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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.
Once again the Twitter-sphere is crackling over a controversial spec work story—this time originating from a somewhat surprising source: the Obama election campaign. The campaign posted a call for “poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.” The irony here is rich.
Clearly this is an ethical misstep by the Obama campaign, but one that seems borne from ignorance rather than malice. As with other recent examples like the Huffington Post logo competition, I tend to favor the rhetoric of opportunity rather than the rhetoric of shame. I would encourage the campaign to view this moment as an opportunity to connect with an important constituency—the community of professional designers—and engage in a healthy dialogue about the value of design and the importance of strong, mutually beneficial professional relationships (not to mention paying jobs). Likewise, designers should seize the opportunity to sharpen our articulation of the value of what we do and to reconnect with our own networks using this as a living case study.
AIGA has a clear position on the issue of spec work that states that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work. However, I also believe that designers must be careful to focus on the value of design rather than getting distracted by a debate about the evils of crowdsourcing and social media. These forces are here to stay, and this is a battle we will never win.
I must admit, my heart skipped a beat when I clicked on the AIGA board of directors web page this morning and saw my name and pic next to the word “President.” Despite this minor cardiac episode, I am thrilled and humbled beyond belief to be assuming the position of National President of AIGA, the professional association for design. After years of involvement with AIGA at the local and national levels, this is an organization that has meant a tremendous amount to me personally and professionally, and I am fully aware of the central place it occupies in the design community. While I struggled at first with the decision to accept this position, it was the experience I’ve had writing this blog and exploring the new ways designers are (and should be) working that illuminated for me the immense opportunity present with AIGA. With more than 22,000 members in 66 local chapters, AIGA is the largest design organization in the country (and growing), and as it approaches its centennial in 2014 with a solid fiscal foundation, it is also the oldest and strongest.
Despite these undeniable assets, AIGA as an institution is a macrocosm of the professional experience many designers are currently facing. Filled with creativity, energy, intelligence, and potential, AIGA must find a way to adapt to an environment that is evolving before our very eyes. Unless it remains relevant to designers and to the broader community AIGA will fizzle and fade. It is this challenge—and massive opportunity—that fuels me as I look ahead over the next two years.
I want to pay special respect to the outgoing AIGA board members during this transition, your leadership has been exemplary. To outgoing president Debbie Millman, I am in awe of your energy and passion—you are a gift to our community. To the incoming and returning board, chapter leadership, and national office staff, I am eager to collaborate with you as we seize this amazing opportunity!
Below is an excerpt from the comments I made at the AIGA Leadership Retreat in Minneapolis last month.
“This is an amazing time to be a designer. The pace of change in business, and culture is blinding, but for people with the right skills and creativity and vision, that wild change can mean an awesome opportunity to change the world around us. Designers have that skill, creativity and vision. But we cannot assume that we can seize this opportunity by working in the same way we have always worked. This is true as we build our individual careers and design practices but it’s also true as we build AIGA as an organization. With AIGA approaching its 100th anniversary we have a rare opportunity—actually I’m going to rephrase that—we have an imperative to rethink what AIGA can be in this new and exciting time. To reconnect with our traditional audiences, but also to envision what new audiences we can attract. And to reposition AIGA to be a relevant, essential, and central player in this amazing time.
The work we’ve done in the last few days has been incredible but this…is the easy part. The challenge comes Monday morning when we start making these ideas happen on the ground in our communities. I am so psyched to take on that challenge with you all. Let’s have a blast together tonight, and then let’s get to work and make this thing happen.”
Nobody stages a design conference like AIGA, and the recent Gain Conference on Design and Business in New York City was no exception. With the mesmerizing MoMA design curator, Paola Antonelli as moderator and an A-list of talent parading across the stage, the design cred of this event was as towering as the nearby Empire State Building—a fitting capstone to a week that was bursting with design events in the Big Apple. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions the same cannot be said about the business side of this dual-themed, bi-annual gathering. With the tagline “Design (Re)Invents,” my hope was that designers would tell their transformational business tales with a level of detail, depth, and openness that would begin to illuminate the path forward for their peers. Instead, the content and dialogue focused mostly on creative inspiration and outcomes.
Larry Keeley of the consultancy Doblin, was a refreshing exception when he uttered the most essential line of the conference for me, “clients always disappoint,” during his engaging talk entitled Design That Matters: Finding Fresh Frontiers. “The highest, best use of design is not design products per se but embedding (design) into a bigger challenge,” Keeley continued. But this explicit connection between design inspiration and business goals was rare at Gain. While Antonelli’s fluency with the language of design was breathtaking (especially in her awesome Italian accent), the same cannot be said for her understanding of the business world; at one point having to ask Foodspotting co-founder Soraya Darabi to clarify the meaning of the term “ROI.” Several speakers seemed eager to push their post-presentation Q&A with Antonelli in a substantive business direction, but she was either unable or uninterested in taking the bait.
