Commencement Address

Thank you all for the pleasure of allowing me to speak to you today.

First of all, I’d like to offer my congratulations: Not only to today’s graduates, but also to their parents and families for encouraging them to study here at the North Carolina State University College of Design. 

This is a great place to begin one’s career as a designer, and it’s an investment that I know will pay off. 

The College of Design has always been an important place for me and my family. My father, Max, is a College of Design graduate in architecture, as is my brother, Nathan. I grew up hearing about College of Design legends including Henry Kamphoefner, Duncan Stuart, and Joe Cox and of the influence of visiting critics such as Mies van der Rohe, Naum Gabo, and Buckminster Fuller, among a long list of luminaries.

I therefore grew up idolizing designers and wanting to be one as well. When it came time to decide where to go to school, however, you may be surprised to find that I didn’t automatically think that this was the place. I looked around. Maybe NC State was too close to my home of Durham. Maybe I thought I could learn more at another school. Maybe I just didn’t like bricks. Whatever the reason, I applied to a lot of different colleges.

In my search, I found that art schools only wanted to see a portfolio. Liberal arts colleges only cared about grades. NC State, and specifically the College of Design, was the only place I found that cared about seeing both. That told me something. I knew that this was the place to be, and I’m glad I came here. I got a great introduction in how to be a designer and in how to think. (They’re pretty much the same thing.)

While I was here, I was fortunate to learn from some inspiring instructors. Foremost among them is a man who I’m happy is here today. I’ve had a lot of design teachers over the years, but Austin Lowrey is the one from whom I’ve learned the most. Austin helped me to understand that there is a world of possibility out there and to never settle for the first, easy idea. He has really had an influence on me over the years. Thank you, Austin.

In coming to State I also gained a newfound appreciation for bricks. Now I love them. Can’t get enough. 

Anyway, that’s not what I came to talk about. I remember being in this same room 17 years ago, sitting right there, squirming and waiting for this ceremony to be over, so I won’t bend your ears with any more history. I’ll do what I’m supposed to do.

I know that at events such as this the commencement speaker’s job is to swoop in from the real world and impart some words of wisdom gleaned over the years as well as provide an inspirational and motivational speech to the eager graduates. Something along the lines of, “You hold the future in your hands; let the gleam in your eyes guide you along an exciting and challenging path as you discover the course of your rewarding destinies.” Or, “Go out there and get ’em, Tigers!” Or something to that effect.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been wary of motivational speakers, and actually of anyone who is overly cheerful and persistently friendly for that matter. As far as I’m concerned, people who are slick and excitable and who look you straight in the eye and repeat your name too many times when they talk to you are to be regarded with the utmost suspicion. But maybe that’s just me. I can accept that.

So instead of providing you with an inspiring motivational talk, I thought I’d try to do something actually useful and pass along some of the things I’ve learned as a working designer over the past years. 

Some are pretty simple, but all are things I wish people had told me at the beginning of my career.

OK. Number 1:
Starting at the beginning, when you’re looking for a job, there’ll be a lot of competition. More and more design schools are pumping out graduates. Whether or not they are more talented than you is up for discussion, but people don’t always get hired on the basis of talent. It’s unfortunate but that’s the way it is. 

So if you want to work at a certain place and you want to make an impression, be persistent. Send your résumé in three times. Write notes to the boss. Show that you know about the company and their work. Be a pest. If you give up after just one letter, you’ll be like everyone else. If you show that you are really interested and follow up at least twice, they’ll remember you. You might not get the job, but they will at least consider you more seriously.

Number 2:
When you go in to an interview, be sure to take a look at the boss’s office. If the firm’s principal has a nicely appointed space with a comfortable chair and tasteful art while everyone else works in a rat hole, this is a big red flag. It’s a sure sign of trouble ahead. 

In the best workplaces—and by that I mean places where there’s an open exchange of ideas, people are treated with respect, and ideas are honored—you’ll see an equality among where everyone works. Everyone will work in a nice place, or everyone will work in a rat hole. It doesn’t matter which as long as everyone’s in it together.

Number 3:
When you go to interview with someone, pronounce their name correctly. It really helps to show that you’ve done a little homework.

Number 4:
While I’m at it, when you go on an interview, dress boring like I do. I know it sounds uninspired, but you should be able to demonstrate your creativity, dashing spirit, ability to think outside the box, nonconformity, and joie de vivre through your work, through your conversation, and within your personality. 

