Two Lives in Design

On December 16, 2006, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, awarded honorary doctorates to Metropolis publisher Horace Havemeyer III and editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy. The following is the graduation address delivered by Szenasy during the ceremonies held in a large tent on the school’s lush grounds next to the iconic Craig Ellwood building.

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A Life in Design

How does it happen that an heir to America’s sugar king ends up working with a homeless immigrant from Eastern Europe? Horace and I seldom discuss the good fortune of our collaboration, but we each recognize how lucky we are to work on a magazine we both love, focused on a subject that fascinates both of us, incessantly (you’ll notice the word “love” comes up a great deal in this talk).

I admired the Metropolis Horace started even before he hired me 20 years ago as his second editor in chief (it’s pretty unusual for a magazine to have had only two editors in chief in a quarter of a century). His magazine, with its social consciousness, was such a unique idea that after 25 years it’s still the only publication on design that makes a detailed study of all design disciplines and puts them into a cultural context.

So why did these two very different people end up with a lifelong curiosity about design, though neither of us are trained in it? I can only offer some possible answers here. Horace grew up with Impressionist paintings in the parlor, in houses designed by important architects. He lived among beautiful objects in households with strong female voices. Both his environment and the strong women must have made lasting impressions on him.

My story could not be more different. In elementary school in communist Hungary my water colors always ended up in class displays. I wrote, produced, and acted in plays that glorified the Red Army as Hungary’s “liberators”. Though my parents told me the real story of oppression that the Red Army represented to them; in rebellion I produced communist-themed theatrical events at the age of eight or nine. A few years later someone gave me a little notebook and some colored pencils in one of the refugee camps my family ended up in after we escaped when the Hungarian Revolution was crushed by that same Red Army. By the way, when I say “escaped,” we literally did that—there was gunfire involved that evening in November, 1956.

And so in this little notebook I wrote the narrative of our travails through refugee camps in Austria, Germany, and later and finally, in New Jersey. I also illustrated what I saw: architecture, rooms, objects, cars, and the very first orange I ever ate. That notebook was lost, but my love of words and images remained and grew with the years. I hope you can see evidence of that love in Metropolis. For me this magic of words and images is reaffirmed each moth as we produce the magazine.

In fact, I never fully internalize the significance of a story—no matter how well it is written, and we are known for our emphasis on good writing—until I see the art that goes with the text. I am truly happy when I can finally look at the layouts each month and discover how our designers pulled together their multi-layered presentations of narrative text, sidebars, factoids, information graphics, quotes, heads, credits, and images, including some illustrations in cases when photographs aren’t enough to communicate a difficult idea.

Our layered graphics are no accident. They are the result of our constant search for ways to show—to make transparent—the complex nature of what designers do. We strive to reveal the inner workings of the design process—be this focused on the making of ergonomic chairs designed for disassembly or green roofs built to reduce heat islands in dense urban neighborhoods.

Horace and I have agreed from the very beginning that design is an essential human activity—that it, indeed, is a humanist vocation. I use the word “vocation” to imply a “calling.” And therefore we who report on the activities of designers owe it to them, to ourselves, and to society to find stories of ethical creativity as well as responsible professional behavior. We are interested in more than just the fulfillment of the design brief. We want to know how the user, the earth, and the client are served by the design. We want to know what the design says about us as a people.

The people we hire catch on early that they must demand of themselves the same excellence as writers, editors, and art directors as they demand of their subjects. Each person who works with us feels an ownership in the magazine—and we’re happy that they do, after all, they’re responsible for producing it.

I spent yesterday here at Art Center and came away exhilarated by what I saw and heard. Horace, I would like to tell you here and now, that we have some great material coming our way in the next few years! I can guarantee you that.

I saw real-world, feet-on-the-ground visionary work. I heard articulate and poised young people describing memorable work which can range from socially-connected zines to sustainable shoes to critical texts expertly laid out. I learned, for instance, that Americans can recognize ten species of plants while they know a thousand logos. This is dramatic information about our culture. Such facts—memorably presented—can have a huge impact on our desensitized consumer society.

Big ideas—of which we need plenty today—can only be communicated by designers who do their homework. Homework, by the way, is forever. Horace and I study every day and so do our editors and art directors.

As one of your teachers told me, you leave this beautiful place today with “creative survival skills”. That you are proficient in design is clear to me. What you will need to keep a steady eye on is your engagement with humanity and the earth that gives us life.

As a historian I like to remember the wisdom of those who went before us. I’d like to remind you that Charles Eames and Alvar Aalto talked about the importance of designing for someone you know. Not just some marketing aggregate, which you will, of course, need to pay attention to, but also a sister, a mom, a dad, a baby brother, a grandmother.

Just think of the lasting appeal of the Eames work: 50-60 years; the Aalto work: 70-plus years. This is something to strive for—to know the human condition well enough to be able to design things that talk to us through the years—not some trend that’s here today and in the landfill tomorrow. We can no longer afford this kind of wasteful design. Now, more than ever, we need designers who can create the future classics, things that will be recycled and loved by many different generations.

You are trained to do work that is noble and rewarding. You are form-givers and communicators who have the ability to create a new, humane and sustainable vision of the world. You can make useful things beautiful and meaningful and lasting.

So what do I leave you with today? What one small nugget of inspiration can I give you that will help you think about your own life in design? I’d like you to envision the mighty California redwood which we all look at in awe. That redwood found an environment it can thrive in and help support whole eco-systems in the process. If you are lucky enough to recognize such a supportive environment—the way I did at Metropolis—put down your roots and watch yourself grow. It’s exhilarating!

If you love design, nurture that love, not just by observing other designers’ work but by learning about the culture, the people, the environment design supports. If you don’t love design, use the great education you got here and experiment until you find what you love. Life is too short to spend it bored, discontented, and disconnected.

And, finally, I’d like to tell you that we are coming to a time when design is becoming necessary once again as an essential contributor to our health, safety, and well-being. You have inherited a poisoned earth plagued with enormous inequities in resources (and remember, the design community is a major specifier of materials); just think of the difference between what you have here in Pasadena and then think of the pictures from Darfur or closer to home, New Orleans.

You’re in good shape to meet these challenges. You have learned the ways of creative thinking. Your ability to build models based on research makes your contribution a highly sought-after skill. But more than that, you can communicate complex ideas clearly, elegantly, beautifully. Whether you enter a boardroom, a consultancy, or your own office, you arrive with the confidence of a well-trained specialist whose contribution is sought out by others in different specialties other than your own. Respect those other specialties and learn from them. Incorporate what you learn into your design work, then come to Metropolis and tell us about it so we can tell the world. Remember, we’re all in this together: telling stories about design is as important as the design itself.

And I hope, when you stand where I am standing now, you can say with confidence, as I do now: My work in design is my life. And love both my life and my work. It can’t get any better than that!

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