Everyone Deserves Good Design. Designers Should Feel That in Their Bones

A call for today’s architecture and planning graduates to become “dignifiers”.

I stand before you, in many ways, as the antithesis of what the architecture profession expects its graduates to do. I’ve never worked for a firm; I’ve never logged a single hour of internship in IDP; nor will I likely ever sit for the Architect Registration Exam. In part, my personal experience as well as conversations with many others at all stages of their careers has led me to the conviction that the licensure system is deeply flawed and does not serve the profession well, much less society. I also realized early on that I am a better movement builder and communicator than I am an architect—at least “architect” as it’s narrowly defined by the profession.

And this, it turns out, is half the battle in life: knowing what you’re best at and figuring out how to put it to good use. Some of you may travel well-worn paths, perhaps becoming architecture firm principals or municipal planning directors or traditional landscape architects, and you can do a ton of good in those capacities. But some of you—I hope many of you—will invent entirely new ways of being a designer in the world. The reason I was invited to speak to you today is because I have focused my career on bringing design and an awareness of its transformative power to the public. This isn’t rocket science and I can’t pretend this was a deliberate choice; serving the public was simply what I thought design was about. In my heart, I believe it can and should be.

The architecture profession, in particular, at least as we’ve known it, is dying and you graduates are exactly the people we need to resurrect and reconstitute it. With 31 Native American students and numerous other ethnicities represented, the School of Architecture & Planning is commendably among the most diverse in the country. Whether you recognize it or not, this beautiful diversity has already impacted the way you’ve learned. I implore you to take the wisdom you’ve gleaned being around people with such vastly different perspectives and carry it forward into your career. Make it a hallmark of your work. That alone could distinguish you and your work from the status quo of design today, which is disproportionately white, economically privileged, and unapologetically elite.

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Even in the most fundamental area of gender, especially in architecture, women are an absolute minority. That differs from the near gender parity here at your school and it is a continued failure of the design profession.

A few weeks ago, a couple of Harvard graduate students, roughly the same age as many of you, launched an online petition to highlight a decades-old wrong. They have demanded that architect and planner Denise Scott Brown be recognized as co-recipient of the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize, which was awarded solely to her famous architect husband Robert Venturi in 1991, despite the fact that they did all of their work together, in collaboration, as a team. In the process, these brave students have shined a very bright light on the dearth of women in architecture, and by extension design. The petition has attracted over 10,000 signatures, including from multiple Pritzker Prize honorees, along with extensive media coverage.

The statistics are astounding and embarrassing: Less than 15% of registered architects are women and just two women have served as presidents of The American Institute of Architects in its 157-year history, albeit with a third elected to serve in 2014. Which is why it’s all the more important that we value extraordinary women leaders, like your own Dean Forbes, Michaele Pride, and others—as role models, invaluable mentors, and cherished colleagues. I do.

In my chosen field of public interest design, many of the most powerful and promising leaders are women. Take product design nonprofit D-Rev, short for Design Revolution, which has created a low-cost prosthetic limb with a better range of motion for amputees in so-called developing countries. Take systems design nonprofits, like Code for America, which is transforming municipal governments from the inside out all over the nation, or IDEO.org, which works on service design for the global poor. Take the award-winning work of Studio Gang, including its colorful community centers on Chicago’s troubled south side. Take the high school design/build program, called Studio H, which is creating a whole new generation of designers, builders, makers. Take the Enterprise Rose Fellowship, which builds affordable housing across the country and within tribal communities. I could go on and on. These are among the most exciting, most impactful design initiatives of our time, and all of them are headed by women. These women, these leaders are reshaping our field and reimagining our world.

In a recent CNN op-ed, my colleague and friend Marika Shiori-Clark and I asked “How might our shared built environment—our homes, hospitals, schools, workplaces, and public spaces—be shaped differently if women were behind half of the proverbial blueprints?” Indeed, the same could be asked of the astonishingly low number of non-white designers, estimated at less than two percent in architecture.

It is not a question of whether, but to what extent, our buildings, our landscapes, our cities and rural communities are less beautiful, less functional, less equitable because women and people of color are less likely to be creating them. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.” As is so often the case in other areas, our public landscape and professions are shaped by only a small fraction of our potential collective genius, and limited by the creative absence of so many.

