Jessica Helfand | Essays

Remembering Sylvia Harris

Butterfly in meadow, Seal Cove, Maine, 2011

In the spring after my mother died, I was in the garden with our daughter, Fiona, then just four years old, when we noticed a large, orange butterfly. Wherever we went, went the butterfly — through the garden, past the stone walls, up and down the hill — hovering near us for close to an hour.

“Buddhists believe that after a person dies, their soul remains present for awhile,” I told Fiona. “So maybe that butterfly is really Nini,” I added, referring to the name our children used for their grandmother. “It’s kind of nice to think of Nini here with us in the garden, isn’t it?”

Fiona poked at the earth with her plastic shovel, pretending to plant something, and said nothing. And I thought no more about this until about 6 months later, when my husband’s mother was visiting for the Christmas holidays. Fiona was playing one evening in her bath, when she suddenly became very pensive.

“Daddy’s mother is downstairs,” she announced, a propos of nothing. “You used to have a mother, but now your mother is a butterfly.”


I first met Sylvia in 1979, when I was still a teenager and she was a graduate student in graphic design at Yale. Even then, she was a force: smart, poised, clear-headed and without a pretension in the world. Upon graduating, she partnered with two classmates to form 212 Associates — a witty nod to 212 York Street, the address where Yale then housed its graduate students in graphic design — and thus began a career that would oblige the rest of us to reconsider what design was, what designers did and how they did it. In a profession perhaps best characterized by its wish to bring clarity to a chaotic world, Sylvia Harris was a champion.

But my experience of Sylvia was a personal one — tethered to professional practice in a way, but enriched and ennobled by who she was, not what she did. And because I was there in those first critical hours after she fell, I want to share a more personal side of my friend Sylvia.

So, here goes.

Sylvia had skin the color of a perfect capuccino. She had enviable, long legs, and beautiful hands, and a big, hearty laugh that filled the room. She celebrated Easter and Passover with equal zeal, loved India and Italy with equal intensity, and was as mindful about her daughter's need for a new pair of mittens as she was the future of the American philatelic program. (I should know: we discussd both, at the same time, last winter.) Her advocacy for democracy came from a profound desire to help people and to listen to them: she routinely shared epiphanies with me, following a trip or a conversation in what others might see as the most mundane of circumstances. She loved to talk to real people, to understand what they wanted and needed, to understand how their perceptions impacted or framed something — wayfinding in a hospital lobby, for example, or census forms or postage stamps. That kind of field research was essential to what she did, and she took it seriously.

But not too seriously.

Recently, we stood side by side at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, as we’d both been asked to participate in the First Day Issue ceremony for the Pioneers of Industrial Design stamps. As ever, Sylvia looked beautiful, elegantly dressed in a crisp white shirt and narrow black skirt, yet it was she who complimented me on my dress, which I confessed to having bought second-hand. She whooped with laughter (such a Sylvia thing to do!) and pointed to her blouse. “Armani sample sale,” she whispered, “and the skirt comes from a consignment shop. Now you know my secret.”

Another bond, and a silly one: but it points out something that deserves to be said, which is the degree to which really good people are more than a sum of their really great parts. I have always valued my women friends for precisely this: their ability to spin on a dime, waxing poetic about a book, strategic about a client, or nostalgic about a family recipe for lemon cake all in the same breath. Because life is made of all of these things, and the boundaries that separate them — even for those among us with the clarity of vision and self-discipline and razor sharp intellect, like Sylvia — are porous and kinetic, always on the move.

Not unlike that butterfly, actually.

A week ago today, I spent those first 10 hours with Sylvia in the hospital, where I tried, in my own bumbling way, to be her advocate: from the ER to the ICU and many places in between, I sweet-talked triage nurses and badgered security guards, wielding my visitor’s pass like a would-be magic wand. No, I was not family: yes, I was her family’s man-on-the-ground until they could get there. I phoned and texted up-to-the-minute news briefs as I had them, but these were few and far between, and the hours drifted by. The doctors and nurses at George Washington University Hospital were extraordinary. The emotional support from members of the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee — where Sylvia was when she was taken ill — was unyielding. Yet I still felt helpless. And was. And am, in the wake of this tragedy.

I feel like there was life until last Thursday morning, and life from this point forward.

The day after Sylvia died I drove to Maine with my family, where I am now as I write this, still trying to make sense of the events of the past week. Occasionally I am, as so many of us are, overcome with grief: Sylvia and I shared so much, and the chapters in our lives — both professional and personal — intertwined on so many levels. I know I am only one of so many who were touched by her wisdom and humor and grace. I have no words of comfort for myself or for any of us, no explanation, no understanding of how to proceed, although I do think if Sylvia were here she would tell me to snap out of it and get back to work.

