Design as a Public Service
At the University of Minnesota College of Design graduation ceremonies, on Saturday, May 12, John Cary, who received his BA in 1999 from the same school, delivered the 2012 commencement address. After thanking dean Thomas Fisher and the faculty of the educational institution that “has given me so much,” Cary started with his inauspicious beginnings and launched into the story of his inspirational and accomplished life story and career–the two intricately entwined. His trajectory is sharply focused on the growing field of public interest design, an area that he is personally is helping to define. Here is his message to the graduating class, any graduating class in any field in fact, as well as the design professions in search of defining the 21st century practice.–SSS
I came to the University of Minnesota in 1995, having graduated from a Jesuit high school in Milwaukee’s inner city. Few people, except my parents who are here today, know that my first semester GPA in high school was a whopping 1.9. If you weren’t book smart or an athletic super star at my high school, you kind of fell through the cracks. At least I did.
Thankfully, I landed in the basement, where an inspiring teacher—who was trained as an engineer and taught drafting classes—introduced me to design. It was through that high school teacher that I got involved with Habitat for Humanity, and helped transform an abandoned house into a family’s dream home—to this day one of the most meaningful projects that I’ve ever worked on.
Even though my high school GPA gradually improved, it was still a minor miracle when I got accepted to the University of Minnesota. So I was initially relegated to some remedial courses, but those classes clearly worked because they prepared me to enter the college, where something happened: I came alive. In fact, the more I discovered about design, the more I came alive. Design provided this whole new way of looking at the world and understanding my role in it.
When I eventually graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1999, my classmates and I were almost as excited to hear famed architect Frank Gehry speak as we were to receive our diplomas. Mr. Gehry was receiving an honorary doctorate and was one of two invited speakers—the other being the late great architect, Ralph Rapson, whom the College of Design’s Minneapolis campus building is now named after.
We waited anxiously to hear Mr. Gehry speak. When the time finally came, he accepted the university’s honorary degree and uttered just two words: “Thank you.” Gracious, but not exactly the words of wisdom we were hoping for.
Today is probably the only opportunity I’ll ever have to one-up a starchitect. So rather than two words, I’d like to share three stories.
First, when I was an undergraduate here, every student had a mailbox—as in a physical mailbox to receive actual mail, if you can believe it, not an email inbox, although I’m young enough (barely) that we had those as well.
Our mailboxes were these thin, vertical slots, in a large wooden structure along the perimeter of the courtyard of what is now called Rapson Hall. It was there that a very official newsletter appeared at some unpredictable intervals.
The newsletters looked as if they were type written, listing announcements, deadlines, and such, only to be Xeroxed onto various shades of pastel colored paper.
It was obvious from the stacks of paper and rainbow of colors that amassed by the end of each semester that few students were reading the newsletters. Simultaneously, my peers were complaining that they didn’t know what was going on and were missing out on opportunities. To compound my frustration with the situation, the newsletters were often riddled with spelling and other grammatical errors.
So, not knowing what else to do or perhaps because I was just a sophomore punk, I started editing the newsletters with a red pen, and then sending them back to the Department of Architecture. I’m sure the departmental staff loved that.
Well, after a few episodes of these shenanigans, dean Fisher somehow found out it was me, called me into his office, closed his door, and basically asked what I was trying to prove (he was a 16-year professional editor, mind you, and I had written nothing more than term papers). Dean Fisher ultimately said that if I thought I could do a better job, he’d reassign that staff member. Stunned, I accepted.
A day or two later, I somehow worked up even more audacity to walk into the dean’s office again, and explained that I would need an office myself…and a computer. Dean Fisher replied that some faculty didn’t even have such luxuries at the time
But within weeks, I had a hulking desktop computer in a spacious, two-room, corner office, right above what was then dean’s office, albeit with an emeritus professor’s name on the door. It became something of a clubhouse for my friends and me.
And soon, I had started an email newsletter and was communicating weekly with nearly 1,000 students, staff, faculty, and a growing number of alumni.
That job—including the office—never existed before, not until I made it up.
Turns out, I’ve basically made up every job I’ve ever had, or radically altered the couple that came with position descriptions.
I was never interested in having a “job” and I generally eschew the notion of a career.
What I’ve always sought, instead, is a sense of purpose. I look for problems and I try to solve them. That’s essentially the only job description I’ve ever needed to feel inspired. I imagine, at the heart of it, the same will be true for you.
Most of the problems that I’ve identified or worked on in my career have had more to do with communication than design in the traditional sense, though I always felt like I was designing—even if not buildings, products, or other things we typically recognize as design.
The design fields are overloaded with people fighting for the rare chance to design or create the same types of things that we’ve always created—for the same types of clients we’ve always served. I’ll get to that later.
But while others are creating, I’m connecting; there’s a huge need for both, but a disproportionate number of people focused solely on the prior.
If you remember one thing from my talk today, let it be this: The world needs more connectors.
My second story starts a few years later at the ripe age of 26, as I finished my Master of Architecture at UC Berkeley. A glutton for punishment, I started my PhD, but was soon after recruited away to direct an up-and-coming nonprofit design organization, called Public Architecture, based in San Francisco.
It had a visionary founder, no funding, and little more than a mission statement at the time, but I knew it had huge potential. Our mission was simply “to put the resources of architecture in the service of the public interest.” Among other projects or stunts, we built a house out of garbage in front of San Francisco City Hall, and it became the subject of a National Geographic Channel documentary.
But we didn’t just undertake projects ourselves; we did something bigger and much more far-reaching: We launched a pro bono design service program, called “The 1%,” asking design firms nationwide to pledge a minimum of one percent of their time to providing professional services for the public good.
