It’s a rare treat when the “mainstream” media turns their attention toward the topic of design, and that happened recently when Minnesota Public Radio invited me to be a guest on the June installment of Bright Ideas: Fresh Thoughts on Big Issues, hosted by reporter Stephen Smith. We taped the hour-long show in front of a live audience at the MPR Forum in St. Paul. The discussion was lively and wide-ranging with a focus on design for social value and other new ways that designers are working. Check out the video of the show posted here.

I had the rare privilege to deliver the commencement address recently at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. In preparing these remarks, I asked my Facebook friends to contribute advice and words of wisdom. The response I got was overwhelming! Thanks to all who contributed—I couldn’t possibly include all the comments, but please know that the collective whole had a tremendous influence on these words.

To the members of the faculty and administration; my former colleagues on the CVA board; parents, friends and family members; and of course today’s graduates of CVA, it is my humble honor to be with you today to help celebrate this remarkable life moment and impressive achievement. The honor I feel is compounded by the deep connection I have to this school, which began more than 15 years ago when my good friend John DuFresne called me to say that he had just taken the position of chair of the design department at CVA and would I be interested in joining the adjunct faculty and teaching typography. Serving on the faculty for those three years was energizing, and it cemented my connection to this school. In the years that followed, my kids attended summer programs at CVA, I served on the board of trustees, I have helped to plan the CVA Leaders of Design program for the last several years, and my brother Andy is a long time member of the illustration faculty here. Indeed the Powell family roots at CVA run deep and strong.

Recently CVA has helped connect me to an experience I had long forgotten. On occasional Saturday afternoons I’ve been quietly sliding into the CVA studio building on Selby and Grotto for the weekly open figure drawing session. Before I began doing this I had not made a piece of art purely for the fun of it in probably 20 years. I had completely forgotten the sheer joy of transforming a blank sheet of paper into…well, in my case, a sheet of paper with a bunch of scratchy marks all over it. For me this is a mesmerizing activity through which I’ve rediscovered why I became a designer in the first place—the pure thrill of making art just for the fun of it.

I come to you today from several distinct points of view. First and foremost, I am a working designer with an independent practice focusing on design for healthcare. I am also the president of AIGA the professional association for design, a nearly 100 year old organization with 22,000 members in 66 local chapters and over 200 student groups, including one right here at CVA. Finally I am a parent of two amazingly talented young adults; our son Zev has just completed his sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis, and our daughter Maya will be starting her own art and design education next fall as a freshman at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. So as I prepared my remarks for today, I was thinking about this palpable milestone through each of these three lenses.

It is a remarkable time to be entering the world empowered with the skills of that an art and design education builds. Terms like “design thinking,” “innovation,” and “creative problem solving” are now commonly used in even the most traditional quarters of business and government. When my wife Lisa and I graduated from art school nearly a quarter century ago, the essential question on our minds was “how are we going to make a career out of this?” While I don’t want to dismiss the significance of that important question, and the subsequent answers prompted by it, it strikes me that the essential question facing today’s generation, and this class of graduating artists and designers is something quite different.

Our country and world are faced with challenges of an almost unthinkable scale. In virtually every aspect of society—from healthcare to the economy, politics to the environment—we are broken. The leaders who have been trying to fix these massive problems are running out of ideas and are looking for help. I believe artists and designers—creative thinkers—are uniquely qualified to contribute meaningful answers to these critical social questions. But wait, creative thinkers can make a meaningful difference? How could that possibly be? As Amanda said earlier in her excellent valedictorian speech, “we are the weirdos.” We’re the quirky, flaky outcasts who hang out on the edges of society, how could we possibly have something meaningful to contribute? Let me make the case for you with three points:

First, when the traditional leaders of business, academia, or government address these big issues, they are trying to find the shortest line between problem and the solution. They are trying to be as efficient as possible. They are trying to eliminate risk. Creative thinkers, on the other hand, embrace risk, because we know that by embracing risk we will find truly surprising and innovative ideas.

Second, creative thinkers are experts at making the confusing clear. One of the basic skills we learn in a school like CVA is how to push our ideas beyond the obvious, we constantly refine, synthesize, and clarify. The result of this process is creative solutions that resonate.