As I reflect back on my career, I am reminded that I have been deeply influenced by the women in this field, but also by women outside of it. Truth be told, I’ve learned more about design from non-designers. Let me say that again: I’ve learned more about design from non-designers—my wife, my mom, my grandma, people I see in airports, in hospitals, schools, and literally everyplace I go. Whether as an architect, landscape architect, or planner, if you remember one thing from my talk today, I hope it’s to take the time to watch and listen to these people, and to learn from them. In that sense, your real design education is just beginning and will never end.

Everyone deserves good design. I feel that in my bones. Right now, however, the vast majority of design services are reserved exclusively for people that can afford them—which is to say, almost no one. In fact, the people that could most benefit from design rarely have access to it—your cousin, a homeless veteran; your grandma or grandpa with a kitchen that’s no longer accessible to them; your wheelchair-bound sister in a suburban area planned without sidewalks.

We use words like “function” and “form” to describe design, but I’ve come to believe it’s about something deeper. It’s about dignity. You see, dignity is something design can achieve in ways nothing else can. Dignity is a kid learning in a colorful classroom that makes him feel valued and piques his curiosity. Dignity is a cancer patient in a light-filled hospital room with lots of natural airflow to support her healing. Dignity is a community where the young and old alike have safe public spaces to mingle, celebrate, and play.

Dignity is to the public interest design field what justice is to the more established field of public interest law. In the simplest of terms, for me it’s about knowing your intrinsic worth and seeing that worth reflected in the places you live and work, the products you use, and the systems and services you rely on.

You don’t and will never need to go to the other side of the world to find dignifying design, much less the need for it. That’s why I’m so heartened by the extraordinary work here in New Mexico by professor Ted Jojola, director of the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute, which has formed a deep and expanding partnership with the Navajo Nation, among many others.

Ted, his faculty peers, and students go to great lengths to listen and learn from our native people, designing with, not just for them. For too long, these communities have been subject to the worst of design—top down decisions from federal agencies, for example, or shoddy construction out of line with local traditions and craft. These communities deserve better. They deserve more dignifying environments that respect and integrate the wisdom of the past, while making space for the future.

Your most fundamental mission as designers is not to make beautiful buildings or pretty objects. It’s not even to plan roads or parks or public spaces. Those are outcomes, at best. Your shared mission, instead, is to return design back to its rightful place in the public domain. It is to not just talk about the importance of diversity and dignity, but to live it every single day in your practice.

Look at your families who have joined you here today. Look at the friends who have come to celebrate your achievement. If design doesn’t touch their lives, what good is it? Make design part of their possible. This will not only create design that is dignifying, but it will also dignify the practice of design for all of us. It will not only diversify and expand the client base of design, it will create new, more diverse forms of design. More than anything, the act of design is a chance for you all to raise people’s expectations about what they deserve—and imagine the satisfaction of doing that for the family and friends you love most.

Sure, you may be thinking, do-gooder design is all well and good, but what about real, paying work. The economy is doing better than it was a year ago, but I imagine there are fears—among graduates and parents alike—that there aren’t jobs. In my own career, I’ve rarely looked for jobs; instead, I’ve looked for needs and tried to simply be useful. It might sound simplistic, but it’s the most sophisticated strategy I know for making a meaningful life as a designer. To my own family’s shock, and sometimes even to my own, looking for needs and making myself useful has always led to a paycheck and a warm place to sleep. There is actually great security in being adaptable and altruistic, especially in our profession at this exciting time.

You don’t have to wait for permission or an invitation. You also don’t have to go this alone. Look for something that needs doing and do it. Ask friends to join you. Deeply engage the people whose lives you want to improve; truly see and listen to them.

So graduates, congratulations on earning this diploma, a symbol of all that you’ve learned in your time here. It’s a tribute to what you know. But never forget that the most powerful thing you can possibly know is yourself: What are your gifts and how can you put them in service of those who need them?

Theologian Frederick Breuchner says that you must find where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where you become not just an architect or a landscape architect or a planner, but a dignifier. There could and should be no more noble job title.

Delivered Friday, May 10, 2013, to graduates of the University of New Mexico School of Architecture & Planning.

John Cary is the founding executive director of the Autodesk Impact Design Foundation in San Francisco. He delivered this commencement address on May 10, 2013 to the graduates of the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning.

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