The educated citizen


Emily Campbell, when she was at the RSA, asked whether designers could redefine themselves as more than making beautiful resources; rather, as making people more resourceful. This is certainly true of the value of the creative mind in today’s world; it ought to be the goal of every education.

Resourcefulness has many meanings: resourcefulness is ingenuity; the ability to think on your feet; the ability to adapt one solution to another problem; the ability to make something out of little or nothing. But resourcefulness is also the confidence that comes with knowledge; having a skill or a range of skills at your disposal; knowing enough to make a wise choice; having analogous experience; having connections to draw on and knowing how to collaborate. This knowledge feeds the ingenuity, and vice versa.


The American Experience

The presidential campaign invites many commentators to ask about each candidate’s vision or narrative. An unlikely source—a mysterious Mr. Y— provided a narrative before the last election that still holds together well for me.

“This narrative advocates for America to pursue her enduring interests of prosperity and security through a strategy of sustainability that is built upon the solid foundation of our national values. As Americans we needn’t seek the world’s friendship or to proselytize the virtues of our society. Neither do we seek to bully, intimidate, cajole, or persuade others to accept our unique values or to share our national objectives. Rather, we will let others draw their own conclusions based upon our actions. Our domestic and foreign policies will reflect unity of effort, coherency and constancy of purpose. We will pursue our national interests and allow others to pursue theirs, never betraying our values. We will seek converging interests and welcome interdependence. We will encourage fair competition and will not shy away from deterring bad behavior. We will accept our place in a complex and dynamic strategic ecosystem and use credible influence and strength to shape uncertainty into opportunities. We will be a pathway of promise and a beacon of hope, in an ever changing world.”

“Mr. Y” is actually two senior military officers attached to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Designers and political leadership

For years, I have been looking for examples of designers who occupy elected offices and have not discovered a single AIGA member even on an elected school board. And yet we talk about designers’ capacity for developing innovative solutions to complex problems.
The reason this seems so important is that we talk about the need for designers to be respected for the contribution they can make that goes well beyond stereotypes of designers as craftspeople. Yet, to earn that respect, it seems it would be important to demonstrate the power of a design mind in addressing community problems that concern those whose respect we seek—not just the general public, but also community leaders, business leaders and professionals who live where we live.
Isaiah Berlin is said to have defined political judgment as “a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent perpetually overlapping data.” Isn’t that what designers would claim is their special gift and competitive advantage?
Civil society

Are we risking our ability to care?

In an address at Middlebury College, Jonathan Safran Foer raised questions about our diminishing ability to care.

“Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile,messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.”

“The  problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too,become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.”

Perhaps the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care…have the empathy and compassion that distinguishes us. And this is also one of the reasons that AIGA believes it has an important role in encouraging thoughtful conversations.

Quoted passages from excerpts of the address published in the New York Times, June 8, 2013 as “How not to be alone.”

Civil society

Snowden’s experience and the community of association

After thirty years leading associations, I appreciate how de Tocqueville, in the late eighteenth century defined associations as one of the unusual manifestations of the American experience. And I continue to seek explanations of why a voluntary coming together of like-minded individuals remains relevant and even critical. In David Brooks column on “The Solitary Leaker” in the New York Times on June 13, 2013, yet one more perspective emerged.

“Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.”

Brooks then concludes, as he has often in the past, “For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures.”

This has been true for centuries: civic institutions build trust. And AIGA, as a community of designers, plays just that role in providing both an ecosystem for a profession and an ethosystem, a means of expressing ethical expectations of each other and encouraging participation in the community, under those rules.


Einstein on creativity

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Albert Einstein
Civil society

A challenge to values

The current presidential campaign in the United States—with its nativist and irrational, mean-spirited rhetoric—raises the volume on my rumbling fear that the anger and angst of the broad public led by demagogic voices will mark the end of the Enlightenment. Certainly it seems religious platitudes and emotional reactions have displaced reason and nearly half the American populace is willing to reject science. As a deeply dedicated humanist, to the extent of it defining my “faith,” I am also deeply troubled.

Yet, perhaps there is another side to the loss of influence of the values inherent in most religions.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, once the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and a recognized global religious leader, has written a thoughtful book on confronting religious violence, Not in God’s Name, where he also deals with some of the broader historic reasons for our current era’s greatest loss, which is the loss of the sense of optimism, generosity and community.

Sacks suggests that in the last four centuries since the great age of wars of religion, there has been a slow demise of the true believer in both progressive religion and political ideology.

First, in the seventeenth century, came the secularization of knowledge in the form of science and philosophy. Then in the eighteenth century came the secularization of power by way of the American and French Revolutions and the separation—radical in France, less doctrinaire in the United States—of church and state. In the nineteenth century came the secularization of culture as art galleries an museums were seen as alternative to churches a places in which to encounter the sublime. Finally, in a principle first propounded John Stuart Mill a century earlier—namely that the only ground on which anyone, including the state, is justified in intervening in behavior done in private is the prevention of harm to others. This was the beginning of the end of traditional codes of ethics, to be replaced by the unfettered sanctity of the individual, autonomy, rights and choice.

Sacks point out that as we have become more secular as a civilization, we have failed to address the special need and strength of Homo sapiens, which is that we are a meaning-seeking animal.

Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.

