Earlier this year, a good friend and mentor of mine put my feet to the fire and asked “what do you want to be in five years?”
I “um”ed and “err”ed for a bit and began to give a very textbook response (probably something along the lines of “senior designer at a medium-sized brand firm”), when he abruptly stopped me, stared me dead in the eye, and said “No— what do you want to be in five years?” He was looking at the bigger picture. In the months since, I’ve repeated this question over and over in my head searching for a meaningful response, and even if he were to ask me now I’m not sure I could give him a straight answer.
When I first started dipping my toes into graphic design in my junior year of high school, I had somehow come to the conclusion that what I wanted to do was stimulate thought. A friend and I had embarked on that enterprise which every budding teenage graphic designer seems to do these days—we started designing and producing graphic t-shirts. The work we produced was well received by our peers, and what’s more it seemed to spark dialog. Nothing particularly meaningful, mind you, but it was the first glimpse I had into the power of visual communication.
Fast forward three years to the junior year of my undergrad degree. I had just been accepted into a highly competitive BFA graphic design program, and I had it in my head that I wanted to go into advertising. Exciting concepts, wide exposure, and the chance to spark that all-important dialog amongst people. After a month of my first advertising class, I knew it wasn’t for me. The net of exposure that advertising casts is indeed very wide, but short lived; the ephemeral nature of advertising all but guarantees that all your hard work will have been forgotten as quickly as it was seen. And for what, exactly? Higher sales? More consumption of our already extremely limited resources? While I respect very much the drive and creative thinking that many people in the advertising industry possess, the notion of ad work had lost its luster for me.
As I contemplated what path of design I might begin to investigate, it dawned on me that what advertising acts in service of—the foundation in which it’s rooted in— is the brand. All the billboards and print ads and Flash banners (can we seriously outlaw those already?)—they all serve to channel us to the brand. Now this was something I could sink my teeth into. Because while not everyone pays attention to advertisements, we all seem to form this pathological connection to brands (even those who abhor brands have an allegiance to the idea of “anti-brand”).
As I delved into branding further, I became interested very much in the connection between brand and product—how they integrate together, how the ethos of the marque influences the built product and vice versa. I began to take on projects that integrated product into packaging into branding, often designing all three simultaneously. I felt this holistic approach to design positively informed each component of the system; each stands strong on its own, but together as a unit they combine to be powerfully elegant.
Consumer products today tend to be very throwaway. I think part of the reason is that we’ve lost the connection of the made object to the maker. It used to be that we knew how the sausage, as it were, was made and by who. Today though, many people purchase products without even registering that someone made this; that the hands of people shepherded this object in front of you. Perhaps if this connection were made, consumers would take more care in choosing what to buy, take more care of what they have, and be kinder to those things that they discard.
Design—and moreover, powerful design—I believe has this ability to shift thought. Powerful design resonates. Powerful design projects the voice of its makers. Powerful design provokes feelings of joy, contemplation, and sometimes even guilt.
And so while it may not necessarily answer my friend’s initial question of what I’d like to be in five years, I can say this: I am interested in holistic design solutions which take brand, product, structure, and the environment all into account. I want to create things and experiences that last; to create products that will not be traded in for next year’s model, but that people will pass on; to be a steward of design that is good, solid, honest, and powerful.