A very wise friend of mine reminded me recently that there is no light without shadow, a concept that bears acute significance as I sit in my painting studio here, grieving, healing, struggling to come to terms with the thinnest of lines that separate life and loss. It is not much of a consolation, but it does remind me that the Buddhists have it right: it’s all a cycle, isn’t it? Sylvia, of all people, understood that. She understood what people needed — high and low, Armani and consignment, darkness as well as light — and she’d understand us needing to mourn her now.

And then she’d tell us to snap out of it.


This announcement was originally posted on July 25, 2011.

It is with the deepest sadness that I write this post to tell you that Sylvia Harris, dear friend and esteemed member of the design community, passed away peacefully on Sunday, July 24th, 2011. She was surrounded by more than 20 family and friends who flew in from all over the country to be at her side, and is survived by her sister, Juliette Harris, her husband Gary Singer, and their beautiful daughter, Thai.

Sylvia collapsed on Thursday morning during a meeting in Washington, and was immediately rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where she later died. The cause was complications due to heart failure. She was 57.

I was with Sylvia when she fell, and stayed with her for the first few hours, until her family could be at her side. This is an unspeakable loss to our community, to those of us who knew and loved her, to a world that benefitted in countless ways from her intelligence and humor and insight and so much more. We will post a longer tribute to Sylvia later this week, and until then, welcome your thoughts, your memories, and of course, your prayers for her family.

Comments [112]

Dear friend. Esteemed colleague. Loving mother and partner. Your brilliance, luminosity, and loving spirit will live on in our memories. I miss you.
Antonio Alcala

I am shattered at the loss of my dear mentor and friend. I received my MFA in Interaction Design from SVA in May. Sylvia was my thesis advisor. We spoke every week at length this past academic year. She was the perfect thesis advisor, always encouraging, alway pushing me a bit hard and further than I could go on my own. I will miss greatly.
Stephanie Aaron

An unbelievably tragic loss. I will miss her positive spirit both professionally and personally.
Ken Carbone

Sylvia was an amazing mentor, personally and professionally. Her focus through design was always on People, which always inspired me. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends.
Laura Keller

A good friend, a kind spirit, an unmatched talent, and a generous colleague, I will miss you my dear Sylvia.
Rafael Esquer

I am so sad at this news, Sylvia Harris was a truly fine human being, kind and generous of heart and spirit. She will be deeply missed.
Eric Baker

At a single dinner in Maine we were inspired, challenged, illumined, enlightened, amused, and delighted by your Sylvia. We thought about her conversation for days. How much more for you all? Sending warmth and energy out to all of you -- her family, her friends that were family, her community.
nancy montgomery and jack vreeland

I never knew her personally but knew of her from her many accomplishments. RIP, Ms. Harris. You have left us too soon.

Sylvia knew that graphic design is a public activity for the good of the people, not just a glamorous job for money.

Although a few years younger than me, she was one of my role models. I’ll miss her badly. This is not fair.
erik spiekermann

My friend Sylvia was strong, serene and fiercely bright. She will always be a source of inspiration for me. I hope that we are all thinking about how we can honor her and celebrate her legacy.
Alina Wheeler

I too am heartbroken for this profound loss to our community. Silvia is one of our true pioneers that inspired those of us on the fringes to be more active in mainstream America.
Bennett Peji

What a loss to humanity. Sylvia had such a unique and humane vision and was so vital, intelligent, thoughtful and kind. My heart goes out to Gary and Thai and her whole family. She will be sorely missed.
Sarah Sills

Such a loss to us all. Sylvia Harris was a true designer and educator.
Juliette Cezzar

A powerful and painful loss for the design community and for those who knew Sylvia personally. I've never met nor knew
her personally. I'm just a fan.

May she now forever rest with a smile. Life and work well
done. For that, we thank her.

We lost a giant designer, thinker, creative spirit and inspiring educator. The world is a dimmer place without Sylvia in it.
debbie millman

Sylvia was a great person and a very good designer. I had the opportunity of working with her. She will truly be missed.
Anisha Mitta;

It is so sad. She always was ready to encourage and help people. It is a loss to the community. I will miss her badly. My heart goes out to Gary, Thai and her family.
Elise de Jong

R.I.P. dear Sylvia... gone too soon. I echo all the comments of the previous posts. It speaks to the Sylvia's genuine character, how all that met/knew her - speak of the similar and wonderful qualities she possessed and imparted to everyone she met. As an African American grad student, Sylvia was my mentor and inspiration, and continued to be so after school. Sylvia's observations/advice was always clear and spot on. I included correspondence/advice between Sylvia and myself in my thesis—this letter really motivated me:
I understand your position and you really have to focus on the work, not your teachers. That will drive you crazy. If you come up with something good and clear they will come around. If your work is fuzzy or not well thought out, they will be justified in dismissing you. So concentrate on getting real clear about your topic and then chose an audience.