And third, the quality that is absolutely central to our work—whether we are fine artists, illustrators, photographers or designers—is a quality that is so often ignored by other disciplines. That quality is empathy; the ability to identify on a purely human level with the audience, the user. We know them. We understand them. And we are their advocate.

Risk. Clarity. And empathy. These three qualities are so absent in our world today. These are the qualities that creative thinkers will always bring.

My own journey as a creative thinker has informed my ideas on this topic. Nearly ten years ago, after Lisa and I had run our design business for more than a decade, our daughter Maya was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. This was a life changing experience, and an enormous challenge for our entire family, and in the process Lisa and I discovered a glaring need for kid-friendly, visually oriented tools for kids and families living with this disease. Using the skills that we learned in art school, we responded to this need by developing a set of design-driven learning tools, which we eventually built into a successful business called HealthSimple. Had Lisa and I been encountered with this challenge without the skills we developed in art school and over the subsequent years as professional designers, we might have recognized the glaring need, but we would not have had the skills to find a creative, innovative, and human-centered solution that we did.

In my role as AIGA president I’ve spent the last year traveling around the country visiting communities where designers are making a difference. In Birmingham, AL, Hartford, CT, Grand Rapids, MI, Savannah, GA, and right here in the Twin Cities, designers are engaged with local community leaders using the creative process to develop surprising and innovative solutions to issues as wide ranging as improving the water quality of a polluted river system in central AL, to helping Somalian immigrants integrate more successfully into their new neighborhoods just across the river in Minneapolis. In each of these communities we are making the case that this approach is more than just a novelty; that the creative process is an important method that can lead to real results—and not just to create cool posters, logos, and pieces of public art, but to address the core issues of these complex problems. Creative thinkers are emerging as leading figures in this new movement.

Just last week I had the opportunity to sit across the table from Dr. Howard Koh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health—one of the highest-ranking public health officials in the country—to talk to him about how design and designers can help Americans live healthier lives. It was an amazing experience, but you what amazed me most about it? Dr. Koh did not need to be convinced of the power of design. He already knew. Indeed it is a remarkable time to be a creative thinker.

So it occurs to me that the essential question facing those of you graduating today is this: How can I apply my skills as a creative thinker—those skills that I have learned in my years here at CVA—to make a meaningful difference in the world around me? Your opportunity to make a difference is massive. And your potential to improve the human condition is epic. I believe this generation of creative thinkers—your generation of artists and designers—will change the world.

OK, that was all very serious, so let’s mix this up a bit. All of the online tips for how to write a commencement address tell you that the formula for a successful address includes a section that is serious and aspirational, and then a section that is filled with advice and wisdom. Add in some witty anecdotes and you are pretty much good to go. So I just finished the serious and aspirational section and now I’m going to get into the wisdom and advice. So where does a commencement speaker turn to find wisdom and advice? Yes, of course, Facebook.

Last week I posted the question to my Facebook friends of what advice they would offer to an audience of talented young people on the doorstep of their life as creative professionals, and here are a few of the responses I got:

  • (Nick Zdon) The best part of being a ‘creative’ is not being rich.
  • (Michael Vanderbyl) Design is not a job it is a lifestyle. You will spend the rest of your life caring passionately about things others cannot see…and that’s a good thing.
  • (John Moe via Meghan Wilker via Twitter) Young People: When you become an adult, pretend that you know what you’re doing. That’s what ALL OF US ARE DOING.
  • (Bruce Johnson) Mitt Romney says they should borrow money from their parents.
  • (William Roberts) Make sure to keep a small bottle of scotch in the work desk drawer. You’re gonna need it.

I asked my dad if he had any advice to offer. Those parents in the audience can probably identify with the sheer horror my parents faced when they found themselves with not one but two kids in art school. At the same time! So, Dave Powell has this advice: “Tell them to get a job.” (pause) “No really, tell them not to get discouraged by what they read in the newspapers or hear on TV about the job market. There are opportunities out there and they have to be aggressive in searching them out. Also, their first opportunity might not be the perfect or dream job, but it adds to their qualifications until something better comes along.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad that this generation doesn’t read newspapers or watch TV. I asked him why he never gave me that advice and he said “You never asked.”