For me, the highlight of the conference came during the fast-paced “(Re)Invention Ten,” during which ten designers were given two minutes each to tell their story of transforming their design business. Half of the ten actually delivered on the premise with stories that struck the balance between inspiration and content that I wish would have been present throughout the conference. Here’s a highlight reel of those entrepreneurial “(Re)Invention Five.”
Bill Grant, The Store at Grant Design Collaborative
I wrote about The Store at Grant Design Collaborative in a Merge post in August of 2009. The Store, which was the result of a series of business set-backs (a lost tenant, and sluggish client work), continues to thrive and grow in surprising and impressive ways. Most interesting to me is the effect this visionary project appears to be having on the traditional GDC business.
Julie Hirschfeld, Adeline Adeline
A New York based designer with an impressive history working with top brands like VH1, Nike, and Conde Nast, Julie Hirschfeld noticed a hole in the market for bike shops: a retail experience that appeals to women (and those of us not interested in the off-putting blend of macho-hipster-arrogance that is so common in that category). The result: Adeline Adeline, a bicycle sales, service, and accessories boutique in TriBeCa. Here’s a link to a Well+GoodNYC post about the shop.
Zia Khan, Kenari
Founder and principal of Atlanta-based creative agency, Lucid Partners, Zia Khan has ventured into unknown, but extremely relevant, territory with the Kenari Neighborhood Food System. The Kenari vision combines small farms based in suburban neighborhoods, with a support network that includes retail locations and commercial community kitchens. The pilot program for Kenari is underway in Roswell, Georgia.
Laura Shore, Mohawk Fine Paper’s Pinhole Press
What does a business do when their product becomes optional? With the traditional market for fine papers evaporating (who actually prints their annual report any more?), Mohawk has been forced to encounter this daunting reality. With the launch of Pinhole Press, their new online service for upscale, design-sensitive, on-demand photo books and postcards, Mohawk is now a player in this new booming category.
Cliff Sloan, Phil & Co
After a successful career leading creative agencies, Cliff Sloan found himself craving the meaning and passion that can be so evasive for mid-career designers. Founded in 2008, Phil & Co specializes in bringing together non-profits in need of visibility and support, with businesses looking to fulfill their mission to give back to the community.
Later this week I’ll have the pleasure of participating in the Aspen Design Summit, an interdisciplinary workshop which aspires to utilize the power of design to help solve large social problems. The unique format of this conference will split the 70 attendees—with backgrounds ranging from design to healthcare to public policy—into five “studios,” each of which will be asked to develop innovative solutions around a specific social problem.
The Summit, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, is the offspring of the original International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA). IDCA was founded in 1951 by many of America’s rising stars on the graphic design scene, and sought to provide a forum for discussion on design. In 2005, AIGA took over the programming of the event and has transformed it into the current form.
The five “problems” being addressed at this year’s Summit are:
National Design Center for Rural Poverty Programs
UNICEF Education Programs
CDC Public Health Programs for Older Adults
Mayo Clinic Rural Health Program
Sustainable Food Innovation
Click here to read more about these initiatives.
I see the Summit as an innovative approach to service design, a topic that has been featured frequently here on Merge (including this September 1 post). I’ve written extensively about the business benefits that designers can find by exploring this new—and intensely collaborative—way of working, but I’m also hearing from many designers who talk about their personal drive to find a more meaningful way to use their skills.
I will be blogging and tweeting frequently from Aspen—most likely eschewing my typical format for a more immediate and off-the-cuff approach. If you’re not following my tweets, you can do so by clicking here.
I had the pleasure of presenting a series of workshops on design and entrepreneurship last weekend at AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp. Held on the shores of Gull Lake in central Minnesota, Design Camp is a hidden gem among design conferences featuring internationally known speakers and a wide range of breakout content. Special thanks to AIGA MN for the invitation and the hospitality.
I always begin my workshop sessions by asking attendees what their reasons are for not pursuing a great business idea, and inevitably the top three are: money, time, and know-how. Essentially what I’m hearing is that the process is simply too daunting and complicated. So, I was intrigued and excited when Laura Shore, Senior VP of Communications and Innovation Strategy at Mohawk Fine Paper sent me an email announcing the launch of a new Mohawk project called the Felt & Wire Shop. Felt & Wire is a curated online marketplace showcasing products designed mostly by communication designers.
The products on Felt & Wire all have a paper connection of some sort (not surprisingly), but the range is impressive. Stationery and gift cards, invitations, wrapping paper, posters, prints, and calendars by some of the top names in communication design: AdamsMorioka, Chen Design, and Grant Design Collaborative among many others. Some of my favorite pieces are from Pie Bird Press in Albany, CA, which features bold, graphic imagery with a blend of pop art sass and retro silkscreen charm.
