Steven Heller | Essays

Commencement Redux

On the off-chance that a college or university might invite me to take part in their graduation festivities, each spring I write a commencement speech. This is the one I would have presented had I been asked this year. No one called so here's what you are missing.

Every talk I give to student groups ends with basically the same question: “What is the future of graphic design?” Somewhat facetiously but truthfully I answer: “If I knew, I’d be doing it.” In fact, my crystal ball is usually foggy, but I do have a clear idea worth considering. It has nothing to do with the end of paper or the world wide web or the rise of artificial intelligence. The fact is we’re already living in the future and it is now and it is you. It includes everything we do today and will continue to do tomorrow, with the addition of a few discoveries along the way. That itself is enough, don’t you think?

Moreover, you’re not really asking me, an aging mortal who used a rotary phone, to be Nostradamus. You want to make certain that there is a job waiting for you — in fact, many jobs — and that you have the talent and skill to be among those who are tapped to do those jobs. Behind every question about the future, is what can I do now? Which makes sense. Many of you probably took on considerable debt to get a design education and you want some assurances that it was not in vain.

I cannot, however, offer that career counselling. Everyday you learn more than I know. Still, I can tell you that the future — even as it occurs at today’s accelerated speed — doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a few days, months, even years. So if you do what you already do well, while keeping your eye on the horizon, you’ll figure out the future. That said, thinking ahead is essential to any creative survival. As newly minted graduates you’re too young to get stuck in ruts of convention. But rather than ask me what the future will be, make the future your own.

There are some of you here who will graduate and go on to invent, if you haven’t already done so, new ways of conceiving, making, and communicating messages — of becoming form-givers and (in the argot of today) influencers. Graphic designers are at a perfect juncture between old and new technologies to create “products” and involve themselves in “ventures” and start-ups. My concept of the present-future of graphic design has always long been about independent thought leading to autonomous results. This isn’t to say that designers will abandon all client-driven work for the sanctity of their own laboratories. It means that my hobby horse is design entrepreneurship and the ABCs of “art, business, culture.” Art is inherent in everything a designer does (it might also be called craft and can be defined as combining ingenuity with aesthetic quality; business is essential to everything a designer does, especially to be able to sustain the art; and culture is the structure that designers continually build through their wares.

The second question I am most asked by students is what should they do right out of school. Should they go to work for a major or minor corporation, a big or small design firm, a single proprietor, or start a freelance studio? You don’t need a soothsayer for that. Everyone will say do what makes sense. If you want to go into a special area of design, do it! If you want to learn what you missed in school, do it! If you want to experience an experience, do that too! Very few designers are equipped to jump from the cloistered academy into the fire and brimstone of a self-run business. But some are adept and courageous. Do that too!

Whatever the decision, the commencement is a beginning. I suspect that everyone, no matter how accomplished, would like a chance to commence again (I know I do). This is a time to aggressively push forward, try the tried and untried, and show us all why you are the future.

Jobs | July 17