• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Happy Graduation to the Class of 2021

Each year I write a speculative commencement address on the off-chance that some art and design school, somewhere in the world, might invite me to speak as a last-minute replacement for a no-show. So far, there've been no requests for 2021, but you never know who has double-booked. The following text continues my tradition (and for those interested, it is free).


Greetings, Class of 2021.


You’ve all heard the refrain: "This has been an unprecedented year."


So, here we are—it's the second graduation season since COVID-19 began and we're sitting in front of our Retina screens, either in self-isolation or among self-selected pods, watching ersatz commencement ceremonies.


Instead of caps and gowns, you’ve had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Instead of receiving your diplomas on a stage before your family and friends, you’ve been reduced to a Zoom rectangle, YouTube video or both. You’ve endured as many restrictions as are allowable and mandated by law. You’ve been designated more or less too young or unessential, and therefore many of you are late in getting your vaccinations—if you’re eligible at all. You’ve been unable to socialize or celebrate with a full cohort of your classmates, and you’ve been inconvenienced by early bird and night-owl time zone vagaries.


It’s been a bumpy road. But you’ve made it through.


You can take solace in the realization that you’re not alone. Everyone is in the same boat—the good ship Coronavirus. For some it has been a very rough voyage, while for others it’s been a smooth cruise. Those who’ve tragically lost loved ones deserve so much more than sympathy. Those left unscathed should be more than grateful.


Actually, no one is totally unscathed. The truth is working remotely is no picnic. Many of you suffer from functional to paralytic degrees of PTSD; others have used the crisis to create entrepreneurial opportunities. The pandemic demanded more innovative design practice and strategic thinking than ever before—whether creating viable life-enhancing alternatives or pursuing expressive personal ventures.


Some of you engaged in public service while others followed the individual muse. Rather than limit your employment opportunities (and despite the high unemployment rates in many other industries and crafts), designers have been needed to solve unforeseen problems. Whether designing cautionary posters or information graphics, or conceiving novel ways to socially commune, designers are called upon to help relieve a bombardment of travails imposed upon us by Corona and its nasty variants.


This pandemic is bad but arguably history is replete with even worse man-made and natural aberrations.


Look at the upside: Less traffic begat less pollution (plant life is so much greener this spring). Wearing face masks reduced the spread of various airborne illnesses (colds and flu). Quarantine gave a legitimate excuse for not meeting up with anyone you didn’t want to see. You were the master of your own domain (even if it was a cramped dorm room). Stress was distributed in a more equal manner. And Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) was brought to the fore in many institutions where inequality, abuse and racism were taken for granted as SOP.


There were lots of ancillary consequences, both good and bad. With remote classes, students were able to visit guest and expert lectures that would have been impossible otherwise. Streaming films, conferences and other events was a boon to education and entertainment—sometimes merging the two into one teach-in–feast. Most of these virtual assets were probably going to occur in the future anyway, but the pandemic sped up the deployment of distance classes.


Many people tragically lost their jobs, incomes and savings. But online retail portals have been essential to daily existence and, therefore, more profitable than ever. We hope that profit will work its way to workers and not Jeff Bezos' fleet of yachts.


Although social distancing prevented in-person family gatherings, holiday celebrations or collective grieving, the pandemic forced all of us to reevaluate what are our most valued human experiences.


As the virus further recedes, in large part through the concerted efforts of many intelligent people who fought the foe with ferocity and courage (despite the criminally stupid political maneuvering of some politicians and corporate leaders), designers, design educators and design administrators must now learn important lessons to prepare for the future.


Take the story of the “The Three Little Pigs” (inspired, in part, by a retelling by Steven Guarnaccia), who each received commissions to build their own houses, all to serve as protection (let’s say from swine flu or impending wolf-borne diseases). The tale speaks volumes about the importance of making correct design decisions:


The first little pig met a man carrying a bundle of straw.

'Excuse me,' said the first little pig politely. 'Would you please sell some of your straw so I can make a house?'

The man readily agreed and the first little pig went off to find a good place to build his house.

The other little pigs carried on along the road and, soon, they met a man carrying a bundle of sticks.

'Excuse me,' said the little pig politely. 'Would you please sell me some sticks so I can build a house?'

The man readily agreed and the little pig said goodbye to his brother.

The third little pig didn’t think much of their ideas:'I’m going to build myself a much bigger, better, stronger house,' he thought, and he carried off down the road until he met a man with a cart load of bricks.

'Excuse me,' said the third little pig, as politely as his mother had taught him. 'Please can you sell me some bricks so I can build a house?'


'Of course,' said the man. 'Where would you like me to unload them?'

The third little pig looked around and saw a nice patch of ground under a tree.


'Over there,' he pointed.

They all set to work, and by nighttime the house of straw and the house of sticks were built but the house of bricks was only just beginning to rise above the ground. The first and second little pigs laughed, they thought their brother was really silly, having to work so hard when they had finished.

You all know the moral. You are now bonafide designers. So when designing to prevent catastrophe, think bricks!


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