I want to add one piece of advice of my own to this list, and it actually comes from some of the Facebook comments I got along with some really interesting conversations I’ve had recently. It’s about the importance of relationships and collaboration in the creative process. Amanda and Laura both spoke with great spirit about the incredible connections you’ve all shared in your years at CVA. Clearly those connections have been a huge part of your experience here. Yet when we get into creative profession, many of us have a tendency to be loners. We work in isolation, and we separate ourselves from things and people who might surprise us or challenge us. Somehow we forget that surprise and challenge can also inspire, enrich and elevate our work. I have had the incredible good fortune to have a partner in life and work and design who always surprises me, who relentlessly challenges me, who enriches and inspires me every day. And who has elevated my work to a level I never thought possible.

So, College of Visual Arts class of 2012, congratulations! You will do amazing things. And remember, when you need a break from saving the world, grab your sketchbook and stop by the Grotto building some Saturday afternoon and we’ll make art together—just for the fun of it.

Thank you.

In the nine months since I became AIGA national president I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of visiting more than a dozen AIGA chapters and student groups in design communities as rich and wide-ranging as San Francisco, Oklahoma City, Washington DC, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On these visits I’ve spoken to hundreds of designers about what they are seeing and experiencing in the profession, and what they are looking for in a professional association. As you can imagine, these conversations are as diverse, passionate and nuanced as the AIGA membership itself, yet most of the questions I’ve heard can be grouped into three general categories: “How can I make the case for the value of design to my clients and potential clients in the midst of a challenging economy?” “How can I continue to build my skills to remain relevant in a shifting and fiercely competitive job market?” and, from many designers at the beginning of their career, “How can I build my career by doing work that I am passionate about, and that makes the world around me a better place?”

For me, these three questions symbolize the complexity of our profession during this dynamic time of change, and as a working designer with an independent practice, these are questions I find myself asking often.

So how does a membership organization with a rich 100-year history and scarce resources respond to the changing needs of its constituency? This is the central question I’ve been asked to help answer during my term as president. In 2009, the AIGA leadership—led by a previous president and board—took a bold step in addressing this question by developing and launching a strategic vision for AIGA that reflected the current realities of the profession and world based on direct input from our members. In collaboration with our remarkably talented and dedicated 15-member board and staff, I’ve been working to respond to this call for change and implement this vision—a responsibility I take very seriously and am deeply humbled by.

A recent opinion piece on a design blog by AIGA medalist Paula Scher was highly critical of this “new AIGA,” specifically using the AIGA Justified design competition as evidence that the organization has lost its way and abandoned all interest in celebrating design excellence. In her piece, Paula connects the failings of AIGA to me personally in a baffling rant that includes claims about cutting down trees and endangered species (design Darwin-ism?). I have been an admirer of Paula Scher’s design work for many years, and I have an appreciation for the broad point of view she is expressing in this blog post. I believe strongly that we must find a balance between striving for our ambitious vision of change and honoring our cherished history. However, to single me out by name in this article and suggest that I have “mowed down” a valued AIGA program is profoundly inaccurate, insensitive, and inflammatory. The courtesy of a phone call before publishing such a statement would surely have resulted in a better understanding of my point of view and a more balanced view of this important issue, but apparently that was not the intent. Instead the tone of this piece has reduced a valid debate to the level of a cable news talk show where fact is obscured by rhetoric.

While I’m tempted to engage in a tit-for-tat response to Paula’s claim, frankly I’ve got work to do today so I’m going to keep this at a high level. I’ll refer readers to Ric Grefé’s thoughtful contribution to the comment stream of Paula’s post for a more detailed articulation of AIGA strategy. Suffice it to say that AIGA has taken many forms over our 100 year history, in fact Paula gives an overview of the many past AIGA design competitions in her post. What this tells me is that AIGA has always been willing to reinvent our competitions and other programming to match the evolving context of the time. I’m not sure if we have fully succeeded with Justified, but I believe it is a valid reflection of the complex time in which our members are living and working, and a strong response to the feedback we have received.

I look forward to continuing the vigorous and respectful discussion of design, professional, and cultural issues I’ve had with so many AIGA members during the rest of my term as AIGA president and beyond.

I hope you will join me later this month as AIGA will celebrate excellence in design by honoring the 2012 class of medalists: Ralph Caplan, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Armin Hofmann, and Bob Vogele at our annual gala: Bright Lights. As we approach the centennial of AIGA in 2014, we must continue to reflect on the richness of our shared past while tapping the immense creativity of our nearly 22,000 members to envision design in the next hundred years.

