This talk was originally given at the Emerging Designers Symposium at the AIGA National Conference, 2011.
This morning I crawled out of bed incredibly early. I guess I’m not used to the sun being this bright or I’m still on New York time. I lurched out of bed at 6:30am and started wandering through a bunch of dirt plots a few blocks from the hotel looking for some coffee. I walked into this tiny coffee shop that served crepes, the sort of place filled with locals. People come in, say hi to the dude behind the espresso machine by name, and he’s already working on their drink. Same thing every morning, and I’ve just accidentally inserted myself into these people’s ritual. So, I’m sitting there eating my crepe and this guy named Jim walks in and immediately says to the man behind the counter: “Hey Nick, I’ve got a puzzle for you this morning.”
“What’s that?” Nick replies, and Jim starts talking about moving faster than light.
“You know they have that thing now that can shoot particles faster than light, so they actually show up before they’re shot out of that gun. Totally crazy stuff. I guess if you go faster than light you can essentially time travel.”
“Yep. So, I was thinking on the way over here this morning. Suppose the rest of the world still goes on like usual around that little tiny particle, but it’s shooting through space so fast that time hiccups. So, you think that the particle actually shows up in the same place in relation to the Earth’s position, or just in general to the universe?”
“Well, I don’t know. I was just thinking that if you were to time travel an hour into the past, the earth would be in a slightly different spot in the universe because it rotates and goes around the sun. So, if you disappear then reappear, are you going to be standing in front of the espresso machine like you are now, or are you going to reappear outside, because the earth shifted under your feet and cruised through space while you were time traveling?”
“What the fuck are you talking about Jim? Did you just get back from the sweat lodge?”
I was thinking back to what it was like being in school, and god, it feels a lot like being that little particle. You’re somewhere trapped between past, present, and future. You’re not in the present, because there’s a part of you that feels like life is on hold until school’s done, and you know that most of the information you’re being taught is somehow dated. Yet, all of this is done in service to your future. And while all the world around you is moving and shifting, you’re essentially in none of these places, waiting to see where you will reappear, and if the world is in the same spot as when you vanished or if the earth has somehow shifted under your feet. You’re a part of the world, but you are in a cocoon and incubating. You’re moving faster than light and learning all of these new things, and yet you know that it’s not nearly enough. Simultaneously, it is all much too much to do.
I think one of the most odd things about learning is the moment where you know enough to realize how much you don’t know. It’s scary as hell, because of how vulnerable it makes you feel. The sensation of this virgin thought might only be on par to when you are a child and you realize you only have a one and only life, or when you are a little older and realize that other people can hurt you in a way that no one else can see, and you can do the same to them. Understanding these things is a weight, and it makes you feel very tiny. So small, like that particle.
There is a reach to knowledge and skill. You know what you know, and through time and effort and diligent focus, you’ve also come to realize a few of the things that you don’t know. You begin to understand that those unknowns are within reach if you stretch a bit. That’s learning. And then the thought occurs to you that puts the fear of God in your bones: there are things out of your reach, (Important things! Crucial things!) that you will never know that you don’t know. It’s a darkness too dark to pierce.
It feels a bit like walking through a cave with a really crummy torch. The torch gives enough light to see a couple feet in front of you. We’re told that’s enough to get out, but I’m always left wishing I could see a little further into the future, because I’ve got a pretty good hunch this cave is massive. If only we could make our torches burn a little brighter.
But there’s actually a boon to that torch being kind of bad, dim, and fussy: your choices become much easier. If you could see the expanse of it all, you wouldn’t know where to begin. I remember finishing school and being paralyzed with choices. What future would I choose? Which vision of the world am I going to opt into? Where do I want to work? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be?
Asking someone who they want to be is just about the worst question you can ask someone in their twenties. Choice and opportunity breed a weird sort of paralysis, kind of like how it’s now a nightmare to go and buy toothpaste because that aisle is filled with so many options built on minor differences. Am I a whitening man who cares about appearances, or am I more of the simple, utilitarian sort who just opts for tartar control? Am I the eccentric who wants the stripes in the toothpaste, and hey, did you know that this kind actually has scrubbing bubbles that eliminate germs on your tongue?
You can stand in that toothpaste aisle for days, cow-eyed and numb, pulling a box off the shelf and then putting it back, again and again, always wondering if you made the right choice. Eventually you get to the point where you say “Jesus, it’s just toothpaste,” and you grab the box with the most adjectives printed on its face and get on with your life. It’s best to just get to work and figure things out on the road, so rather than applying for design jobs out of school, I started freelancing. I needed to have my hands doing stuff so that my brain could work. I did the work in front of me, made enough money to allow myself some space, repeated that over and over, and here I am six years later riding the same wave, and hopelessly addicted to pointing my nose to the wind. Gotta move. Gotta make. I bet you’re much the same.
