Good morning! President Fitzgibbon, family, friends, class of 2014. Thank you for the invitation to talk with you today.
You know some people are lucky enough to know just what they want to be and do when they grow up. My father was a lucky man. At a young age, he picked up a pen and he never put it down again. He made his living as a graphic designer and illustrator. His passion was to be an artist. He was never without a pen and paper. He was drawing until the end of his 86 years. His tombstone reads: I'd rather be drawing. I like to believe that he's sitting in a park somewhere watching people and doing just that.
Do you know what I wanted to be at your age? No? No??
Neither did I!
Truth be told, I'm an art school drop out. I thought I wanted to be a medical illustrator and when THAT bubble burst, I left art school for the University of Pennsylvania.
Why Penn? I still don't know.
I was 20 and a little lost in space, but I graduated - IN SOCIOLOGY. And when I woke up on the morning after graduation, I realized I didn't have a clue what to do next. I had no plans whatsoever.
I bet that's not you. You're here today to receive your graduate degree. You've got a plan.
Some people say: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. We've had our laughs, God and me.
I want to propose a different idea for the way you might build your career: Make it a quest.
Get your sword and shield, your iphone and your iMac, throw yourself into the world, immerse yourself in the problems of today. Find out what's important to you. Go slay dragons.
My quest, my conundrum, my koan, if you will, is this:
Why does design matter? How does it work? How can it better serve the greatest number of people?
How I picked MY quest is simple.
I grew up in a house that graced the pages of shelter magazines such as House Beautiful and Better Homes & Gardens. One headline read: "How much happier would your home be with color brimming over like this?"
I don't know, how much?
Despite the fabulous architecture, furniture, wallpaper and rugs that surrounded me, my childhood was not peaches and cream. Beauty may not trump all, I'm afraid. Still design has been my preoccupation forever.
Both my parents were designers. My sister is a designer. I was weaned on design. I can't imagine a life without design being central to it. I want to understand design's importance, how it works, how it feels, how it makes us see and solve problems. That's my mission.
Of course, you must find your own.
In a weekly column for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine - now defunct - I wrote about how people live, what they cherish, what they collect, where they find comfort and meaning. I wrote for Art & Antiques, Metropolitan Home, I.D. and others - all out of business now by the way! Maybe they needed a better design and business strategy!!
Does design matter?
Consider the swastika. If you don't think design matters, just think of the strength that that symbol had to impart fear, project power, speak legions about a political system. There's the clout of design!
We notice when design goes bad. Years ago, Firestone tires, badly engineered, were found responsible for scores of deaths. Hanging chads - Remember those? In the 2000 presidential election Al Gore Vs. George W Bush, the ballots in Palm Beach were so poorly designed that residents couldn't tell who they were voting for. Bush won the state of Florida and the presidency in part because of those shoddy ballots.
Now when design goes right, it can seem invisible, even mundane. Like breathing air. No big deal. We get up in the morning and design ourselves: our hair, our make-up, what we wear. As the day rolls along, we embrace the design of others: the cereal box, the yogurt cup, the car we drive, the train we ride, the bicycle path we follow. Designers create the buildings where we work, the desks and chairs where we sit, the computers we type on.
Design, however overlooked, is the thread that runs through everything - everything from the clear to the complex. Everything has been designed. Design solves problems using context and detail and the quirky ways people live and relate to their world.
How do we improve the Schuylkill expressway traffic flow? Design.
How do I establish my company brand?
How do I figure the best way to distribute the Ebola antidote?
How do we get food to refugees in - pick a country?
How do I pick a car that expresses how important I am?
Do these Calvin Klein's make my butt look fat?
Yep. That's a design problem, too.
By 2000, journalism was no longer a viable career choice for me. I was out in the cold. What does a design evangelist like me do?
I resort to cliff diving. I shut my eyes and jump off the nearest ledge, praying that I sprout wings, and that I'll land some place soft -- and also meaningful.
If you've learned nothing else during all your school years, I'll bet you've learned to sprout wings. They come in handy when plans fail and a fall is before you.
Emily Dickinson said, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
In failure lies hope.
My wings have landed me in some unexpected places.
My first job was with a tiny advertising agency. A two-person shop. After a few months, my boss knew exactly who I was. He called me in. "You're not good at anything, he said. "I don't know what you can you do. You can't write. You can't create ads. You can't draw like your father. What can YOU do?"
I could leave....
That was a bad day.
There've been better days since.
I co-founded Maximal Art, a costume jewelry design company that has become internationally recognized. Museums worldwide collect its works.
I created the Design Center at Philadelphia University where we mounted award-winning exhibitions such as What is Design Today? and Lace in Translation with international design stars exhibiting mind-bending work. But I was restless. Not enough people were receiving the gospel of good design through these shows.
In 2004, DesignPhiladelphia was born with the help of Jamer Hunt and Joseph Dennis Kelly. We saw seven schools of higher learning with design programs in Philadelphia. Many more than most cities. And yet, they weren't working together. Together, they could garner attention for their students' contributions in architecture, fashion, interior design, graphics, urban planning, multimedia and landscape architecture. We also saw a burgeoning design scene made up of institutions, firms, galleries, shops and individuals in this region. Their failure to connect created an awesome opportunity to send up a flare locally and nationally with an annual festival. Our mandate was (and is) to celebrate, educate, and increase the economics and perception of this region's creative sector.
NOW there are design festivals all over the country and around the world. DesignPhiladelphia remains the oldest and largest in the US. This October marks our tenth anniversary. Our brand is secure, and I think we're helping to establish Philadelphia as a city of innovation and change.
In 1956 IBM's Thomas J Watson said, "good design is good business". And so it is. Look at Nike and IKEA and Google and Apple. Good design is good business. If America wants to remain a superpower, we must look beyond manufacturing and service jobs that can all be outsourced to other countries where things are done cheaper and faster. WE must rely on ingenuity and innovation. Those skills cannot be outsourced.
That's where you come in.
We're relying on you, class of 2014. Incite good design wherever you land. Solve complex problems. Help people find their way. Express important messages. Vote for the right candidate!
Ellen DeGeneres tells a story I like. It goes like this. “In the beginning there was nothing. God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better."
The world still needs the illumination design brings. Plenty of problems require eloquent solutions. That's YOUR task. Get ready for the ride of your life. Go out and find ways to apply your design thinking. Help others learn why design is so essential to their everyday lives. Do the work that makes a difference. Make your work meaningful. Make it count.
Class of 2014, MAKE NO SMALL PLANS
LET God laugh.
Enjoy your quest.