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Does Design Matter? Thoughts at College Commencement

Center for Creative Studies,
May 14th, 1998

Good afternoon. I am honored and delighted to be here, and grateful to all of you at the Center for Creative Studies for honoring me as you have. You in this room have been working for years for your degrees, which makes you much more deserving than I, but probably much more inclined than I am to wonder, after all of this effort, what the point of it is – not just the point of your degree, but the point of design itself. What does it matter? What effect can it possibly have on the world?

I’d like to speak, for a moment or two, about this. And what I am going to say may seem like sacrilege in the hallowed halls of an institution devoted to art, in an assemblage of people who have chosen to devote their professional lives to design in one form or another, but let me say it anyway: art and design do not save the world. They are not going to. They never have, at least not by themselves. Great art is not food on the table, and it is not justice in the courtroom. Design is not a roof over the heads of those who are homeless. It is a lovely and romantic notion to think of art as being a sustaining force – but the truth is, art only becomes a reality when there is bread. It does not, in and of itself, sustain life. What it does is give the already sustained life meaning. That is no small achievement, of course – indeed, it is an achievement of true greatness; it is just essential that you keep in mind what it is, and not confuse the mission of art with something else. The world does not need art and design in the same way that it needs bread. Yet when it gets these things, they can have, as all of you know, an astonishingly transforming power. All of you know this because you have spent the last years studying how people have changed the world by virtue of the things they have designed, the artists and architects and fashion designers and car designers and photographers and ceramicists and graphic designers and product designers who have thought things up out of their heads that were a little different, and a little better, than anybody had conceived of before, and after which the world never looked quite the same again, to anyone.

The great architect Louis Kahn once said that the making of great art is not the fulfillment of a need but the making of a new need – that the world didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until he wrote it, but now we could not imagine being without it. The greatest works all create their own urgency; they all compel us to pay attention to them because of their extraordinary power. That is what I mean by transforming the world.

Does art matter, then? Does design matter? Yes, and in fact they matter more than a lot of people out there think they do, but I’m going to go back to my earlier point and tell you that they also matter less than a lot of people inside this room might think they do. No, by saying that I am not trying to be some kind of clever kind of Philistine, and I am certainly not here to tell you that you have been wasting four years, but I am here to tell you that – well, let me put it this way. Art is not life. Design is not life. Life is life. Follow your passions – but know how they fit into the world, know that you are part of something bigger, that you, and design as an idea, are not complete, perfect, wholly formed things for which society has been waiting, but are part of a process, a process to which you can add, and which you will change by your presence.

But even for those people who have been talented enough, or lucky enough, or both, to change the world, design is a vehicle, not an end in itself. Let me remind you that I say change the world and not save the world, and that is a crucial difference. Art, as I have been saying, does not save the world, though it can make the world worth saving. And design, for those of you whose lives are focused in that direction, is a mechanism, a tool. It is a device. Design is not about design. It is about solving problems, about making life easier, about making delight and joy and cleverness and ease and comfort. And design cannot solve all problems. If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail – and it is essential that you not make design your hammer. Do not think that you can solve everything by making it look a little better.

In a way I am only elaborating on the simple and powerful axiom of E.M. Forster – “only connect” was his only advice – for I am saying that it is urgent to tie what you do to the world, that you not, like Narcissus, fall in love with the beauty of your own image, or, in this case, the image of the things you have made. Think always of what the things you design mean, of what ideas lie behind them, of how they will change the lives of the people who will use them or see them.

Having said that – I will also say that the greatest works of design have always been slightly crazy, slightly mad, slightly brazen, and at first have startled as much as they have comforted. At a time when everything seems to have been done, and we seek comfort almost excessively in the familiar, it is a special and difficult challenge to be new, and bold. It is easy to be timid, especially when so much design that is commercially successful relies on what has come before. It is harder to be audacious. Do not be afraid to be thought crazy. But at the same time be realistic enough to know that being thought crazy is no guarantee that you are a mad and misunderstood genius. Most people who are thought crazy…are.