Poster design by @DavidAirey

Once again the Twitter-sphere is crackling over a controversial spec work story—this time originating from a somewhat surprising source: the Obama election campaign. The campaign posted a call for “poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.” The irony here is rich.

Clearly this is an ethical misstep by the Obama campaign, but one that seems borne from ignorance rather than malice. As with other recent examples like the Huffington Post logo competition, I tend to favor the rhetoric of opportunity rather than the rhetoric of shame. I would encourage the campaign to view this moment as an opportunity to connect with an important constituency—the community of professional designers—and engage in a healthy dialogue about the value of design and the importance of strong, mutually beneficial professional relationships (not to mention paying jobs). Likewise, designers should seize the opportunity to sharpen our articulation of the value of what we do and to reconnect with our own networks using this as a living case study.

AIGA has a clear position on the issue of spec work that states that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work. However, I also believe that designers must be careful to focus on the value of design rather than getting distracted by a debate about the evils of crowdsourcing and social media. These forces are here to stay, and this is a battle we will never win.

I’m one of the “straddle generation” of designers who have felt the full impact of Steve Jobs in our work and life because we launched our careers during the pre-Macintosh era. I entered the profession of design in 1988 when the tools of my trade included X-acto blades, waxers, and spray mount. In order to do my work in that era, I had to be sitting at a drafting table in a fully equipped design studio. Now I do my work on an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro, and I do it wherever I please. Oh, and I listen to my music, watch movies, and stay in touch with the world around me using all of those devices too. Steve Jobs engineered this work and life style transformation. It’s increasingly rare that a single person can have this type of effect in our fragmented modern culture, and it’s a poignant moment to reflect on a figure whose vision, drive and influence has fundamentally shaped my professional life.

Jobs’ influence stretches far beyond the “doing” of design—the devices and tools that help us do our job. His elevation of design as a central strategic component of business has opened a seat at the corporate table for designers of all disciplines. While we still face a tall challenge in making the case for the value of design in the business setting, Apple—led by Jobs—has become the case study that we’ve always lacked. Now the C-suite demands to “be like Apple,” and they know that designers are the ones to make that happen.


I’m thrilled to be a part of the 2011 Transform Symposium at the Mayo Clinic Center For Innovation beginning Sunday. I will be leading two sessions there: a panel discussion on the 5 over 50 project on healthy aging, and another on the new AIGA Design for Good initiative. The symposium will be a convergence of the leaders in the healthcare and design space. Winterhouse Institute’s Bill Drenttel has programmed the event which will feature presentations by Larry Keely of Doblin, Chris Hacker of Johnson & Johnson, Dondeena Bradley of Pepsico, and Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management. Sessions are also being led by Continuum and GE. Journalist John Hockenberry, who has a rich history emceeing design conferences after many years of playing that role at AIGA conferences, will facilitate.

This is an important time for designers to be able to clearly articulate our unique value in developing creative ways to live healthier. The challenges in healthcare are massive and a design-driven approach—within a multi-disciplinary setting—can yield possibilities that are invisible through traditional approaches. It will be exciting to see what the leaders in this vital space are working on.

In addition to Transform, I have a busy travel and presentation itinerary in the coming months, including:

Designing Change. Changing Design
AIGA Kansas City
Monday, September 19

Merge Mashup
AIGA Cleveland
Friday, September 23

Elevate Series
AIGA South Dakota
Tuesday, September 27

From Understanding to Design and Back Again
Cumulus Conference
Denver, CO
September 29-October 2

The Alabama Design Summit in Birmingham last week brought together designers and local community leaders for a three day workshop to explore the power of design to address complex social problems. The designers each represented local AIGA chapters from around the country and were attending the Summit as part of a new AIGA program called Design for Good which will officially launch in October at the AIGA Pivot conference in Phoenix. Design for Good will activate the members of AIGA as catalysts for social change by linking them to a national network of tools and resources.

Thanks to my friends Wendy Ruyle and Diana Lillicrap at 5by5 Design for inviting me to guest-blog on their site—check out my post here for more on Birmingham and Design for Good. And for more from Birmingham, here’s a link to the Flickr site for the Summit.

