Open Letter to Design Students Everywhere
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit. —Igor Stravinsky, The Poetics of Music
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June, which so famously heralds the beginning of summer, also marks the conclusion of the academic year — and with it, calls and emails from students trying to make sense of what to do, where to go, how to reconcile the various components of their education that lead to greater self-knowledge, better work, more challenges, and maybe, just maybe, an eventual opportunity to begin paying back those student loans.
And so, they come to see me. I look, carefully. I listen, hard, to see what, if anything, I have to offer them. I am aware, extremely aware, of the generational gap that divides us (perhaps one of the few benefits of my getting older) and I try to remain vigilant about that distance in time and space, resisting any comparison from their orbit to my own, now comparatively antidilluvian education. And yet they are — like I was, and all students are — overwhelmed by the embarassment of riches framed by the astounding prospect of two to three years of uninterrupted study, a period culminating, for many, in the development of a thesis.
While the definition of a thesis varies from school to school, one thing remains startlingly undisputed: how can you possibly narrow your focus when the world is truly your oyster?
And that's just the beginning in what seems, more often than not, to be a series of paradoxical propositions. If you’re graduating in the middle of a
recession, it’s likely that an arc of despair trumps the impending thrill of your newly-liberated station in life. Conversely,
though, I can’t imagine a better time to get out of school. Nobody’s
hiring, but why let that stop you? While the mechanics of, say, having
a roof over your head suggest that a little modest income might be a
good thing, the actual economics of making work no longer depend on an
actual employer. The portfolio no longer means a big black suitcase schlepped
around from studio to studio. Get your work online, put your videos on
YouTube, and get busy.
On the other hand, if you’ve selected the work-for-someone-else route,
concentrate on having as many conversations as you can with as many
people as possible. (Bonus points for people smarter than you: isn't your tennis game supposed to improve if you choose a better opponent? The same holds true for interviews.) Never leave an interview without at least three
names of other people to go see. Don't be afraid to ask them about their choices, too. Ask them to tell you what they think you should read. And assume that as busy as you are,
we’re all even busier, so send a link to your work ahead of time.
Arrange your interviews by email. And afterward, go that extra step
and send a thank-you note.
If you’re heading to school in the fall as a first-timer, you’re likely
to be truly overwhelmed by a level of option paralysis which is, arguably, unlike anything you've ever experienced — which is an even more persuasive reason for you to find ways to focus
your energies. If you don’t already do it, start keeping a notebook. Travel
everywhere with it, as you do with things like your camera and your cell phone: consider the notebook an
extension of your mind and of your studio. Do not wait to get back to
your desk to write things down or, better yet, to draw them. If you
draw something every day, you will find, over time, that your facility
with the pencil is a huge boon to thinking visually. If the notebook is
with you all the time, you can afford to be a little unfocused. Later
on, you’ll look at what you wrote and saved and drew and you will realize that
without even trying, you created a time-capsule that is, itself, a manifestation of what mattered. Instant, retroactive focus. Go to the head of the class.
Students returning in the fall, especially seniors and final-year
graduate students, face a somewhat different challenge: how to narrow
the frame of investigation (deciding on a topic, or a method, or a principal focus
for your final investigations) while still leaving the door open to
think broadly and widely and deeply? How to be specific — and here, I
will go to my grave insisting that each and every one of you find the
elevator version (also known as the Hollywood log-line) of your topic, that expresses in a smart and pithy
fashion WHAT YOUR THESIS IS — while at the same time, opening yourself
up to as many ways of producing work that reflects and extends and
amplifies your central idea.
So here it comes, with apologies for the been-there-done-that sound of
the following disclaimer: less, in fact, is more. Less in the sense of
fewer words to describe your idea. (Refer to “elevator version,”
above.) Less in the sense of less ambitiously framed, but not one speck
less ambitious in its intellectual rigor and its craft and clarity and intent: so if you’re looking at the big
implications of the big world of big public space and the big,
undefined audiences that inhabit it — well, maybe you want to start
with something more specific, as a module that can be defined and then
scaled, torqued, re-examined but that originates as a more specific and controlled organism. Less with regard to less immediate interventions: less stuff,
fewer fonts, smaller expressions. Start simply, and go from there. There's plenty of time to get complicated later.
With structure comes freedom. And freedom, let’s not forget, is what
education is all about. It is a great time to be a student. Go out and
make great things, things that help us, inform us, enlighten and change
and impact the world in millions of meaningful and glorious ways. Your education will not end the day you graduate: on the contrary, what you're doing is learning how to learn, and how to think, and how to visualize the ideas that percolate in your brain. So here's what you do: never stop thinking. Never stop asking questions. Never, never stop reading, looking, imagining what else can be done. And don’t be afraid to start small. You’ll get there, eventually. And when
you do? Send somebody a thank you note.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts
magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale
and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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