A Word of Thanks for Art and Design in a World Still Burdened by Racism

I suppose it’s fitting that within the same week that I caught up with the Cliven Bundy story, I also got around to watching "12 Years a Slave." I can’t say that I was particularly interested in seeing the film even if it did win three Academy awards. Given that my ancestors—my own flesh and blood—experienced the kind of torture and degradation that have been brought to the big screen in such painful detail, I knew it was going to be a challenge to sit through. The idea that I am genealogically connected to people who were kidnapped and forced into servitude for centuries isn’t difficult to understand in an abstract sense. But trying to fully comprehend their lives and existence as real people who suffered is another matter. Yet somehow, as evidenced by virtue of my presence in this world, they managed to survive in body if not fully in spirit.

That anyone anywhere in the world could ever romanticize slavery, consequently, should give us all pause. However innocuous “picking cotton” might sound to some, the words belie the laundry list of horrors slaves endured at the hands of their fellow human beings, to say nothing of the parade of injustices and atrocities—including Jim Crow laws and community-sanctioned lynching—that have followed.

When the Donald Sterling / L.A. Clippers scandal hit the 24-hour news cycle right on the heels of the Bundy story, I could only roll my eyes and be reminded of Don Imus’ infamous “nappy-headed hos” comment several years ago in reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. But whether we’re talking about athletes or the First Family, whether we are referencing overt acts of racism or systemic forms of discrimination that are embedded in our culture and institutions, the sickness is the same. We cannot seem to free ourselves of our attachment to the value we place on skin color. We cannot seem to grasp the damage that is done when we perpetuate the idea that pigmentation is some sort of defect to be overcome, or a peculiarity to be exoticized. We can’t seem to grasp the reality that outside appearance is no reflection of intelligence or ability, and that those who look a certain way are not inherently better members of society than others.

Thank God, then, for art and design. Without them, we would be utterly lost. No, art is not rocket science. Design is not brain surgery. Our ability to create, however, is part of what makes us human. As easy as it is to dismiss the arts when it comes to practical matters, they teach us to appreciate what is in front of us, even if we have cause to question our understanding. As I’ve argued numerous times prior, art and design connect us in ways that help us overcome our limitations and remember our common humanity. The spectrum of what is beautiful and worthy is infinite, and looking to find fault or criticizing what we don’t “get” shows a supreme lack of imagination.

To quote Macy Gray:

So baby, in between
Notice the blue skies
Notice the butterflies
Notice me
Stop and smell the flowers
And lose it In sweet music
And dance with me
'Cause there is beauty in the world
So much beauty in the world
Always beauty in the world
There is beauty in the world

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of writing about this topic as well as all of the others that collide with the kind of work I do for a living. Much of what I have put in my posts has, selfishly, been for me, but I can't even say how much I’ve appreciated the number of people who have either commented on my posts or expressed their support in person. (It’s been humbling to say the least.) So, as I sit here writing my last blog entry, I’m extremely grateful to have had the opportunity. Many thanks to Duane, Liz, Tim and the Goshen Commons staff for all of the hard work they’ve put into creating this kind of community forum. And, lastly, a special shout-out goes to my former student and design baby Emma Brooks for the wonderful graphics she created for this site!

It’s been a pleasure.

A Designer Joins the D.I.Y. Debate

More often than not, I’m so ensconced in the bubble of my daily schedule that I become removed from—and oblivious to—some of the informal yet pertinent conversations that are happening within the design community. During the moments when my brain is simply too fried to function properly, however, and I’m mindlessly scanning blogs or catching the latest piece of hilarity from Key & Peele, that’s when I tend to stumble upon the interesting stories that are tangentially, if not directly, related to design. In the midst of one such brain-fried moment, I came across a brief interview between Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller on the subject of the do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) movement and its implications for design professionals. Lupton and Heller are both individuals I admire—I use Lupton’s book "Thinking with Type" as a course text and am working my way through "The Education of a Graphic Designer" by Heller—so was inevitably fascinated by their conversation. Though the discussion took place several years ago when Lupton’s "D.I.Y: Design It Yourself" text was first published, the questions the two authors pose are still relevant, testing the boundaries of design as a profession.

Heller argues in favor of maintaining differentiation between amateurs and professionals: “By making our work so easy to do, we are devaluing our profession…With everything so democratic, we can lose the elite status that gives us credibility.”

Lupton then parries with the following:

“Perhaps our credibility shouldn’t come from design’s elite status, but rather from its universal relevance to daily life. Not everyone is a design ‘professional,’ a person dedicated to solving complex problems and carrying out large, capital-intensive projects. But everyone can design elements of their own life, from their personal business cards or letterheads to their own flyers and wedding invitations.”

Both make valid points. And, predictably, I agree with both.