You will me missed tremendously, but not forgotten.
Steve Jones

Heaven will be even more beautiful now. So sad.

Sylvia was my friend, surrogate sister, confidant, former business partner and even graduate school roommate. Always inspirational, when she entered a room it vibrated and glowed. The world vibrates in her memory.
juanita dugdale

As a designer in one of my first jobs in NYC I could not have had a better role model. I was awed by Sylvia's intelligence, heartened by her warm nature and inspired by the purposeful way she conducted her life. I am sure I am among so many in this. My condolences to her family.
Helene Benedetti

The world SO much smaller without you Sylvia.
Thank you for your generosity and vision of what
design can mean for us all.
Garland Kirkpatrick

I'm so grateful to have met Sylvia, and for all of her contributions to the design world. Her impact will certainly be long-lasting, and she will be missed terribly! My heart goes out to her family and friends.
Emily Osgood

I served on a panel with Sylvia several times, the last time being just a few short weeks ago. Sylvia was always forthright, respectful, and constructive. Her comments were always on the mark: just a lovely colleague. My deepest condolences to her family and dear friends.
Michele Bogart

I'm in such shock to hear of Sylvia's passing. A tremendous loss to the design community. Not learning of many African American designers in my design books, magazines or annuals, I came across Sylvia through intense research during my early years in the industry. Learning about her contributions and achievements motivated and inspired me. Knowing that someone who looked like me was achieving their dreams was gratifying. I didn't know Sylvia as others as we met once or twice in person and shared some email exchanges but Sylvia also educated me that design can be used to the better good of society and not just a self-glorifying path. Sylvia Harris will be tremendously missed. My most sincere sympathies for her family and friends.
Andrew Bass Jr

very sad...she is truly gone too soon. heartfelt condolences to friends and family.
Jean Milligan

Sylvia has be a valuable part of my life. Her spirit will continue to illumine our lives. I mourn the loss with our community and her dear family. Here's to you Sylvia! may your onward journey be with the Angels and filled with light.
samina quraeshi

This grieves my heart. Sylvia was a role model, friend and will be missed. I am glad I got a chance to know her. May she rest in peace.
maurice woods

It was a shock to learn Sylvia passed away on Sunday. We met briefly at a design event a few years back and had a lovely few minutes of conversation about life and design. One could immediately sense how honest and wonderful she was. I am so sad to hear this.
Alon Koppel

Jessica thanks for sharing this sad news with us. Knowing Sylvia was with you and then surrounded by family is some consolation. I would add patient, generous and optimistic to the remembrances above. What a striking loss...

Robin Lynch

So sad to think you are gone Sylvia - it was a privilege. I knew her and Gary as Buddhists visiting our family camp here in the UK. She made a great impact - always tuning in with children, always fun, such a positive force. We will miss her greatly and thoughts very much with her family and friends.
Tim Hagyard

It was an honor to collaborate with Sylvia. She truly made the world a better place. Losing her is such a horrible shock.
Shel Perkins

We only just met a couple of months ago in Montreal, we had a wonderful diner sitting next to each other enjoying live and having an inspirational talk. It was a privilege to have met you and unbelievable sad to hear you had to leave. My heart goes out to your friends and family. May your bright star may shine upon us.
sander baumann

I am terribly sad to hear that the world has lost Sylvia's light and spirit. She will be truly missed. I am glad to have had the privilege to know her.
Amy Siegel

Sad, sad, sad. She did truly light up a room. Amazing design intelligence and so intent on design making a difference. We miss you.
Anthony Russell

Sylvia and I worked together in Cambridge in the '70s, became close friends, and lived through many good times and passages together. She sang at my wedding. Because we made time to see each other over the years, I have many wonderful memories on file. I last saw her 6 weeks ago in Brooklyn when she was fully engaged in energizing her new business direction and as always, balancing it with family life. I can still hear her laugh, see her radiant smile and feel the warmth of her embrace. I feel so blessed to have had her in my life for 35 years and am truly devastated by her loss.
Pamela Webster-Walsh

I met Sylvia 25 years ago and over the years we often had dinner when we found ourselves in the same city. Several times we suspended conversation while she phoned home from the table to sing a lullaby to her daughter in Brooklyn; the moment was never awkward and always brought quiet smiles to those around us. Sylvia was a tireless champion of design, but more importantly she was a gentle soul whose entire life was defined by things that really matter. I will miss her.
meredith davis

Just meeting Sylvia recently and having the opportunity to work with her was truly amazing. I was looking forward to working with her more and learning from her.

