just last week I had the opportunity to sit across the table from Dr. Howard Koh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health—one of the highest-ranking public health officials in the country—to talk to him about how design and designers can help Americans live healthier lives. It was an amazing experience, but you what amazed me most about it? Dr. Koh did not need to be convinced of the power of design. He already knew. Indeed it is a remarkable time to be a creative thinker.
So it occurs to me that the essential question facing those of you graduating today is this: How can I apply my skills as a creative thinker—those skills that I have learned in my years here at CVA—to make a meaningful difference in the world around me? Your opportunity to make a difference is massive. And your potential to improve the human condition is epic. I believe this generation of creative thinkers—your generation of artists and designers—will change the world.
OK, that was all very serious, so let’s mix this up a bit. All of the online tips for how to write a commencement address tell you that the formula for a successful address includes a section that is serious and aspirational, and then a section that is filled with advice and wisdom. Add in some witty anecdotes and you are pretty much good to go. So I just finished the serious and aspirational section and now I’m going to get into the wisdom and advice. So where does a commencement speaker turn to find wisdom and advice? Yes, of course, Facebook.
Last week I posted the question to my Facebook friends of what advice they would offer to an audience of talented young people on the doorstep of their life as creative professionals, and here are a few of the responses I got:
- (Nick Zdon) The best part of being a ‘creative’ is not being rich.
- (Michael Vanderbyl) Design is not a job it is a lifestyle. You will spend the rest of your life caring passionately about things others cannot see…and that’s a good thing.
- (John Moe via Meghan Wilker via Twitter) Young People: When you become an adult, pretend that you know what you’re doing. That’s what ALL OF US ARE DOING.
- (Bruce Johnson) Mitt Romney says they should borrow money from their parents.
- (William Roberts) Make sure to keep a small bottle of scotch in the work desk drawer. You’re gonna need it.
I asked my dad if he had any advice to offer. Those parents in the audience can probably identify with the sheer horror my parents faced when they found themselves with not one but two kids in art school. At the same time! So, Dave Powell has this advice: “Tell them to get a job.” (pause) “No really, tell them not to get discouraged by what they read in the newspapers or hear on TV about the job market. There are opportunities out there and they have to be aggressive in searching them out. Also, their first opportunity might not be the perfect or dream job, but it adds to their qualifications until something better comes along.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad that this generation doesn’t read newspapers or watch TV. I asked him why he never gave me that advice and he said “You never asked.”
I want to add one piece of advice of my own to this list, and it actually comes from some of the Facebook comments I got along with some really interesting conversations I’ve had recently. It’s about the importance of relationships and collaboration in the creative process. Amanda and Laura both spoke with great spirit about the incredible connections you’ve all shared in your years at CVA. Clearly those connections have been a huge part of your experience here. Yet when we get into creative profession, many of us have a tendency to be loners. We work in isolation, and we separate ourselves from things and people who might surprise us or challenge us. Somehow we forget that surprise and challenge can also inspire, enrich and elevate our work. I have had the incredible good fortune to have a partner in life and work and design who always surprises me, who relentlessly challenges me, who enriches and inspires me every day. And who has elevated my work to a level I never thought possible.
So, College of Visual Arts class of 2012, congratulations! You will do amazing things. And remember, when you need a break from saving the world, grab your sketchbook and stop by the Grotto building some Saturday afternoon and we’ll make art together—just for the fun of it.