As a designer, at times I find myself so immersed in what I do that I forget I have an identity outside of my profession. This became even more apparent last summer when I traveled to Holland as a member of De Program- an intense three week long graduate course focused primarily on the design process and conceptual thinking. Surrounded day in and day out by incredibly successful and well-known designers, and additionally visiting a foreign country where design plays an almost intrinsic role in culture, I found it nearly impossible to escape thinking about design. It was simultaneously fascinating and exhausting.
As my time in Holland wore on my interest in Dutch design did not fade, though a combined lack of sleep and drinking more frequently than I was accustomed to began to catch up with me. It was under these stimulating and unusual circumstances that I often found solace in conversing with Kai Bernau at De Program functions. Kai is a type designer working in Den Haag and a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. However, despite his great talent and our common love of typography, I found we never spoke of design. Finding ourselves exhausted at the end of the afternoon, our studio visits completed for the day, it was a great relief for my fellow De Programers and myself to speak with a designer who did not wish to discuss design with us. Though we rarely spoke of design, Kai managed to ask the most difficult question of anyone I met during my stay.
“If you could not design, what would you do?”
While it seems a simple enough question, at the time this possibility had never occurred to me. I presumed from an early age that my future career would incorporate art in one way or another, and therefore I never bothered to give much thought, let alone serious consideration to any alternative.
Kai was the first to answer his own question, stating that he would be a gardener. I will not attempt to do justice to his beautiful speech here, but to summarize he went on to talk of his great love of plants and his amazement in watching things grow. He spoke with such passion and excitement I feared I would never be able to provide a worthy answer.
After some time Kai grew bored of talking and turned to the small group of De Program students with whom he had been casually speaking. In turn we stared back at him blankly and silently. Though I am certain my face did not show it, my mind was racing, quickly scrambling to find something to spit out in hopes it might somehow sound believable once I verbalized it. Was there truly nothing I felt as strongly about as design? Nothing that I was capable of doing passionately day in and day out? As the silence grew I felt more and more pressure to say something. I hesitantly replied with “cooking.” Even as I said the words I knew it was a lie, I am fairly convinced Kai did as well.
With no one able to answer Kai’s question, the conversation soon shifted to another topic. Now, more than seven months since my visit, his query continues to bother me. Perhaps it was how foolish I felt for my inability to answer the question, or how I replied falsely, all the while knowing it not to be sincere. Regardless, what I earnestly believe lies at the heart of this nagging inquiry is my fear of being boring.
My cultural semiotics teacher addressed a related issue in the best and most straight-forward way possible. In regards to the content of her class, a student asked what was the purpose of learning all of this seemingly useless information, as it had nothing to do with art or design. She replied, “If one does not learn to think for themselves then they are no more than a skilled pair of hands”. I found this to be very telling of my college experience. While there was a great amount of time spent focused on studio classes, little attention was paid to the liberal arts.
This conflict was rooted in a deep cyclical pattern. The students feel so much pressure from their studio teachers to perform, and therefore allocate the majority of their time towards those classes. As a result their liberal arts classes are placed last on their list of priorities. The liberal arts teachers in turn realize the hierarchy of priorities for both the students and college, and end up passing students who very obviously have not read a single book in a literature class. I feel for the liberal arts professors at private art and design institutions; it must be difficult realizing that not only are the classes you teach not valued by the students in your class, but furthermore being forced by the administration to pass students who have the equivalent of a sixth grade reading level.
Recently I read a fascinating blog entry by 37signals entitled “Workplace Experiments.” Their timing could not have been more appropriate in relation to my own recent thoughts on the subject. 37signals is a studio that cares a great deal about investing in their employees’ happiness, and as a result yields some of the most interesting web applications on the internet. In addition to their four-day work weeks, the article discusses their recent funding of employees interests outside of work. Their explanation for what must seem an extravagant expenditure to many was simply that they want their employees to be interesting people. In turn, their employees are expected to share their experiences on the company’s blog so that all may benefit from what was learned.
As a direct result of my fear, I have recently made several small changes to my daily routine. In addition to a growing list of design blogs and trend sites that I browse while sipping coffee every morning, I have added the New York Times and a feminist blog. When faced with a question or finding myself wanting to know more about something, I make an honest attempt to seek out answers. I firmly believe that what lies at the core of design is the communication of complex ideas and ideas and opinions require knowledge and inspiration. These new additions to my morning routine change who I am as a designer in that they give me a reason to design.
Should I ever have the opportunity to speak with Kai again, I now have a running list of answers for him.