Importantly, the submission and review process is streamlined and user-friendly. A simple online upload of jpegs and/or video and some background info and designers are one big step closer to bringing their ideas to market.
While curated online marketplaces for gift items are not a new phenomenon (Etsy, which launched in 2005, is one of the most prominent), Felt & Wire is unique in its clear focus on communication designers. I see a strong correlation between the Felt & Wire Shop and the machine that Apple has developed for the iPhone app development process. In both cases, the part of business development that intimidates most designers becomes so simple that it’s almost a non-issue. This highlights a big need—and opportunity—in the area of designer-driven entrepreneurship: I would love to see more venues like Felt & Wire that would allow designers working in other media to have this same speedy route to market. Along this line, I hope Mohawk will recognize how wide open this space is right now and expand the vision for Felt & Wire (nudge, nudge, Laura).
For those of you heading to Memphis this weekend for the AIGA Make/Think conference, check out the Felt & Wire booth. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from an email exchange Laura Shore and I had discussing the launch of Felt & Wire.
How did the idea for the Felt & Wire Shop come about?
Two years ago, I visited the New York Stationery Show for the first time and was blown away by the smaller, more creative booths. First of all, the work was fantastic. Second, as we spoke with exhibitors it was clear that many were using our paper for their products. How could we find a way to capture that energy and recommunicate it back out to the world? How could we help promote these micro-enterprises through our network of connections? As the idea percolated down, I started thinking of all the cool things I’ve received over the years from designers we’ve worked with. Every graphic designer I know is a closet product designer. They just don’t have a means of distributing their products. The retail market for someone in manufacturing and communications design seems byzantine. Quantities are tiny. I’ve never figured out how anyone could make money at it!
About that time I got an e-mail from Josh Chen, a great designer in San Francisco, who was selling product on a marketplace site. I discovered Etsy and started thinking about ways to connect the dots.
Were there models out there that you were emulating?
There are a number of marketplace sites out there that we took hints from.
How are products chosen to be in the shop?
The site is curated by a panel who manage the balance of content and also ensure that all the work meets our high standards. You sign up on the site and submit your candidates. It’s very straightforward and intuitive. We want this to be a place where the press comes to see what’s best in paper-based design. And where the best designers will feel comfortable showing their work.
What about the type of products you’ll accept—is it just paper-driven?
We’ll consider anything that’s paper driven—or services that support paper-driven design. I’m still looking for lampshades, wallpaper!
Are there any sales trends you’ve been able to spot so far?
Still way too soon to tell but if my credit card is any indication, I think it will do very well.
What are the long term goals for the site?
Every day we have new ideas. We’re working on ways to support AIGA chapters and other non-profit design-driven organizations. We’d also like to find ways to connect designers to digital printers so that they don’t have to inventory everything they sell. I would like see posters and prints from my design heroes (and heroines). And if designers are true to form, I will be continually amazed by what product ideas come forward as candidates.
It seems like Mohawk may be positioning itself as a leader in designer-driven entrepreneurship, am I right?
We want to be a leader in a number of areas. I agree with you, there’s a huge void here!
I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of the AIGA Minnesota MNtor Program on Monday night, where roughly 40 designer mentors and mentees began (at least) a 4-month process of sharing experiences and helping each other make sense out of the design profession. I had participated as a mentor in two previous incarnations of this program, and have built lasting relationships with the mentees I met then.
I have always seen the design profession as having a particularly strong and unique culture of mentorship—even without the structure of an excellent program like this one. There is an unspoken understanding among designers that we work in a young, growing profession and that giving entry-level designers the best possible chance at a successful career will ultimately make our profession stronger—benefiting us all in the long run.
But the mentoring relationship is not just a “top down” contract—the best relationships will have an equal exchange in both directions, and benefit both parties. Now more than ever, we all—regardless of where we are in our career—need to be expanding our networks. Indeed, with the rapid pace of technological evolution, including new opportunities/challenges in social media, one could make the case that the mentor has as much to learn from the mentee as the other way around.
So how does mentorship relate to entrepreneurship? The same principals I describe above apply to designers becoming entrepreneurs. We need to seek out key people who have skills and knowledge that we don’t yet have—in finances, strategy, operations—in order to build truly viable businesses (that’s what Merge is all about).
Incidentally, AIGA—if you’re not aware of it—is the largest association of design professionals in the country, with more than 20,000 members in more than 50 local chapters, including AIGA Minnesota, one of the largest and most active chapters. I’ve found AIGA to be a remarkable vehicle for building my professional network and for growing as a designer. Special thanks to Seth Johnson and the MNtor committee for including me in this great event!