Truth is, this phase, this time when you’re on the cusp of finishing one life and starting a new one, is usually laced with fear, but the bleary-eyed moment of wonder that happens when you step out of the dark cave has the potential to be one of the most thrilling things that has ever happened to you. It’s like when you walk out of a theater after seeing a matinee that you really enjoyed. You went alone, and you laughed a bit and maybe choked up in a scene or two, and now you stumble out of the theater onto the noisy street and your pupils become pinheads and it feels like two new pairs of eyes are being born in your head. The world is mostly the same, but you are different, and you see differently. Such hope. Such vision. Such titilating optimism, so much it makes your fingers tingle like when you fall asleep on your arm. I have a friend who says that tingling is what it feels like to be alive. The world becomes another movie to watch, and people simultaneously somehow become even more like people and also like symbols and metaphors for things. And then you start watching yourself the same way. You realize you will never fully understand everything, you will always doubt your choices, and from this comes a great lightness. You forgive yourself. You simplify. You ask why, and there’s actually a very simple reason why you were trudging through the cave in the first place.
All I want to be
is a person who makes things
and thinks about them.
– John Maeda
On my flight out here, from my plane window, Phoenix looks like a scar on the desert floor. It reaches out every direction and farther out than it should, but it all seemed so romantic from up there. Walking out of a theater, flying in a plane, and spending several years honing your craft— these are all devices that impose a meaningful distance. It lets you step back from life to understand life, like how a painter steps back from the canvas to see what she’s making.
That distance is really meaningful, so it’s always nice to come to events like this, because we all enter an agreement to step back from it all. We gain the opportunity to talk about other things in a very sympathetic way. Type and kerning are great. Paper is wonderful. Clients pretty much make this job possible. But what are we saying, and what is it for, and where is it going? What do we want to get out of this, and what do we want to do with it? Those are the sorts of questions you only arrive at from the seat of a plane.
When we get together in situations like this, we have a tendency to talk shop. That’s great: it’s the overlap that bonds us all to one another. We’re all part of the same lineage of makers, and we all want to find sympathy and to get better at what we do. We talk about the inside of our craft because we love it. And that’s pretty much all I’ve been talking about this whole time up here. My experiences, and how they might be related to your experiences. What it is like to be young and undecided and excited and scared. How we can be inspired by the beautiful things around us and how we all want to run off right now and make something with some lasting beauty and to feel the jolt of excitement and the glint of euphoric splendor that happens when something comes out of your head exactly the way that you want it to. We made something that wasn’t there before; we scarred the desert floor, and just look at it!
We designers get together to spark that creative flame. We do it so we can all leave this meeting place, jump back into our lives and work with those new eyes and motivated hands that itch with possibility. This is all wonderful, but I’d like to focus outward now. When we work, that work is for someone else. If I look at design from my plane window, I realize that it is essentially a practice built upon making things for other people. And I think it is wise to bring those other people here now, to this place.
Speech is meant to be listened to. The whole value of this situation, of me standing behind this podium, is not driven by me standing up here and speaking, but by all of you out there sitting and listening. It’s the same with design: the value of design is less established by the quality of the work, but rather the presence of the audience. They’re the ones that imbue value to what we do and determine whether or not we are successful. Design is meant to be seen, to be considered, to be interacted with and used. Each one of those things creates an experience, so in its essence, it’s the job of design to make meaningful, memorable experiences for people. That’s our duty, and as much fun as it is to get together as a group and talk about the logistics of the work, it is wise to also use that distance to get some insight into the purpose of the work.
What is good design? I’d say as an internal pursuit, it means saying things that you believe to people that you care about. My best work always springs from that situation. From an external vantage, I think it looks a lot like life-enhancement. Good design is meant to help other people live well, and if it doesn’t do that for the audience, there’s no point in it existing. And the funny thing about that is both of these successful outcomes spring from the same thing: caring more about what we do.
I remember during my third year in school, I was preparing to come to a conference just like this to show off my work and to try to land an internship. The day before we left, I stepped into my favorite professor’s office to give him a look at my work. He was on the phone, and waved me in and pointed to a blank spot on his desk, all to say, “Let me have a quick look before you go.” He had seen most of the work before, so he flipped through the pages of my book relatively quickly while still on his call, saying the occasional “Yes” and “Yep” to the woman on the other line. I sat on the other side of the desk imagining that these words were in approval of my work and not part of his phone conversation. Then, finally, he got to the last page of my portfolio and closed the book and asked the woman on the line to hold on for a moment because he had a student in his office. He held the phone to his chest, looked at me, and simply said “Needs more love.” He pushed the portfolio across his desk, smiled at me warmly, and then got back on his call and shooed me out.
I still think about that advice. It wasn’t meant to be harsh. In fact, it’s just about the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me. Needs more love. Years on, I still hear him saying that, and it guides me. Those words get me out of the caves I get myself into. We should care more about our craft because we’re granted an opportunity to contribute to the world. We should care more about what we say because each time we speak, there’s someone there to listen. We should care more about our audiences because they are the ones who give our work value. We might think that design work is about you or about me or anyone else who makes it, or maybe about the things that we make and the artifacts we produce, but don’t let this way of thinking fool you. The things we make are all just excuses to speak with one another and to help one another. We are all linked, and the things that we make for each other strengthen the invisible threads that tie us all together. There is a part of me that will always design for the joy of making it, but I now understand that the point of it all is not for me to enjoy myself, but for the ones using whatever I make to have some sort of wonder when doing so. We are in service to those that use what we make, to the ones that listen to what we say. We all may be little particles shooting through space with the potential to move faster than light, but design is a testament to our codependency. We are anchored to one another, so we all shift together. I can feel it in this room. And so I am glad to be here with you, in this far away place, anxious to make and to learn and to let my torch burn a little brighter. All it needs is more love.