Five secrets for a successful design career
Art Center College of Design commencement address
May 17, 1985
President Kubly, distinguished members of the faculty,
ladies, and gentlemen.
This could be a serious speech, the kind of commencement
address bent on propelling you into “the jungle of real
But it won’t be. I promise. What I really would like to do is
amuse you with all the mistakes I have made since I left art school
in London after two years of study. But, I don’t think President
Kubly would think much of my telling you about the first time I
read a speech before an art college audience many years ago. It put
one attractive coed to sleep after five minutes. But it all worked
out very well. I married her at the end of the term—she had shown
such good judgment.
This surely is no time for gloomy reflections on the perils of
the real world. This is a commencement—a beginning, a time for hope
and optimism. For some of you, a time of euphoria.
After all, how can you people miss when you get out there? You
have had the intelligence and foresight to spend the best years of
your life at the best design college in this country, perhaps on
this planet. And you have worked very hard these last three or four
years, I’m sure.
You are so much better prepared for the challenges ahead than
were most designers of my generation. You have your youth, your
talent, your skills, and a business community now more than ever
aware of its dependence on effective design. They are learning that
there is no substitute for a good designer—not even a computer! The
last few years we have been trying to make computers work for us at
Landor Associates, but so far they have not been able to compete
with creative talent like yours, wonderful tools as they are.
So well prepared as you are, you stand a very good chance of
being resilient to the annoying little shocks to your ego and to
your ideals, which you are sure to experience in the years
I mention these shocks only because they are bound to occur in
the natural course of events when you start expressing yourself in
the business community for the first few times—no longer in the
protected environment of academia where your design professors were
your only judges. After all, they were a band of benevolent
You will discover soon in that business community, a new and
often puzzling species—the clients. It will be your task—and
believe me, it is an interesting challenge—to convince them that
you know what you are doing.
You will have to convince them that you know how to use design
to communicate to their customers—millions of nameless consumers
whom you have never met. But then, I hasten to add, neither have
You should think of those consumers as actually being your boss.
Whatever you design will ultimately—in one way or another—be asking
for their approval. It will be your job to make them swallow your
creativity, to make them respond favorably.
That realization may be tough for many of you at
first—particularly those of you who have developed very fixed ideas
about your style of good design and your almost exclusive ability
to produce it.
And that brings us to that old question. What the hell is good
design? Is it something that gives satisfaction to your own ego? Or
is it something that creates a positive response in the eyes,
minds, and hearts of millions of people? Also, is it something that
is appropriate to its category?
Ideally it is all of these. Some of us strive for
self-expression—just like fine artists. And some of us strive to
communicate—and that’s a whole other fine art. I think we have
matured as designers when we eventually realize that these need not
be mutually exclusive goals.
Think of the creation of good design as a problem-solving
activity. There is the challenge, the real fun that lies ahead for
most of you.
You may know that the Chinese have only one character in their
calligraphy for both “problem” and “opportunity.” Well, you can
view design as a problem and perhaps find a solution, or you can
view it as an opportunity, and perhaps find inspiration.
In approaching a design assignment, you do have the opportunity
for self-expression. But that, unfortunately, isn’t primarily what
your clients pay for. They grasp the opportunity to use your
creative genius to influence those millions of people to respond in
favor of the products and services they are selling. They welcome
your leadership in this regard, but they couldn’t care less about
your own satisfaction or the bruised condition of your innermost
There is a big difference between a paying client—and a
We at Landor Associates are willing and anxious to listen to the
average man and woman in the marketplace. We are respectful of
consumer needs, including the need to understand what we are trying
to say to them. This often means a subordination of personal style
preferences in solving a design problem. First and foremost, our
task as we see it is to find innovative ways to communicate to a
mass audience in a manner in which they can respond to our client’s
message. Whatever that message may be. We never forget that we are
in the business of marketing. We try to harness the emotional power
of design to communicate to the marketplace.
We try hard not to have a personal style, not to let
personalities get in the way of immediate and positive
communication. We do admire the work of some of our designer
friends and colleagues who have led the way by developing, and
becoming known for, a very personal, avant-garde style.
Sophisticated clients select them for their personal style, and
when it is appropriate to the communications problem, it works. The
choice is yours: emphasis on personal style or on communications
We at Landor Associates have chosen the latter path. We spend
great effort in searching out the best and most direct route to the
minds and hearts of the consumer, the target audience, for the
particular message the clients need to get across. We employ design
as a tool to express the client’s selling strategy. We call it
strategic design. Of course, we still insist on the best possible
aesthetic solution that is consistent with optimum communications
effectiveness. This is often tough to accomplish, but it is worth
To determine just what is the optimum communications approach
needed to reach a wide audience, you have to trust your intuition
while designing. But if you want to be absolutely sure, you will
quickly discover that you may have to use more scientific ways to
find out how a design is perceived by the target
As far back as the early 1950s, we organized a communications
research group to develop pretesting methods to help us evaluate
consumer perceptions of design alternatives—be it a package or a
corporate identity program. Pretesting has become an increasingly
useful tool in our international work also. So you see, design has
formed a partnership with research. Personal style is sometimes
subordinated to the demands of communication. Art is trying to
marry science—in a funny way.