The part of me that is squarely in Heller's corner bristles when my profession is seemingly relegated to that of glorified software-users who take advantage of the magical source of free fonts and vector art (aka the Internet's) to design stuff. The part of me that agrees with Heller also remembers pouring every ounce of emotional and physical energy I had into my design education. I don’t consider myself to be a creative hotshot but I can attest to the fact that having a terminal degree in the field requires much more than inherent creativity or proficiency with Adobe programs. Yes, the idea that I haven’t earned the right to claim expertise on some level, despite the effort I’ve put into becoming better and more knowledgeable about design and teaching, rankles.

On the other hand, to Lupton’s point, design as a form of egalitarian expression is a powerful concept. One need not wear the title “designer” to produce work that is worthy of acknowledgement. One need not wear the title “designer” to produce work that, even in a small way, makes the world a happier or more interesting place. Good design cannot be suppressed, regardless of who is doing the making and creating.

All of this is to say that I would rather put what time and energy I have into figuring out how to accommodate change as opposed to fighting against it; I prefer to use my design superpowers to help address the larger, systemic and complex problems Lupton describes than get caught up in territorial battles over business cards and letterhead. The design profession is changing, after all. D.I.Y. design might in fact be encroaching on domains previously overseen by professionals. However, with design education simultaneously providing paths to new collaborative, interdisciplinary career opportunities, there’s still room for everyone.

Giving Failure a Chance

The TV comedy show “Arrested Development,” a treasure trove of inside jokes and obscure references shared among true fans—for example, “There’s always money in a banana stand”—is also layered with the kind of humor that pokes fun at the humanness of human beings, pitting those of us who color inside the lines against those who color outside of them. There is no clichéd good versus evil narrative, however; there are only characters who try to be good and characters who try not to be bad, and together they inevitably create family drama. This dynamic is typified in a scene where Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) says to his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), “It’s time for us to start having some fun.” George Michael, quoting the motivational poster that hangs nearby responds, “I don’t know…‘Fun and Failure: Both start out the same way.’ ”

I always laugh when I think about this quote. The implication, of course, is that it’s better to avoid fun lest the desire for having a good time lead to failure, crushing one’s hopes and dreams forever. I’ve come to accept the fact that I frequently hold myself to standards that I can’t possibly live up to, and appreciate the comical reminder of how ridiculous it is to take oneself too seriously. Failing does not determine whether or not we are decent human beings, nor does it dictate what we’re capable of achieving. And yet just the fear of failure can be debilitating.

When I find myself defaulting to a “play it safe” mentality, I think about Steve Jobs. He is commonly remembered as the face of Apple, an entrepreneurial/marketing/tech genius, and yet his public failures are an important part of the larger story that marked an extremely successful career. During a commencement speech in 2005, he spoke about his experience of being forced to resign from the company he helped found:

“I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

“I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

“Fun” might not be the best word to describe this situation; however, Jobs’ point is important. Creative thinking and creative development are not bound by conventional standards of measurement. Rather than limit us, the idea that failure could lead to something unexpected, something better, should free us from the fear of falling short. How else do we test our strength? There is no incentive to be brave, to create, to think outside the proverbial box and do what we love if we cannot also learn the significance of trying again. And again.

I’ve come into contact with many students over the past few years who, like me, are determined to color inside the lines. Admittedly, such attention to detail is rewarded in my classes. Part of what keeps the creative process fun, however, is the messiness involved. So I’m challenging myself to think differently, and to consider how I might encourage students to take more risks, giving them time and opportunity to completely fail yet still end the semester with a strong, creative body of work.

It might be true that “Fun and Failure: Both start out the same way,” but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

When Art Enriches Friendships

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.  — C.S. Lewis

From left to right: Me, Sarah, Marla.

This past summer my friend Sarah Kingsley-Metzler and I flew out to Portland to see Marla and Jesse Hostetter Kropf and their two sons, Zeke and Keen. Marla and Sarah and I have been friends for well over 10 years now—that’s in addition to the nearly 20 years Sarah and I have known each other—and though the three of us have lived far apart for a significant amount of that time, I think it’s fair to say that we have collectively crossed the threshold of lifelong friendship.

One of Marla's photographs.

But even after 10, 15, 20 years, there are limits to how much we can know or understand about any single person. Time gives us the benefit of familiarity, however, we are continually changing, reshaped by layer after layer of experiences, which, subsequently, allows us space to appreciate the people closest to us in new ways.

Marla, Sarah and I are well into our respective career paths—Marla, a nurse practitioner; Sarah, a teacher with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction; and me, a design professor in higher ed. Despite the differences between us, which extend beyond the career choices we’ve made, the areas of common interests are still relatively clear. We all lived in Colorado at the same time and, consequently, share a love for the mountains, hiking and camping, and a general appreciation for the outdoors; our political beliefs are also generally the same, as are our attitudes about the importance of community; and all three of us are close to our families.

Marla's son Zeke also has some mad creative skills.