I'm just happy that I had the opportunity to work with her briefly and our thoughts are with her family.
Christina Beard

Sylvia was a vital member in the 1970's of the Crossroads Coffeehouse, an acoustic music collective in Richmond. Both her songs and her presence were a joy to share. I know I speak for all Crossroads folks in saying that her artistry and friendship enriched our lives.
Phil Pollack

I met Sylvia 30 years ago as a client at the NYS Council on the Arts as we were both starting our careers. Life got in the way for the last 20 years and we were beginning to reconnect. I was thrilled at the direction her career was taking and my husband and I had the chance to see her in May when she sang at Juanita's husband's memorial service. We had the opportunity to meet Thai and Gary only once and our thoughts are with them now. We will never forget her.
Anne-Marie Nolin

It was an honor to have the opportunity to collaborate with Sylvia over the past three years. She will continue to be an inspiration to us all. She was always the first to ask the tough questions to push the designs further in order to serve the needs of the individuals they needed to serve. She left everyone inspired to be open about our mistakes and learn from one another at her closing address at this year's SEGD conference. Her enthusiasm, passion, laughter, and drive were contagious. She will truly be missed.
Anna Sharp

I got the chance to spend some time with Sylvia in Montreal last month - the first time we had the chance to meet in person. I don't know if she realised the impact she made for me that day. My thoughts are with her friends and family. She was a truly special woman.
Brenda Sanderson

Dear Sylvia, Thank you for being my close friend these past 4 years in work, in play, in health, in sadness, in joy, in transitions and transformations. Always so ever-present, sharing your courage, strength, humor, focus, expansive network and a glorious radiance that we all feel and share today. We are all forming circles around you and your beloved Gary and beautiful Thai. Concentric circles of your love having a ripple effect throughout the many people and communities you touch. Yesterday I went for a walk in the late afternoon sun, and a vivacious monarch butterfly, bronze and black swept around me again and again. Then many others join her in an endless dance forward-- lighting on trees and corn stalks and then swooping down again. Full of direction, playfulness, life force and brilliance. Like you. A beacon for us now making this world so much larger. Forever Thank You Sylvia for being among us.
Carla Hall

I was struck from my very first conversation with Sylvia by her openness, charisma, and her steady brilliance. I was looking very much forward to further talking, and more learning, as our shared projects advanced. A terrific person and a great designer. I didn't know her long, but I feel fortunate to have been able got to know her, if only slightly. A massive loss.
Brandon Downing

I met Sylvia on several occasions and have heard her speak many times. Always an inspiration; always left me with something to contemplate. The world is a little less bright without her.
Beth Singer

I was lucky to have had lunch with Sylvia the week before she died. We got caught up on some older projects we had worked on together, gossiped a little bit, and talked about a new job for we were competing with each other for. Characteristically, Sylvia was utterly open and actually gave us advice on how we might best compete with her team. (I came away thinking we didn't stand a chance.)

I remember her as being fun, full of energy, honest, warm, generous, and full of the best kind of straight-shooting, no-bullshit, old-fashioned common sense. What I don't remember is saying goodbye to her.

The world is truly diminished without this remarkable woman. Goodbye, Sylvia.
Michael Bierut

Sylvia was such a tireless, consummate, and passionate advocate for the pedestrian. She had no peer, and was such fun to work with, which is why we (and many others) always used her.
David McGregor

Did you ever meet someone for the first time that felt like you've known them for years? That was Sylvia.

A new acquaintance in my ever-growing connections with the design world, Sylvia joined a small group, convened by David Gibson, to take part in a lively discussion about how design can play a part in fighting the enormous challenges in the field of health and health care. I came away from that meeting inspired and completely recharged about the possibilities and impact that design can have--and more importantly, came away with knowing at least one more person--an amazing person--that has truly changed lives through design.