I know many of your fine teachers have prepared you for this
alarming news. But it will still be a bit of a shock.
But I will not cast a pall on the festivities by chanting the
usual litany of things you already know. Things like, “The world is
full of philistines who know little about art and design.” Besides,
you will be happy to know, there is abundant evidence that the
philistines are losing ground, and that design appreciation is a
fast-growing force in the world today. Good design has become
important to everything from airplanes to fast food places to
postage stamps, reaching into every corner of our national life.
People’s increasing sensitivity to environment is resulting in
larger and larger markets demanding better design.
We have watched this trend gain momentum for over 40 years and
contributed what we could. Historically, as you may know, our
profession first became important to marketing during the Great
Depression of the 1930s. While most companies were wringing their
hands, many initiated newly designed products, designed by our
predecessors like Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, etcetera, which
succeeded thanks to distinctive marketing superiority. They
communicated through their performance, their appearance, and their
As more trained people entered the field from the very few
top-level schools which taught the subjects, the industrial
designers broadened their scope to include not only the product,
the store in which the product was sold, the packaging and the
vehicles which delivered it, and all the printed materials needed
to support the sales effort, but also the design of the corporation
itself and all of its visual communications.
This second phase of what came to be known as corporate identity
has been an important aspect of commercial life for some 20 years
or more. We began developing corporate identity systems in the
early ’50s. Since then, the field of design has expanded into a
third phase, which we might refer to as “total communications
The total communications approach involves a series of systems
that may involve anything from restructuring complex corporate
organizations to repositioning product lines. It is the development
of methodology for bringing every environmental, visual, and
promotional aspect of the company and its activities into a
consistent, harmonious visual expression. This kind of
communications system clarifies the corporate purpose and direction
to all its publics—both internal and external. A welcome challenge,
I am sure, for every one of you!
No longer is the designer a handmaiden adding little niceties
when budgets allow. He or she now is—and will increasingly be—an
important part of the managerial team, right up there with the top
executives, literally helping shape strategic policy.
So that’s the world you are about to enter. Don’t let it scare
you. You have too much to offer it.
Now I would like to let you in on a few of my very own secrets.
You may find them deceptively simple, but I assure you they could
be surprisingly important to your careers.
First. Look critically at everything.
Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t allow your vision to be
numbed by routine and familiarity. I mean truly look. Go
through life every day looking at every environment, every product,
every package, every graphic design, every photograph, every piece
of furniture, all the way down to the manhole cover—on a daily
basis. Next, sit back and enjoy it. And then figure out what you
could do to improve it. It’s a wonderful exercise that will keep
your talents fresh and your creative skills well honed. It is an
exhilarating way to go through life.
Second. Learn to listen. This is difficult. We
all enter a dialogue with preconceived notions—nearly unshakable
convictions. It is all too easy to shut out another’s point of
view, to dismiss it as irrelevant before we have truly heard it. A
good way to overcome this is to postpone arguing against another’s
point of view until you find yourself receptive to it.
Then question it. This will do wonders for you in design
critiques and client meetings.
Third. Become articulate. “But we are
designers,” you say. “We are not word people. We express ourselves
through our creative work.” That’s not enough. The
business world is verbal. Try to overcome your shyness and trap
yourself into talking at crucial moments—quietly but articulately.
You will be amazed at how well you can hide your insecurities once
you start expressing yourself convincingly. Believe me, we all
suffer from insecurity. You can see I’m shaking right now as I
stand in front of you.
Fourth. Trust your intuition. This is not to
say that you should grab at the first design solution that pops
into your head and declare it the final word. Many of you will go
to work in design groups or in agencies where you will find
yourselves required to attend design briefings, study copious
market research reports, read statements of design objectives, and
analyze the client’s competition. You may wonder, “When do I get to
design? All that left-brain thinking for a right-brained designer?
Something is wrong.” No. Nothing is wrong. Welcome to the world of
strategic design. You may wish to develop what I call a
“right-brain-left-brain volley.” Learn the rhythm of the game. And
then, then trust your intuition. Finish the set with a
smashing right-brain serve.
Finally, and very importantly, develop a third
eye. That’s the eye that views anything you design as if someone
else were looking at it. You see it one way because you’ve created
it. You are a prejudiced party in that sense, and you bring to it
clusters of your own associations that do not necessarily exist in
the design itself when perceived by others. Look at it with your
third eye, as if you were just an average person who has just
happened upon it for the first time. When you master that, you will
be a great design communicator.
Those are my five little secrets. I give them to you on this
important day—free—in the hope that they will work for you.
To all of you—those of you who I hope will become formidable
competitors, and we need the competition, and those of you who may
one day work with us—I wish you a most satisfying career and a
joyous and meaningful life.
Transcript and photographs courtesy of the Art Center College of
Design, President’s Office collection (RG 2.03), Art Center College
of Design Archives, Pasadena, California.