Still, the trip out West made me appreciate my friends in a new light. Now, I’ve always respected Marla as a pragmatic, cool-headed medical professional -- that is, the person who remains calm in any crisis. And even though this describes only part of who she is as an individual, I was surprised when she mentioned how much she enjoyed photography. Her days of singing in high school choirs long past, I’m embarrassed to say that it hadn’t occurred to me that finding a creative outlet was still important to her. Yes, as much as I proselytize about the colloquial language of art and how it should be accessible to everyone, Marla has been a humble reminder not to underestimate folks who are, for whatever reason, overlooked as “non-artist types.” I have newfound respect for her as a creative individual in her own right, and am impressed at the way she and Jesse have inspired the same enthusiasm for the arts in their sons.

My first hand-lettered project.

Sarah, by contrast, has invariably represented the quintessential artist. I used to envy her drawing and painting abilities, and assumed she would end up doing something artsy as far as her future work was concerned. So, when she opted to pursue teaching at the middle school and high school levels instead, I’m not sure the significance of that decision registered. Only now, in hindsight, can I imagine how uncertain she might have felt; she put aside something she knew she was good at to follow a trajectory that was a bit more ambiguous. And yet, despite the change in focus, Sarah’s interest in art never wavered. The skills she developed early on have come through in the way she teaches and mentors, and in the creative attitudes she inspires in her students.

One of Sarah's pen and ink drawings.

Art and design reflect abilities that are unique to each person but they also inspire connections in ways that deepen friendships and foster gratitude. Three friends, three artists. Our day jobs have taken us in divergent directions but I’m just beginning to see how much our shared appreciation for art will keep us connected for years to come.

Putting Away Facebook, in a Bid for Balance

It should come as no surprise that designers love technology. From software programs to computer hardware, it’s more or less our job to know how to navigate the realm of digital media. We are embedded in it. Keyboard shortcuts become a second language to the extent that we find ourselves trying to mentally “undo,” “cut” and “paste” in the real world as well as the virtual one. There are even times when I walk into a room and start looking around for the nearest outlet, regardless of the fact that, in that moment, I don’t actually need one. (Perhaps there’s comfort in simply knowing that access to electricity is nearby?) Whether I'm in a library or coffee shop to get some work done, I end up in a tangle of cords and electronic devices, situated around my laptop.

There’s no question in my mind that technology has brought significant improvements to the world we live in, making it easier to connect with people, access information, develop ways of harnessing renewable energy sources to minimize our collective carbon footprint, and the list goes on. Certainly, in the creative industry, technology allows designers to execute concepts and share ideas more efficiently, often with greater flexibility.

As with most things in life, however, balance is part of appreciating the benefits of technology. In previous posts I’ve referred to the “cacophony” of sounds, images and information that we are continually bombarded with from one day to the next. Texting, Skyping, e-mailing, tweeting, blogging, vlogging—there are myriad ways in which we are creating, absorbing and passing content on to others with no let up. This experience is exemplified in a Portlandia segment where one of the main characters finds himself in the midst of a “technology loop.” But the question remains: Where or how do we go about finding spaces to help relieve our frazzled nerves?

Inspired by my sister-in-law, I deactivated my Facebook account two months ago. My only hesitation was the initial concern about being “out of the loop,” until I came to realize that I really didn’t miss being in the know. There are disadvantages, of course, but my estrangement from Facebook hasn’t affected the fundamental nature of the relationships that I find most meaningful anyway. Most surprisingly, having just one less thing to check or think about throughout the day has decreased stress and anxiety levels. Go figure.

I’m not sure how long the self-imposed social media hiatus will last. In the meantime, I’m trying to pay closer attention to the beauty and creativity that are fostered in the real world. Facebook-free moments are still documented through memory and feelings, internal records of things I’ve seen and done though the ephemeral experiences themselves have long gone and, most likely, will not be appreciated by anyone other than those who were with me at the time.

Just as the support of public acknowledgements for the highs and the lows in life help us feel connected, there’s also a kind of comfort that derives from private interactions and conversations that are obscured from the rest of the world.

I usually begin each academic semester by asking my students whether their most significant learning experiences take place inside or outside of the classroom. More often than not, they are inspired by what they encounter beyond institutional walls, though the “outside” experiences clearly influence their “inside” work and creative output. Likewise, as much as technology can facilitate creative endeavors, it doesn’t make us more creative. True inspiration, for me, comes from the things that I can see, hear, touch, smell, taste -- that is, being in the moment.

No, this is not a self-righteous rant or a call to abandon social media. I’m simply speaking on my own behalf as an individual who both loves and loathes technology, who marvels at the beauty and innovation that is born out of scientific advances while also, at times, feeling overwhelmed by it; who is inevitably curious about the changes between Adobe CS5 and CS6 while simultaneously finding relief in taking a break from the electronic clutter in my life.

During this period of (partially) stepping back from the digital world, I am giving my mind space and time to rest while continuing to appreciate the breadth of creativity around me.