I’m father to a teenage son. Sometimes, when I’m not inquiring about his life (or attempting ineffectually to run it), I wonder about my son’s potential to contribute, and what other parents and I are capable of offering his generation. I suspect that he has a lot to offer as do I, but I’m doubtful about modern societies’ commitment to help the young become fully mature.
Over the years, the sacred compact of mutual support between generations has been supplanted by a detached efficiency that boosts earnings, while rapidly eroding our friendships, communities, workplaces and the natural environment. To compound this, some of us in the 36- to 49-year-old, middle-income, male consumer segment—I’m a human being, I protest, not a male segment—have grown up somewhat slowly (which I imagine is just a tad disconcerting to those young people who look to us for leadership).
Pressures to work quickly and avoid reflection are taking their toll on areas of human relations, such as mentoring (and parenting), that require time, thought, patience, reflection and respect. It may be that mentoring the young doesn’t fit into the five-year plan when time and money are such numinous obsessions. After all, there are businesses to run, clients to serve, overhead to manage. Fend for yourselves, kiddies.
What does this have to do with graphic design? Well, everything...and nothing. It’s about bigger things, too, including our social values and the business, economic and political decisions that affect our sense of belonging in our families, communities and nations. It’s about the competitive nature of survival and the territoriality of survivors. Finally, it’s about setting all that aside and harnessing our creative powers to invite the young to assume a meaningful place in life’s cycle so that they, in turn, can help others.
The lifecycle isn’t an exercise bike
My word, I’m sounding as if I just watched The Lion King for the first time, but I find it difficult to consider myself part of a cycle. Do you? I attempt to be youthful in my middle age and yet I’ve made the transitions from birth to mature adulthood. Ten years into my career as a marketing and corporate writer and strategist, it’s becoming clear that the meaning of my life will be measured by what I contribute. What do I have to offer the generations that have come before, and those yet to be born? And those I might mentor?
Graphic design requires experienced people to help younger people see the world with fresh eyes—not just master white space and page layouts—and to express ideas with respect for the social fabric. I began to reflect on mentoring while attending the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) 2003 Conference held in Vancouver, Canada, where I spent some time speaking with students who were presenting their work at the student exhibition.
One of these students asked a speaker what she could do in this tough economic environment. The speaker said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the young designer should look for a job because there would be a need for more designers as the people in the room retired. I couldn’t believe he was serious. In my view, looking for—and finding—a job is only part of the equation. There isn’t a one-to-one relationship between retirees and job seekers. Instead, there’s an oversupply of designers caused by an orchestrated boom in design education. And, despite this, young designers need encouragement: It needs to be reinforced that as young people they have a unique way of seeing and that they carry the images, hopes and fears of their generation within them. They are intrinsically important and their vision requires a good measure of support from their elders (us).
The student designers were excited by the design craft, discouraged by the state of the economy and dismayed by insular thinking in business, politics and education. In fact, unless they had a beeline on a new job, they questioned their opportunities and self-worth. They feared they might not have a place.
A grass patch of one’s own
It seems strange to think that young people fear not having a place in their society or profession. It’s one thing to be terrible at doing what one does, to have no talent, or to be incapable of mastering one’s craft—and, in that bumbling way, to be forced to look elsewhere for work suited to one’s needs and abilities. But to have enough talent to be competent should be an opportunity to support oneself with meaningful work.
Young people have an important role in societies that honor them. In the peak of health, their senses are more acute than ours and their stores of energy deeper. That’s why young people are here: To offer their innate vitality, fertility and imagination. That they doubt for an instant their place, or we ours, means something is amiss.
Am I crazy for thinking such thoughts? I want to do the best work I can and hire good people. I want to have a thriving business where employees would find a solid career, supporting themselves while contributing to their families or communities. But in this I find myself wanting. Sometimes it’s difficult to predict my income, let alone plan for overhead. And, as I write this, it’s clear that this essay is as much for myself as you, and that I want to step up to the plate myself, and build a prosperous business that can support talented young people and help them make their mark.
Creating a place in one’s society is one of the true functions of work and is the real reason to find a job. What’s new is the pressure on design firms and agencies to get young designers up and running on paid assignments by harvesting talent without providing the knowledge or insight for living and working well.
The New York guru
“Young designers are great,” says Paula Scher, a design partner at Pentagram. “During a downturn is the best time to use their talent because they’re inexpensive.”