Were every design professional in the country to donate just 1% of their time, it would be [among] the largest design firms in the world—the equivalent of a 10,000-person design firm, working fulltime for the public good.
Imagine what a design firm of that scale could do. Imagine more welcoming community centers, more beautiful public spaces, more healing places, more dignifying public housing. Projects likes these would demonstrate for once and for all that design is a critical public service, not just a luxury for a few.
With over 1,000 firms signed on to date and an estimated $38 million in pledges annually, the real power and potential of The 1% program are to connect designers willing to give of their time with nonprofit organizations and individuals who would not otherwise be able to afford the services of a designer.
We watched with great pride and amazement as our pro bono program grew, but my all-time favorite moment during my work on The 1% program happened in an unlikely place with an unlikely person. I had gone to meet an amazing woman who is now my wonderful wife at a bar in New York City. When I arrived, she immediately introduced me to a friend, a woman she knew, named Rachel Lloyd.
Rachel is the author of a best-selling book about young girls who have been trafficked into sex work, both around the world, but also right here in America, where an estimated 300,000 girls and women are trafficked into commercial sex work each year.
While a teen in the U.K., Rachel was one of those girls, herself trafficked into sex work. In her escape, Rachel came to the U.S., and started this life-saving organization, called GEMS, short for Girls Education & Mentoring Services, based in Harlem.
When I explained to Rachel that I was a designer, she immediately asked if I knew the firm Perkins+Will. Startled, I said “Of course,” but I couldn’t imagine how she knew them.
Turns out, late one night Rachel had looked around her drab and dingy GEMS office (the kind of office most nonprofits occupy), and it occurred to her that she and the girls she was fighting to get off the streets deserved something better. They too deserved a more dignifying environment in which to work and to heal and to rebuild their lives. So that night, Rachel did a Google search and stumbled on an article about a fancy design firm, called Perkins+Will; it had a woman’s email address at the end, so she typed that woman a message.
When Rachel woke up the next morning, she was stunned to discover that the woman from Perkins+Will had responded. And within a couple of days, Perkins+Will—one of the top design firms in the country—agreed to redesign the storefront interior of Rachel’s organization as part of their pro bono pledge through The 1% program.
The space is now filled with color, life, and beauty. Over 60 major manufacturers donated materials—everything from the paint on the walls, to the carpet on the floor.
Rachel has since become one of the most articulate advocates for the power of design that I’ve ever heard. I hope someday, regardless of your exact design field, you have clients like Rachel and her girls.
If you were to remember a second thing from my talk today, let it be this:
The world is filled with deserving clients, like Rachel Lloyd.
But this one comes with a warning: When you seek them out, just be prepared for clients like Rachel to become your favorite clients and your best and most genuine spokespeople. You won’t be disappointed.
Stories like Rachel’s are the basis for my third and final story. It’s a story about us turning Rachel’s chance encounter into a real, deliberate practice. It’s about getting designers, like you, to be proactive and seek out deserving clients, like Rachel, rather than waiting for the phone to ring or an email to appear in your inbox. And rather than wasting your time on design competitions that will never see the light of day.
This is how the field of public interest law works, as does the equivalent in medicine, public health. And we’re on the brink of formalizing this type of practice into an entirely new field of public interest design.
To help make that happen, I’ve joined forces with people like dean Fisher and entities like the College of Design here at Minnesota, as well as foundations, corporations, nonprofit design organizations, and public agencies to formalize a field of public interest design.
Public interest design starts with a belief in the power of design to transform lives. It’s a belief that everyone deserves good design—and, in fact, it’s a belief that every human being needs good design in order to live their best lives.
If you believe in justice, then you believe that everyone should have access to legal services. If you believe in health, then you believe everyone needs access to health care. And if you believe in design—really truly believe in the transformative power of design—then you have to believe that people like Rachel and her girls deserve good design.
I’m here to invite you to be a part of this field. It doesn’t require you to give all of your time away, found a nonprofit, or even work for one. As Perkins+Will has proven, there’s a ton you can do from the comforts of a firm or company or wherever you work. There are also opportunities and huge needs for designers in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, in government, in policy, in schools, and so many other settings.
It pains me that there’s not yet a design version of Teach for America to point you to. But just open your eyes, and everywhere you look, there is an unmet need that design very well has the ability to remedy, at least in part. No project is too small; it can take the form of a product for you industrial designers, or a building for you architects, or a landscape or public space, or a fashion campaign, or a communications design campaign, or an interior, like Rachel’s organization in Harlem.
But addressing bigger social challenges will require breaking from the usual way that designers have worked—serving the needs of private individuals, as a doctor would a single patient. Instead, we need to start considering the needs of entire communities, especially ones that can’t afford to pay.
There have been several sensationalized newspaper articles this year about the decline of design jobs, architecture in particular. I take a different view of this purported decline and this purported crisis: I think this may be the moment that design has been waiting for. It’s our chance to break our profession’s bad habit of structuring our professional services solely around a single client, and only to the extent that this client has the means to pay us to serve their interests.
Graduates, you are the next generation of designers. But I think you can be much, much more: You can be the pioneers of an entirely new way of designing for the public good—at a scale and a pace that we’ve never seen before—at a scale and pace that the world needs and deserves.
If we’re going to achieve this, you all as the next generation will need to be far more entrepreneurial and think far more systemically than designers ever have before.
Whether or not you have a job secured and know your exact next steps along your career path, I hope you walk across this stage today energized to discover the many dots left to be connected in this field and beyond.
I hope you have the privilege of meeting and transforming the life of someone like Rachel Lloyd, but be warned, she may transform your life as well.
And I hope you feel like you’re a part of this movement, this public interest design movement in the making.
We need you and so does the world.
And, now, in the immortal words of Frank Gehry, Thank You.