Peace Sylvia.
Joan Barlow

Sylvia was a wonderful, intelligent, warm and beautiful human - her loss to the world and our industry will be great. I will miss her dearly. Sylvia was so loved and admired, I was honored to know her professionally and personally.
Emily Cohen

Sylvia left her indelible mark on me years ago. Farewell Sylvia.
Jilly Simons

Sylvia first captivated me years ago when she spoke about her Census work at an AIGA Conference, and has inspired me so, so many times since with her professional dedication and fantastic personal energy. From dancing at a healthcare conference to ironing out the details of a gnarly RFP response, she always surprised and engaged me with her insights and openness. I ran through the rain to make it to her launch party for Citizen Research & Design just a few weeks ago! Though she had not been a formal part of the organization for many years, her influence on Two Twelve's design work and philosophy is pervasive and often invoked. A sharp, giving, funny and thoughtful educator, mentor, designer, speaker, advocate, mother, friend... Sylvia, thank you for the many wonderful gifts you gave to me and this community, we'll miss you so much.
Sarah Haun

No words can express the shocking and tragic loss of Sylvia Harris.

It was an honor and pleasure to work with her, and to share the outlook, joy, and energy she brought to life and work.

Thank you Sylvia for the many ways you have made people's lives happier and easier. We'll miss you.
Mark David Richards

Her light, though always strong, never over shadowed those around her. Rather everyone seemed to glow brighter while in her presence. As shown from the comments, Sylvia touched many people in all walks of life and as a result the world has been a better place. While her influence will continue long after her passing, I will miss how Sylvia always made every event more special and meaningful and always left me wanting more!
Brian Sullivan

This is such sad news. I only met her once, but her brilliance and warmth came through loudly and clearly and I've admired her ever since.
Julie Mader-Meersman

I met Sylvia at the SEGD conference in Montreal. Her passion and energy was inspiring for me.
Its a tragic loss!
Sonia Yujnovsky

Sylvia always was and still will be a part of everyday at Two Twelve. She'll play a different role, a more powerful one. Her legacy is our future. Thank you Sylvia. I miss you.
Ann Harakawa

How many ways did I know Sylvia? Too many to even count, going back too many years. One way was as a neighbor for we lived but blocks apart in Brooklyn. I had just finished watching a video she posted on Citizen Research and Design http://citizenrd.com/

My thought was, 'My God, you are telling the whole world how to do what you do. Now that's a generous act!' But that summed up Sylvia. I sent her a message saying how proud it made me to know her. And that we should soon have lunch together on Vanderbilt Ave (in the hood). I am so shocked, saddened and dismayed. We've lost a true citizen designer and a lovely woman. RIP Sylvia.
DK Holland

I was so shocked to hear this awful news. I served with Sylvia on an advisory panel and always looked forward to seeing her. She was a joy to hang out with, and was always insightful and direct about the professional issues at hand. My sympathies to her family.
Melanie Cohn

I would like to express my sincere condolences on the recent passing of Sylvia Harris. I served on a few panels with Sylvia. Her comments were insightful, brilliant, and passionate toward common good and community building through art. She is highly respected in New York's art and design community and profession. Her good work will be remembered by many of us. My deepest sympathies to her family and friends.
Heng-Gil Han

I am stunned and deeply saddened by Sylvia's passing. One of the most giving (of herself) people I have ever met. A truly beautiful soul. She was a sister and friend to me and I will miss her terribly. My condolences to her family, Gary and Thai.
Saki Mafundikwa

Speechless. Brilliant and inspiring for each and every year 1953-2011 #designer #humanist #citizen
Stella Gassaway

What a tragic and sudden loss of such a magnanimous and conscientious Creative Soul & Spirit! - Mon Dieu!

The last time I saw Sylvia was when she did a lecture presentation at CCA in San Francisco on her firm's work, the infamous Ballot design project and related socially-conscious professional and student work. VERY Inspiring and forever Memorable evening with Sylvia - She will be greatly missed, always remembered and forever revered!

Ricardo Gomes
Design and Industry Department Chair
San Francisco State University
Ricardo Gomes

I am so sad to hear of Sylvia’s death. She was so lively and vibrant I just can’t and don’t want to believe she’s left us. I have a fond old memory of Sylvia, Juanita Dugdale, and David Gibson, with the help of assorted personal partners, moving their first design office from New Haven to New York City in a big old truck and looking like the Joad Family from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in the middle of the Great Depression. I feel lucky to have known Sylvia and though we did not see each other often I will miss her deeply.

Jonathan Ned Katz
Visual Artist and
Co-Director, OutHistory.org
Jonathan Ned Katz

Dearest Sylvia,

You gave me the kindest words during one of the most darkest periods of my life. You will always be in all of our hearts.
Evelyn Maria Gonzalez

I am incredibly saddened by this enormous loss. I can only add my name to the many who will miss her and have been touched by her brilliance, insights, kindness, spirit and generosity.
abby goldstein

Sylvia my dear friend,

I will never forget your voice, a Stevie Wonder song pausing richly and lazily above our heads, lilting side to side, gently falling on our desks at school, resting in my heart forever, the most beautiful thing I've ever heard.
Ilisha Helfman

My first thought upon meeting Sylvia was, 'I wanna be just like her when I grow up.' Just one of the coolest people I'd ever met -- talented, vibrant, self-aware, and keenly, intuitively intelligent.