In contrast to yours truly, Scher asserts that the art of mentoring is alive and well. In fact, she recently made a designer she mentored into an associate partner. Scher’s provocative statement belies her deep awareness that give and take in mentor/mentee relationships (also known as apprenticeships), requires the following non-exploitative deal: I, Paula Scher, the master of my profession, a recognized craftsperson, mentor you and give you an education in return for your energy, enthusiasm and focus. You learn, I learn; we all make some money. Your making less is about my investment in your learning. One day, if you hang around, we get along and you learn the ropes, you’ll get promoted because of what you can offer to our business and profession.
“I hire students from my classes as interns,” Scher says. “I teach, hire and mentor them, closely observing their progress. I stay young because I get to borrow their eyes. In fact, I get more out of it than they do.”
Scher knows that her practice won’t remain vibrant without the energy and inspiration of her protégés. In the big, bad world outside committed firms such as Pentagram, however, young designers are, more often than not, exploited on short-term projects, and offered freelance opportunities so that they don’t become a source of overhead. Here, the crux of the matter is that design clients are also less loyal than they used to be, and are looking for shorter-term relationships in all but their most strategic communications activities. What’s missing may be the dedication that’s integral to healthy symbiotic relationships between design clients and design firms and between mentors and mentees.
The Hollywood siren
From Beverly Hills, California, that bastion of celluloid symbiosis (or is that parasitism?), Noreen Morioka of AdamsMorioka reminds me that young people have responsibility as well. She believes that some young designers set themselves up for failure by being egocentric. “Even though they think they’re always right, which is limiting, at best, and fatal, at worst, young designers need to find a style they like, engage with people they respect and be team players. Working under someone’s direction may not be easy, but it’s one of the best ways to refine one’s skill and business understanding.”
Morioka also notes: “Today’s design stars aren’t as articulate or expressive as people like Saul Bass and Lou Danziger who taught the importance of sharing ideas and describing great creative in simple terms. Plus they tend to be harder to work with and think more highly of themselves.”
It’s pertinent to observe that early-stage designers have a strong hand to play with their mentors: Their dedication and loyalty are crucial to the respect and self-respect necessary to become solid human beings and true professionals. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that major intergenerational collisions are bound to occur, especially if a tendency towards self-absorption is preventing senior design professionals from sharing their commitment, experience—and, yes, generosity of spirit—with up-and-comers.
When young voices and visions aren’t included in decision-making, there is little possibility for harmony between generations. In the traditional indigenous societies of North America, the unique perspectives of youth were seen to be so valuable that what young people saw and how they saw it (and what they said and how they said it) had the power to bring their communities and societies into balance. This had implications for the role that each young adult played in the community, and the integrity that elders needed to show in their daily lives.
Maruchi Santana, who devoted herself to expanding the AIGA mentoring program at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, reminds the graphic design community to mentor younger students who can be inspired by design. Every year, the program, coordinated today by newcomers Kristine Angell and Emma Pressler (who are being mentored by former coordinators, Beth Tondreau and Louise Fiore), brings 50 to 60 New York AIGA design mentors into contact with the same number of 15- to 17-year-old high school students, most of whom for reasons of financial duress wouldn’t have had the opportunity. By reaching these young people in high school, the AIGA New York program gives young people encouragement and a place. It also rewards mentors with fulfillment. Sadly and ironically, Santana, Tondreau and Fiore, designers who advocate so passionately for mentoring programs, are witnessing the demise of design internships at their own firms as the demands of clients and a tough economy impinge on time and financial flexibility.
Along with David Sterling, Mark Randall is a principal of Worldstudio, a for-profit graphic design company. In 1993, they founded Worldstudio Foundation (WSF), a not-for-profit organization that provides scholarships for disadvantaged and minority students nationwide and funds a mentoring program that links graphic design to creativity and social change.
“In the creative community in the 1990s, there was much talk about a lack of diversity, but little action,” he says. “At WSF, we wanted to contribute to some positive changes by supporting diversity, instilling the idea of social responsibility in designers of the future, and building our mentoring program around highly visible projects addressing themes such as prejudice, violence, tolerance and identity.
“Graphic design, we believe, exists to serve commerce, and this is why it’s often difficult to fold in ideas of sustainability and social responsibility. So far, running for-profit and not-for-profit entities has helped us find opportunities to bring our corporate clients into not-for-profit projects and enable them to spearhead cause-related marketing through mentorship and scholarship initiatives.”
The work that students do alongside their mentors, for example, is showcased in advertising space donated to the foundation. Recently, WSF paired mentors (and design principals) such as Michael Bierut of Pentagram’s New York office, Karin Fong of Imaginary Forces in Hollywood, and Bill Grant of Grant Design Collaborative in Atlanta with college students. The theme, “Create, Don’t Hate,” promotes tolerance and creativity as forces that bind people together.