As a designer, as an artist, as a photographer or as a craftsperson you have to know yourself, and that is a particular paradox for any kind of creative person, because I believe one does one’s best work in a state of unselfconsciousness. In other words, if you think too much about yourself and what you are doing, you will lose a sense of natural, flowing ease, that almost hypnotic trance, that is essential to the creative process. Selfconsciousness is the enemy of creativity. You are forever looking over your shoulder when you should be charging ahead. And yet the artist who doesn’t know him or herself is at risk of other dangers. The challenge is to know yourself and understand yourself well enough to set your goals, and then be able to forget yourself enough to become immersed in the tumultuous waters of creativity.

I began writing these words last week on a trip to London, and let me conclude by telling you of a few pieces of art and design I saw there that moved me, and made me think about how all of these issues connect to the realities of the world we live in every day. The most important work of design, for me, is London itself, a thing both designed and undesigned, of course, and there is a lesson in that fact, too, in the way it mixes design with happenstance, and in so doing produces magic, a great reminder once again that pure design, all by itself, does not bring us to the promised land, but only to a kind of hell of utter perfection. I thought also of how London conveys the lesson of the beauty and power of a city that displays a vast arc of time, from ancient times to the most modern; where Gothic and Georgian and Victorian and startlingly modern things coexist, with the only common denominator being a sense of energy, passion and commitment that the best of them all demonstrate. So far as architecture is concerned London is just breaking out of an odd period in which, encouraged by some rather reactionary comments a few years ago by Prince Charles, there was an attempt to move backwards and retreat into imitations of classical buildings; that has faded along with certain other parts of the Prince’s reputation, and an astonishing amount of creative energy has now burst forth in the architectural scene. There is a lesson there, and a powerful one, about the coexistence of old and new, and how urgent both old and new are to making a place feel alive and essential. A city that changes not at all will die; but a city that changes too much, though it will live, will leave an existence empty of meaning.

The streets were full not only of the great red busses and black taxis that are the equivalents of Georgian architecture in London – familiar icons, beautiful and part of history and memory – but also of new Jaguars which are more beautiful than ever, and those brilliant little Ford Ka cars that are darting all over the place, both of which proved, like the architecture scene, that there is importance in automobile design too both in preserving and reinterpreting and honoring the best of the past, and in making the new, and which also reminded me of how automobile designers are capable of creating works that can be as important, and as satisfying, as architecture. And I was also struck, somehow more firmly than ever before, by something in another field, graphic design, and the brilliance of one of the greatest graphic design systems of all time, the London underground, which after more than 60 years remains a model of clarity, ease and visual delight. There, as much as in works of art, is there proof that design can improve life, and change it for the better, for virtually everyone, and not just the people who would think of themselves as patrons of design.

And then, finally, one day I saw the great exhibition of the work of the painter Pierre Bonnard at the Tate Gallery, and I was reminded, as you inevitably are when you see an entire career laid out before you, that it is not just a series of works, not just a set of images, not just a series of compositions and a set of unbelievably beautiful and sensuous colors – but something else, the story of a life. Bonnard painted many different things in his long career, but what he was really painting, in the end, in these ninety-or so beautiful paintings that filled the walls of the Tate, was his own life, his own story, and you feel it, from beginning to end, with astonishing and deeply moving power: from the young painter, full of intellectual and romantic energy, to the mature one, his colors and his compositions rich and self-assured, even sumptuous; to the old man, bleak and blunt and sad and close to death.

Not every career leaves as clear an autobiographical trail as Bonnard’s, but it is still true that there is really only one story that any of us tells through our work, and it is our own – we are born, we live, and we die. As creative people, the work you make, the work you give to the world, is your story. You have spent your educations thinking about objects, or pictures, or paintings, or automobiles. Now, go forth and tell your story.

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