She had an integrity of spirit that was so compelling, so contagious. I find it terribly difficult to write about her in the past tense. Wishing her family much love.

Sylvia, I still want to be like you when I grow up.
Kirstin Butler

Our work was just starting, in a way.

Sylvia was a friend and a client, a light, a path, an inspiration to me and to so many others. She came back from the SEGD conference this year and told me that the word people kept using to describe her was "inspiring," which pleased her. Who could have known that we wouldn't have many more years with her?

Jessica, thank you for being there and for posting this. I know it's a huge personal loss for you as well. I can't imagine Gary's shock - we are all in shock.
Iva Kravitz

What a pleasure to have known Sylvia. I will miss her wonderful smile and positive ourtlook on life. She is someone who really did make a difference in the world.
David Failor

I am shocked and deeply saddened by this news. My heartfelt condolences to Gary and Thai and other family members and friends. Sylvia and I went to high school together in Richmond, Va., and used to sing together, harmonizing on a song called "The Great Mandala". Although we were rarely in contact in recent years, I thought of her often, always with love and admiration. She was deeply perceptive, thoughtful, generous of spirit, and had the most supple and soulful singing voice of anyone I ever heard. My deepest sympathy to one and all.
Jess Regelson

Sylvia, RIP. Many, many thanks for the phone mentoring and advice. You will be missed. My condolences to Gary & Thai.

I am in shock. Sylvia was a mentor and constant advisor in my work. She was eagert to share her approaches and ideas with everyone and was a integral part of our field.

My condolences to her family, friends and coworkers.
Craig Berger

I remember being stunned by Sylvia's openness and generosity from the very beginning. What a force she was!
lorraine wild

This shocking news is so sad to hear about.
Sylvia was gift to our community and our profession and she will continue to be.

I just re-read a older email from her where she was sharing opinion and inspiring.

My condolences to her husband, daughter and family. This classy creative Lady will never be forgotten.
Tony Gable

I am saddened and shocked to lose such an intelligent and articulate advocate on the potential design has for the public good. Sylvia was an inspiration to those of us outside the design community who were lucky enough to have worked with her and be touched by her infectiously optimistic and generous personality!
David Miranda

This is a huge loss to the design community, and to all who knew her. Sylvia was a brilliant designer and thinker. She was inspiring, generous, gracious and encouraging -- a wonderful human being. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her. She will be missed.
Sally Minker

My heart goes out to all of you who knew Sylvia well at the news of her loss. I hope it's some consolation to know that someone like me, who only met her once while sharing an impromptu car ride, still has a clear impression of what a warm and interesting person she was. She was someone I'd always look forward to meeting again. I hope wonderful memories of her stay with you always. I myself will just appreciate a bit more that I got time with her at all.
Elizabeth Carmody

I was lucky to have met Sylvia in person a few months ago after having conversed only via email previously, and we had a great conversation about design, the Web, and technology. Sylvia was a creative leader, thinker, and visionary and her work and her leadership will not be forgotten.
Jaron Rubenstein

It has been hard for me to write something here - to do so would be to confirm that Sylvia Harris is really gone. Sylvia was always such a vivid person, a bright light in my life for over thirty years. With Sylvia's loss go so many parts of me. I met her when I was young, we worked together as we passed into middle age, I had always imagined that we would grow old together. Though we haven't been business partners for a long time, recently I have felt more connected to her than ever. She was my collaborator, my co-author, my advisor, my critic, and my spiritual guidepost. Above all she was my dear dear friend.

My last public interaction with her was on the stage at SEGD in Montreal. As always she was smart and engaging and funny and memorable. My last private time with her was over dinners in the country with friends, just a few days before she died. That weekend she was joyful - full of light and life. Now that she is gone I am crushed and so so sad.
David Gibson

I had the privilege of working with Sylvia through the Design Trust's taxi project in 2006-7 - she was a creative force, a soothing influence on a team of six authors and several creatives, and a model for working with openness, integrity and a generosity of spirit. When we'd meet at conferences or at SVA after that project, she *always* had encouraging, practical and enthusiastic words to share - making real impact with work she clearly loved, she was the kind of mentor more rare than she should be.

I agree with the commenter above who says Sylvia was the designer for good that we all want to be when we grow up. I hope her professional ethos, insight and warm spirit lives on in the work she leaves behind, and in the work her colleagues, students and in work the wider profession continues to do. She is missed.
Rachel Abrams

I met Sylvia right as I was starting on my career in graphic design. She was smart, impressive, encouraging, and lovely. I am deeply saddened by this sudden loss.