“We’ve sacrificed growth in our for-profit business,” says Randall, “but I’m proud of our accomplishments. We’re a small shop with three full-time designers and two principals and the foundation has one full-time staff person. Our professional work feeds our nonprofit work, and vice versa.”
Sustainability for beginners
Karen Blincoe is the director of the not-for-profit International Centre for Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability (www.iciscenter.org) in Hornbæk, Denmark. She ran a design studio in London, England, for ten years, working for The Body Shop, Marks & Spencer, Reuters, Safeway, Virago Press and Wimbledon. Disenchanted with the unquestioning role of traditional design in consumer culture, she moved back to Denmark to head up the visual communications faculty at the Danish Design School. Inspired by Niels Peter Flint, a Danish architect and designer who remains influential in sustainable design, she became interested in “green design” and subsequently founded ICIS to help bring a practical vision of sustainability into fields of design, architecture, industry, business and policymaking.
Blincoe believes that mentors must offer young designers a vision that includes increasingly responsible ways of looking at the design business and its fruits, and a healthy society of people (not “consumers”). We must inspire responsibility by demonstrating that we understand that future generations are as important, if not more important, than ours. Here, love itself is the impetus for forging a new path, not a guilt-ridden sense of obligation.
To evolve as a mentor ultimately means paying attention to, and caring about, all the details that define the impact of our presence on the biosphere, including how printed pieces and other designed products disintegrate in landfills and the kinds of toxins they leave behind. To this, Scher remarks, “We’re visual environmentalists, not pollution control experts. Part of the answer lies with the EPA [United States Environmental Protection Agency]. Designers can’t do everything.
“The point is we got into this field because we want to make things. We’ve got to take responsibility for what we make and that means the messages, the content and the quality. Ephemera are unsustainable and we should design things well so that people don’t throw them away because that’s when they turn into garbage.”
It would be wise, I suppose, to inspire young designers to see and feel how beauty can provide potent symbols for our awakening, transform our lives and offer redemptive power. But that’s pure defense—valuable, crucially important even, yet somehow incomplete. I also see a place for a response that makes no mention of the EPA, but instead joins the dots: That is, our suffering is inevitable and predictable if we disconnect the concept of beautiful design from the idea that a beautiful plastic thing today will become a harmful object whose toxins will, in time, find their way into our bodies, our children’s bodies and those of our animal and plant friends. In our brave new world, this potent realization and its implications are as much for the designer to grapple with as anyone else. There is nowhere to hide.
Nihilists “R” Us
Young people represent the infinite beauty of our potential futures. If we treat them well and make a place for them, they don’t become toxic when they mature, but instead offer goodness and support to those of us in need of their companionship and strength. If we don’t make a place for them, they’ll become cynical and unhappy, unable to fulfill their role as harbingers of hope and creators of a positive future.
Yes, there have been advancements in our collective moral awareness. But we must always remember that forests, lakes, rivers, streams, mountains and deserts are all losing their inherent wealth. And the life forms that are being lost are being transformed into money as fast as Heidelberg presses can churn out the latest marketing glossies.
This is what our society is offering the next generation of designers, architects, artists, illustrators, writers and visionaries, that is, a cumulative loss of abundance, diversity and wealth. This is the silent, mindless and corrosive reality that is breaking bonds between generations. It’s up to us to find those areas in our lives that do not align with the magnificence of our human potential and to transform them, patiently, gently and determinedly.
All right, wrap it up
I wouldn’t dare stand in front of a young person and say that my life’s a model they’d do well to emulate. I’m obsessive about vacuum cleaning and I’ve been through two relationships that had High Fidelity-like endings (it was eerie to watch John Cussack doing his drenched-puppy-in-the-rain impressions of me). So what integrity do I have to offer? What action do I take in my daily life that’s helpful and joyful?
Let’s just say I’m on a sustainable path of discovering who I am. And that’s good. Sustainability is important in personal life and in the design profession because mentors communicate attitudes about it all the time: They teach patterns of work, business development, design practice, research and client interaction, all of which may or may not be sustainable but are presented as such regardless. But to be as well-rounded as possible, mentors need to foster greater awareness that entire design lifecycle matters—from project inception, to design creation, to materials assessment, to involvement in message creation, to delivery of product to customers and disposal of products. I love the ambiguity of the line, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Is it a sarcastic rebuke or a quizzical call to action? I prefer the latter (though I do find the former amusing). Regardless, it is all about you. We sustain the future by transforming ourselves. ca
Editor’s note: Many of the most popular Design Issues essays are now available in the book of the same name, compiled by DK Holland and copublished by CA and Allworth Press (www.allworth.com). —DK Holland