Time, Time, Time is On Your Side

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Last week, I was honored to receive my first honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at the College of Creative Studies, one of the vanguard art, craft and design schools in the nation, in the surprisingly beautiful city of Detroit. With all humility, I publish an excerpt from the Commencement address I gave, which I hope may have some resonance for other newly minted creative field graduates.

Being an autodidact is admirable, BUT I hope you know how fortunate you are to be educated in an institution called the College for Creative Studies.

This is an amazing and critical time in our history — your history; Creativity is arguably America’s number one economic and cultural asset. Conceiving, making and producing ingenious, indeed extraordinary ideas are within the hands of the entrepreneurial designer. And they are wanted and needed by the vanguard corporations that value creative outcomes. This is your Time.

But I’m not here to cheerlead for something that many of you already know . . . and some of you are already doing. Today I want take a brief moment to talk about TIME.


All your skill and talent is dependent on how you perceive TIME.

Einstein believed that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously. I wish this were entirely true. I wish we could control time and our place in it. But real time marches on and for most of us that it’s a pretty fast march.

I’m no Einstein, but I’ve been thinking more and more about how our concept of time as either temporal or eternal causes certain problems. Whether we practice a religion or not, time in Judeo-Christian thinking is “the arena of man’s decision on his way to an eternal destiny.” Time is skewed towards defining the space between a beginning and an end. This suggests a philosophical problem, but maybe it is actually a design problem too. Though not easily solved by redesigning a watch face without any numbers. Or, as they do in Las Vegas, eliminate clocks entirely.

Time is our tool. Not our master. But as Marshall McLuhan rightly said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” In other words, over TIME we have become slaves to time — and by extension we are burdened by ROUTINE.

Time is finite and infinite — as I said, TEMPORAL and ETERNAL — and neither concept is very comforting. Not having enough time is frustrating, while having TOO much time can be daunting. But time, I recently read, and love the concept, is only quantitative, and not qualitative. What you accomplish in a span of time is not determined by the time you have but by how devoted you are to reaching a goal.

As you begin your creative lives and livelihoods, how you balance, indeed CONTROL, time is of the essence. Yet how time manages you is too often what occurs instead in most of our lives.

Creative people like you exist in a time paradox. How many of you believe there is only limited time to make your mark, and yet you also know it takes time to make truly valuable contributions. Creativity is one endeavor, unlike athletics, where time does not diminish capacity.

Yet digital technology has accelerated time and time keeping. This is another paradox. While it is exciting to be able to produce our work at ever greater speeds. Expectations — our own and our client’s — increase as the time for reflection decreases. Rapid prototyping may be a boon to some industries, but it imposes speed as an ultimate virtue. Believe me, beating the clock does not insure great work.

Here’s a little parable I’d like to share with you: Taking EXPRESS trains, may get you to where you’re going faster, but more often than not, too early. And then what? More time to check your email or twitter feed? Nonetheless, we all wish we had more time . . .

Think about that wonderful Sunday every Fall when we move our clocks back one hour. I savor that day, even though I know I pay it forward in the Spring. Since Eastern Standard Time comes only once a year, I have a time cheating method — call it a time pyramid scheme — that lasts all year. I turn my bedside clock ahead by 20 minutes. I’m sure some of you here must do something like that.

Then, owing to some flaw in the machinery, every three days or so, the clock also advances by a Minute on its own. If I had continued my studies NYU, I might be able to do the math…. But I can tell you that by the end of the month I’ve accrued a good number of extra minutes, which I use for work or other things. I know I’m stealing from Peter to pay Paul; Intellectually I realize free extra time cannot exist. Still the delusion works until the weekend when I am so tired I can’t get out of bed.

At any time, but certainly as you get older, time is the most valuable, yet ethereal thing — you can never-ever possess it. So you have to make the best of it. You have use it wisely to get everything you can get from it.

Both my parents died recently. They were in their early to mid-90s. Their time was apparently up. But the time they had was remarkably joyful and productive. When the end comes, however, it seems that the time was too short.

Being creative is one way to compensate for this brief stay on earth. And I’m not trying to be maudlin.

For the past 3 or 4 years your time has been filled with creative studies. Now comes the time for creative production. You are ready to make things — great things, however you must define what you mean by great.

Tomorrow, probably in the late afternoon, when you wake up after your post-graduation partying, your sense of time will be different than it has been up to now. School time and work time are as different as peas and carrots (or gas and electric). Tomorrow, the clock begins to tick off the rest of your life.

So, use this time to make your time valuable. More importantly, define what time means for YOU. It does not have to be a conventional definition. And it should not be based on a routine timesheet.


Einstein proved that time is relative, not absolute as Newton claimed. YOU can design your time for optimum impact on you and others.

I’d like to end by paraphrasing the great British philosopher Sir Michael Philip (Mick) Jagger:

Time, Time, Time is on your side, yes it is.

So, congratulations to all you graduating in the class of 2013. And thank you College for Creative Studies for validating my time card.

For more Steven Heller, check out “The Education of a Graphic Designer‚” one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.