Pamela Geismar

It's hard to grasp. Such a loss. Sylvia was a wonderful person; vibrant, genuine, true to her convictions and unique in so many ways.

I was reflecting on presentations we made to a client in New York City a few years back: a project Sylvia managed for the client. After each of our presentations to the group, we would ask for comments. Sylvia would always be the first to speak. She would frame the ideas as she saw them and express her opinion; she never waited to see which way the wind was blowing. I always admired that about her - Sylvia said what she thought.

I was excited by her recent launch of Citizen Research & Design. I loved the name and thought she defined an important niche in our profession. I spoke with her a few weeks ago about a future collaboration; my partner and I were excited at the prospect of working with Sylvia again. She will be missed.
Jerome Cloud

I am so sad and shocked to hear about Sylvia's death. We were colleagues, moms and coop shift workers...she slyly talked me back into to being a part of Park Slope Coop to help her design the signage there! We had a great time doing that. She was a brilliant designer and had a real knack for getting the best out of people. And a great sense of humor. My heart goes out to Thai and Gary, and the rest of the family. We will miss her.
Cathy Towle

My condolences to her entire family. I only met her once, while catering a party that she had at her place in Brooklyn. She had a beautiful spirit - what a sad loss.

A gathering in Sylvia's honor will be held in the fall and details will be posted at Citizen Research & Design. We send our condolences to Sylvia's friends and family during this difficult time. http://www.citizenrd.com/

Carl W. Smith

This news makes me so, so sad. Thank you for the beautiful tribute, Jessica.
Gail Anderson

You were a delight. I will miss knowing that you continue to do good work... will miss thinking that we could meet again someday. My thought go to your family and friends.
Muneera Spence

Like many on this blog I saw Sylvia recently; we had dinner at the recent SEGD conference. She was as positive and engaged as ever, full of plans for her newly-named firm. As always she looked like an Eileen Fisher model, healthy and athletic, which is why it is especially hard to fathom her untimely death.

Sylvia had the remarkable ability to herd cats, which I observed first hand when we worked with her on complex projects -- people listened to Sylvia. I appreciated her desire to make the world a better place through design. I feel especially sorry for her daughter Thai. I hope we can all pay tribute to her life and spirit in some meaningful way.
Virginia Gehshan

Thank you for this moving tribute to a really wonderful woman. You only had to meet Sylvia once to know you were in the presence of a special person. We both spoke often on women in design- way back when there were not as many females in our profession. And we agreed on the importance of life balance. While I have not seen her in many years, her personality, intelligence, and wit made her memorable. I mourn our loss.
Judy Kirpich

Sylvia was a second year student at Yale when I was a first year student (and knew nothing). Her talent was matched by her big, lovely personality and charm. Having her in the next room was like having an extra professor nearby: she was always sharp and intelligent and funny, and always generous and honest in critiquing my work. And as someone said earlier, she had this big, beautiful laugh. And smile.

Huge loss.
Douglas Harp

Sylvia was an inspirational spirit even as I watched her as a grad student at Yale. She was sharp, funny and always inclusive. I was proud to witness her success. Our community has lost a great mind and a wonderful soul.
Ileana Mendez

I just heard this. I am so shocked and so sad. I had the good fortune to cross paths with Sylvia in 1986, when I worked for six months as a freelance designer at 212 Associates in Soho. What I remember most was her warmth, her presence and her very accessible intelligence. Ever youthful, ever curious, ever bright. I'm so sorry for the enormous loss felt by all who loved her and knew her.
Lorri Shundich

So sorry for your (and world's) loss of such a beloved friend, creative individual & co-worker. Inspirational. Wow. Sigh. Tears.

Thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute, Jessica.

Sylvia was a cherished friend and we will miss her always. Much love to Gary and Thai.
Ellen and Mo

I knew Sylvia when I ran a youth group for the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends in the early '70s. Sylvia was a vital part of that group - vital in every sense of the word. She brought enthusiasm and honesty and a beautiful voice to everything we did. After many years of not hearing from her, we connected on Facebook and I was so looking forward to seeing her again and catching up. What a shock to have heard from another member of the '70s youth group that Sylvia had died. God bless her family and friends.
Daniel P. Whitley

We would like to share our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Misses Harris.