Designer Sylvia Harris passed away Sunday, leaving a gaping hole in the design world. Sylvia was a true pioneer, breaking new ground with virtually every move she made in our profession. Sylvia was participating in a meeting of the of the United States Postal Service Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee in Washington DC last Thursday when she suddenly collapsed.

I was introduced to Sylvia several years ago by designer Katie Osborn, who worked closely with Sylvia. We instantly connected around our mutual passion for the possibilities designers have to improve the patient experience in healthcare. Whether you knew Sylvia Harris or not, your experience as a designer has been positively impacted by her—all too short—time with us.

Jessica Helfand was with Sylvia when she collapsed, and shared this eloquent remembrance on Design Observer. AIGA also posted a thoughtful piece in her honor.

I must admit, my heart skipped a beat when I clicked on the AIGA board of directors web page this morning and saw my name and pic next to the word “President.” Despite this minor cardiac episode, I am thrilled and humbled beyond belief to be assuming the position of National President of AIGA, the professional association for design. After years of involvement with AIGA at the local and national levels, this is an organization that has meant a tremendous amount to me personally and professionally, and I am fully aware of the central place it occupies in the design community. While I struggled at first with the decision to accept this position, it was the experience I’ve had writing this blog and exploring the new ways designers are (and should be) working that illuminated for me the immense opportunity present with AIGA. With more than 22,000 members in 66 local chapters, AIGA is the largest design organization in the country (and growing), and as it approaches its centennial in 2014 with a solid fiscal foundation, it is also the oldest and strongest.

Despite these undeniable assets, AIGA as an institution is a macrocosm of the professional experience many designers are currently facing. Filled with creativity, energy, intelligence, and potential, AIGA must find a way to adapt to an environment that is evolving before our very eyes. Unless it remains relevant to designers and to the broader community AIGA will fizzle and fade. It is this challenge—and massive opportunity—that fuels me as I look ahead over the next two years.

I want to pay special respect to the outgoing AIGA board members during this transition, your leadership has been exemplary. To outgoing president Debbie Millman, I am in awe of your energy and passion—you are a gift to our community. To the incoming and returning board, chapter leadership, and national office staff, I am eager to collaborate with you as we seize this amazing opportunity!

Below is an excerpt from the comments I made at the AIGA Leadership Retreat in Minneapolis last month.

“This is an amazing time to be a designer. The pace of change in business, and culture is blinding, but for people with the right skills and creativity and vision, that wild change can mean an awesome opportunity to change the world around us. Designers have that skill, creativity and vision. But we cannot assume that we can seize this opportunity by working in the same way we have always worked. This is true as we build our individual careers and design practices but it’s also true as we build AIGA as an organization.  With AIGA approaching its 100th anniversary we have a rare opportunity—actually I’m going to rephrase that—we have an imperative to rethink what AIGA can be in this new and exciting time. To reconnect with our traditional audiences, but also to envision what new audiences we can attract. And to reposition AIGA to be a relevant, essential, and central player in this amazing time.

The work we’ve done in the last few days has been incredible but this…is the easy part. The challenge comes Monday morning when we start making these ideas happen on the ground in our communities. I am so psyched to take on that challenge with you all. Let’s have a blast together tonight, and then let’s get to work and make this thing happen.”

I had a great experience as a judge for the 2010 Sappi Ideas That Matter program last summer. Along with my fellow jurists, Casey Caplowe, Armin Vit, Jessica Helfand and Matt Rollins, I reviewed 170 proposals for design-driven social change ideas vying for grant awards between $5,000-50,000 out of a total pot of $400,000 pledged from Sappi for the North American ITM program. The ideas ranged from simple but impactful communication design concepts like informational materials about a Pit Bull rescue program (submitted by Jessi MacNamara), to wide-ranging global ecology programs like the BP oil spill program undertaken by the Ocean Conservancy (submitted by Imaginary Office). Some of the ideas were, quite frankly, underwhelming, but a staggering number were very strong and our panel struggled mightily to select 27 recipients. Click here to view the 2010 recipient proposals.

The application deadline for the 2011 ITM program is July 15. The application process is remarkably simple and streamlined, hence it’s a great opportunity for designers new to social change space to test the waters. One of the requirements of the program is that designers partner with an established non-profit organization on their proposal.

Here’s a link to a “behind the scenes” video from the 2010 judging, produced by Arvi Raquel-Santos of Weymouth Design.

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