A kooky outfit does not say, “Hey, I’m a nonlateral, innovative thinker,” but rather, “Hey, my focus is on appearances, and by the way, I sometimes have trouble deciding what’s appropriate behavior when making important presentations. So can I have a job?”

This isn’t just me being cranky. Well, some of it is, but I know a lot of people who hire all kinds of designers, and most of us feel pretty much the same way. All right. Enough about clothing.

Number 5:
OK, let’s assume you got your dream job. Everyone loves you and realizes how great and talented you are. 

The best thing you can do now to get ahead is to work harder than everyone else. I’ve been both an employee and a boss, and I know that the ones who are rewarded are the ones who put their heads down and work. 

Coming as you are from the College of Design, I’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of hard work. Well, now’s not the time to start relaxing. You’re just getting started. 

The hardest workers always get rewarded. By “rewarded” I mean both financially and in terms of responsibility. Being a dedicated worker is a sure way that you can be in control of your destiny. It will be noticed. If you become the hardest worker around, you’ll get the recognition. Don’t take the approach that “Now that I’m in, I’ll take it easy. They’ll see the obvious merits of my talent and once I get rewarded with raises and better projects I’ll start to apply myself, and then things will really take off.” It works the other way around. You get rewarded for what you’ve done, not for what you might potentially do.

I know this sounds like common sense, but you’d be truly amazed at how often people take the wrong approach.

OK, next. Number 6:
Work with and for people you admire. I know that for your first position out of school you might have to take something less than your ideal job, but don’t settle for a place where you aren’t accomplishing anything. This will not help you.

Do work that makes a contribution, with collaborators who respect you. This is very important. Don’t worry about not making a lot of money right off the bat. If you work for someone you think is great and you actually learn from them, that will be more valuable than immediate cash. It will bring big dividends down the road.

Number 7: 
When designing, don’t put style ahead of a good idea. Only decide what something should look like after deciding what it should do. This goes for any design discipline. Don’t fall into the trap of settling on what the surface appearance should be before you think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Do as Austin taught us and start a project by writing out a long list of what you want it to do. Then figure out how to make it work. Then decide what it should look like.

Number 8:
Design with the assumption that people are smart. It makes me crazy when my clients say, “People won’t get that; it will be over their heads.” It does no one any good to design down to people. There are enough dumb things in this world as it is.

And Number 9 (this is the most important one):
Always put yourself in a position where you’re in over your head. This should apply throughout your entire career. There’s no point in being 25 and on top of the world in a job where you’re in complete control. If you’re not making mistakes and learning from them, you aren’t progressing. You should be in a position where you are almost terrified. Then you’ll work your way out of it, and in a couple of weeks what you had been overwhelmed by will seem easy. You’ll be on top of the situation and you’ll be a better designer. I know this from personal experience.

If you’re in a comfortable situation, you’re not being challenged. The time to be comfortable and to relax is when you retire or when you’re dead.

I’ll stop with my list now, but I do have a couple of closing thoughts.

No matter what type of career you pursue—architecture, industrial design, landscape architecture, graphic design, filmmaking, whatever—you as designers hold a unique place in the world. What you will do is not pure art, although there certainly should be artistry in what you do. And it’s not just business. It’s some of both. That’s what makes it exciting. And that’s what makes it so very difficult to do well. 

You can be an artist and sit in a room and sculpt all day, but as a designer you must be able to collaborate with others in solving problems and interpreting and adding to and sometimes even redefining their point of view. The ability to communicate and be persuasive is therefore a crucial part of the process. I’ve personally found that designing is actually the easy part; the hard part is getting others to invest in your vision. To be a good designer you must therefore be honest and convey a sense of trustworthiness. If you don’t, no one will believe in you, and as a result, nothing you design will ever be made. It’s as simple as that.

At our worst, when we are lazy, designers are merely stylists and decorators whose job is to embellish or otherwise tart up someone else’s ideas. That’s a pretty miserable existence. When we are at our best, however, we can do things of real importance. Through design we can change the way people think and affect the way they live. We can inspire people. That’s a worthy goal, and one I believe we should all aim for with energy and optimism.

I can’t wait to start work every day, and I hope all of you will get the same type of pleasure and reward out of what you choose to do. 

Thank you.


Adapted from a commencement address by Alexander Isley given to the North Carolina State University College of Design, May 20, 2000.

© 2000 Alexander Isley Inc.