Frederick Hendy
Montreal, Canada
GNG landscape architecture

Every time I saw Sylvia she gave me the feeling that I was of value to the world-- that I could get out there and break a few chairs over people's heads, the way she was. She gave me courage. I am stunned by her sudden death. My thoughts are with her family and friends.
Natalia Ilyin

like so many others, i was shocked to hear of sylvia's passing. we never knew each other well, but enough to chat for a moment the few times our paths crossed. there was something about her - and of course all who REALLY knew her know exactly what it was - that i could only begin to fathom, but knew she was quite wonderful, generous and kind. and those qualities have nothing to do with design. when we spoke it was not of design, it was of more important things. it's difficult to miss someone you never really knew, but i do, knowing there was a bright light that touched many and they are without it.
marc english

I'm profoundly stunned. Sylvia was a huge inspiration for me in my design work, civic engagement, and work-life balance.

I can't believe she is gone.

Much love and condolences to Gary and Thai.
John Emerson

Sylvia was obviously an exceptional woman who freely shared her gifts with others. What a loss...! My heartfelt condolences to Gary and Thai.
Maureen Fischer

Oh Sylvia. Sweet woman. Singer and songwriter extraordinaire. She sang at our wedding. We never knew the designer, but it seems she was ever the same, with and for people whether singing or designing. love to Gary and Thai, and everyone.
Richard Broadbent

Oh my goodness dear Sylvia we are sad. I hope you are smiling to learn so many people will miss you. I will miss you too. I was looking forward to a reunion in MN this September. I anticipated your kind, warm, confident smile and the big hug we would exchange after so many years. You were a powerful role model as a female design leader, not afraid to speak your mind and eager to tackle tough problems. I think of you often when I think of the Census work we did together. What I hoped to say when we met in fall was thank you but instead we are saying "good-bye." Love to you, Gary and Thai.
Ellen Conant

Less than a year ago, Sylvia sent me her 15 year strategic plan. It was simple, clear and bold. We all talk about writing a life plan that weaves together all the disparate pieces of our lives into a whole. Sylvia really did it. And now, we just dream of having Sylvia back with us.

Thank you Jessica for a beautiful reflection.
Alina Wheeler

As Ann Harakawa put it, Sylvia continues to be part of everyday. She lives on in everybody who she's touched, as is amply clear in all the comments above. I thank Two Twelve for bringing Sylvia into my life, and I thank Sylvia for her generosity and friendship. I miss you Sylvia. My heart goes out to Gary and Thai.
Gabriela Sarhos

I only met Sylvia once at an AIGA conference in Vancouver years ago, but I'll never forget her contagious passion for design for the public good as well as her few kind words to me, a young unknown designer.

My thoughts are with her family and friends.
Matilda Luk

As a member of CSAC (Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee), Sylvia stood out as a person of support, reason and without ego.
Her Zen spirit warms my soul.
Carl Herrman

What a shock. This lovely, gifted, intelligent person is gone. I knew Sylvia from the beginning of her career. We didn't see each other often, but it was as if no time had passed when we did reconnect. Sylvia was an original, and, yes, an inspiration. She generously shared her love, excitement and engagement with life. I will never forget her.
RitaSue Siegel

Sylvia, how did this happen? I am so shocked and saddened by your death. You are so vibrant, intelligent, splendid.... and always so funny! (with that unique laugh). I shall miss you.
stephanie tevonian

Weeks before she sang and played guitar in memory of Juanita's husband, Don Meserve. It was so beautiful. She was a remarkable woman and creative spirit who openly shared her gifts and loving heart. She made the world a better place.
Sarah Speare

This is a tremendous community. So many friends here connected by a glistening thread. Lorri Shundich, Michael Beirut, David, and Samina.

Sylvia is an exquisitely beautiful woman, it was an absolute delight to see her in Montreal. We are all blessed to be part of such a generous community.
Jamie Jett

I had the pleasure of hearing Sylvia talk and meeting her at an AIGA event in New York - Business Principles for Design Principals - a few years ago. I had seen and been impressed by her work with the AIGA's Design for Democracy initiative. Every word of her talk rang true. I wondered how I had not learned of her earlier in my career. Sylvia's approach to design and design business seemed so modern - it sounded like the future of graphic design.

I am saddened by her passing, and hope that her sensibilities will ripple out through the actions of those who were inspired by her.
Tania Schlatter

I am shocked to my core. I just stumbled on this but it is never too late to share my loss and appreciation. She was a genuine friend.

Sylvia and I were buddies in college. I worked on her History of Photography student film. If anyone knows that early work you will recall how stunning it was. It was sophisticated and so remarkably professional. It was a preview of things to come. I was always amazed and delighted by her work. But more importantly she was a generous person and I am diminished by her passing.

It is hard to believe I will not see her again. What a gift to have known her.

Jobs | June 13