This leave us with great choice and inadequate meaning. And, the mutual influence of religion and culture that provided a core set of values, across sects, is lost. Instead, we have chosen:

…to worship the idols of the self—the market, consumerism, individualism, autonomy, rights and ‘whatever works for you’—while relinquishing the codes of loyalty, reverence and respect that once preserved marriages, communities and the subtle bonds that tie us to one another, moving us to work for the common good.

Losing its religious faith, the West is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic: reverence, loyalty, human dignity, the relief of poverty, public service, collective responsibility, national identity and respect for religious values while at the same time making space for liberty of conscience and the peaceable co-existence of more than one faith.

Sacks argues we must recover our values or it results in radicals seeking a better world to turn away from individualism and hedonism toward acts that are brutal and violent as expression of their altruism.


Advice to a young person beginning to learn

A letter to my children as they began their college experience…

As you complete your major, you will have a set of tools in a single discipline. Yet, your success will depend upon being able to move easily across disciplines.

Understanding different cultures

The world economy is becoming a true global economy. In this emerging world, which will be the one you inhabit throughout the 21st century, geopolitical boundaries will be less relevant. You will stand out if you understand what it takes to communicate effectively across cultures, respecting differences while benefiting from what can be accomplished together. It would be useful to understand the underpinning of different religions (comparative religions) and cultures (civilization, sociology). The impending struggle between Islam and western civilization will be dominant for the next several decades and it is important to be able to craft your own course through it.

Understanding human nature

You can increase your understanding from human nature by thinking carefully and hard about your own experiences with people, but this approach takes a lifetime. Or you can learn from drama, poetry, literature and film. These art forms are often the highest form of narrative and the best relate to the human condition and the way events change human character. There is a canon of literature that you should sample and spend enough time to appreciate, even if it is thinking hard about only a few pieces. You will learn from it, it will sensitize you to how what you do may affect others, and it will occasionally astound you with how some people can characterize feelings with an economy of words.

Learning to communicate

There are two skills that may turn out to be the most important you will ever learn if you want to achieve your own potential and to influence others: storytelling and writing. Study storytelling, narrative or writing (creative nonfiction, journalism or creative writing). Most people do not know how to communicate in a way that truly highlights what is important, eliminates what is marginal, depends upon a few key words that are highly descriptive, and does it all with directness and simplicity. If you can learn to tell a story (which is what every memo you ever write should be), write clearly, and do it in a simple and straightforward way, you will have an influence well beyond that of others with even greater intellect. This skill should include the ability to present information clearly. You will succeed in whatever you choose to do by understanding first what you want to say and then being able to communicate it effectively. The ideas do not need to be complex nor the expression poetic; the ideas have to be well conceived, simplified, and communicated clearly and in an unforgettable manner.

A few courses that would be very useful in achieving these purposes

  • Greek mythology and drama. Simple ways to tell stories, myths that still influence western civilization
  • Modern European history (or political history), The global economy will depend upon effective competition with the European Union and attitudes in Europe are heavily influenced by what Europeans have experienced over the past 300 years.
  • Modern Asian history (or political history). The largest new markets and the most dynamic competition you will experience will come from the Pacific Rim countries. You will need to understand them to benefit.
  • Survey of art history. Civilization is still reflected in its highest and best form through visual expression. In the real world, without an appreciation of art, you will not be able to carry on conversations in the most refined circles, which is where you want to be eventually.
  • Political philosophy. A survey course in political philosophy will reveal different ways society has thought about organizing itself. It will offer a deeper understanding of alternative political systems and political attitudes (e.g., I could not understand the appeal of certain aspects of conservative thought without having had to think about it in the context of political philosophy). This will also introduce principles that are useful in your own life and in business organizations. This should include gaining an understanding of the importance of social justice, free speech, respect for human equality and religious pluralism. Without this understanding, you will find yourself reacting on personal terms to what occurs in the political economy, rather than being able to express your own philosophy.
  • Environmental issues. A survey course on environmental issues will help to understand what may be the most compelling external constraint on business and the economy over the next century. You must learn to understand this as an opportunity and a challenge, not an obstacle. Become sensitive to its importance and determine to respect the constraint, rather than fight it, if you want to stand out and succeed.
  • Information design. This is the technique in presenting information effectively to tell y0ur story. A course in this should demonstrate the principles advanced by Edward Tufte and help you to discover ways to present data. Probably taught as a visual communication course, perhaps in Newhouse. Your narratives and arguments will be enhanced by the proper use of data, particularly in a world in which there is access to too much information, yet far too little highlighting of what is really important.
  • A survey of 20th century American literature (the novel) might be the most comfortable course to build up experience in the canon of literature. A survey course in English literature, even if it is contemporary literature, would also be useful. Literature helps you to understand how character is formed by experience (much faster than experiencing it yourself); it also helps your storytelling skills, and it introduces you to the power of expression. It is also a point of reference in conversation that becomes very important when you talking with others with whom there is no real shared experience.
  • Writing, writing, writing. Learn to write clearly, simply, directly. Study grammar and punctuation until you are bored by always being right. Bad grammar and punctuation will get in the way of people paying full attention to your arguments.
  • A creative course. This can be anything that lets you create—drawing, design, ceramics, jewelry, woodworking. It is an important means of confirming your own skills and expressiveness. Most of the other courses you take involve absorbing and processing information created by others. Your creative endeavor is intellectual as you find ways to interpret others’ work. A creative class allows you to express a different part of your character that is totally original. Just as with sports, it helps you to discover ways to do something that is not intellectual. This becomes further affirmation for you as an individual and helps to build self-confidence.