Steven Heller | Essays

The Commencement Address I Never Gave

There are few greater honors than to be the one who launches graduates into the world, particularly the art and design world. I’ve been privileged to give two commencement speeches during my career. And to be honest, I was kind of hoping I’d be invited to do it this year, in large part because it has been such a disorienting, incomprehensible year.

I realize that it is rather presumptuous to think myself worthy enough to say anything that would make this a better time, nonetheless I jotted down some notes just in case I got the call to fill in at the last minute for, say, someone who was pulled off an overbooked airplane. Since that call never came — or maybe I was out — I offer an entirely unofficial, unrequested address to those Design Observer readers who are now commencing their professional design lives.

I never graduated college. I do not regret that decision. I do, however, regret that I never had the opportunity have a formal send-off into the world. Birthdays, bar mitzvahs, awards ceremonies, even weddings, are not the same. Each event is special, but a commencement signifies the end of the end and the beginning of a beginning. I feel envy every time I watch a graduating student anticipate the call, respond to her name, walk across the stage, accept the scroll, and return to her seat. In that brief, ritualistic moment, hopefully captured on film, is life anew, or for some, life renewed. It marks a right of passage from someone who has spent time learning into someone who will spend time doing — then learning more, doing more, and building a legacy. And that legacy can be anything, because the minute you sit in your seat you are ready, and hopefully willing, to do just about anything.

Most of us spend the first decades of our lives trying to figure out what it is we want to contribute, and how to do it. School is that special place where the real and the ideal fuse together into a kinetic force that either now or later will power a massive creative engine. Many of those who walk across the stage, accept their diploma, and return to their seats at commencement ceremonies, will doubtless make an impact on the world through art, design, and whatever these combustible forces combine to create.

The great thing about art and design in almost all its varied forms, is that you can do it at any age. You don’t even have to look your age when you do it. Your art and design is as young, or old, or ageless, as you will it to be. The best thing about great art and design is that it is a function of will – the power to think individually, or contribute to something collaboratively. Of course, there are times when artists and designers serve somebody or something, but the option of exercising will over materials, and through ideas, is what makes this so amazing.

So, as I watch newly minted graduates put, for one short moment, all the joy and pain of learning behind them, to accept the honor — or license — that is rightly deserved, I think of all the potential that sits back down in the chair, and imagine that each one is conjuring what difference they're going to make tomorrow. Or, at least, what new thing they will try in the coming weeks.

For me and for you, particularly if you’re an artist or designer, every day will be a little different. We don’t work on an assembly line. But there is something about the moment of commencing that is intensely incredible. As I said, I never graduated college. I’ve only voyeuristically experienced this particular and singular moment in time when life truly begins anew. I hope you will cherish and honor it by making the greatest work you can.

Posted in: Business, Education

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