The Design Observer Twenty

Julie Lasky | Essays

Cranbrook Commencement Address

This commencement address was delivered by Julie Lasky at the Cranbrook Academy of Art on May 9, 2008.

Good afternoon. I come to you, like all commencement speakers, as an emissary from the future. I, too, graduated from an institution of higher learning one May afternoon and found myself staring down a career path. A very windy and bumpy career path, as it turned out. Filled with recessionary potholes. And traffic. A lot of traffic. It’s amazing I didn’t get crushed beneath the wheels.

But no, I’m here, like all commencement speakers, to give you encouragement...

First, of course, I’m supposed to cover my bases by saying that I have no true authority to speak on the subject of your future because the world we occupy today was unimaginable when I was graduating from school. Do you want to know how bad my prognosticating skills are? I swore that never, in a million years, would George Bush be elected president — Senior and Junior. I swore that never would a lifestyle magazine with the silly name Real Simple be a success — and that went double for a magazine about shopping called Lucky. At some point, I gave up entirely on the Red Sox.

I may be poor at predictions, but at least I’m in good company. The last commencement ceremony I attended was in 1990 at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Susan Sontag was the speaker, so I crashed it. And what I recall most clearly was her outrage about the fatwa that had recently forced Salman Rushdie to hide out in a series of safe houses in London. I remember Sontag saying, “Rushdie will be in hiding for the rest of his life — the rest of his life!” never dreaming that in little more than a decade Rushdie would be living out in the open in New York with a reality TV star. But who can blame her? In 1990, there was hardly any reality TV.

I want to talk to you today about reality. If you’re like me, you’re tired of hearing that we as a society have a newfound appreciation for it — that we’re taking breaks from digital technology and falling back in love with craft because we miss genuine sensory experience. I realize there is much evidence to support this belief. Even my own magazine has furnished it. For instance, I.D. recently published a collection of quilts sewn from vintage silk ties by Cranbook’s former faculty member Katherine McCoy. As many of you know, Kathy was trained as an industrial designer, had an enormous influence here in the 2D department, and went on to become a theorist of digital worlds. “Working with sensual fabric was a great complement to all those dematerialized, out-of-body, cerebral projects,” she told us.

It’s all very well for Kathy, or for the CAD-wielding architects and mouse-pushing designers among you (I feel safe in excluding the ceramics and metalwork people). But if you believe the hype, we’ve all become tactility junkies, desperate to run our fingers over paper products such as newsprint. We’ve forgotten how few years have passed since The New York Times distributed white gloves to subway commuters so they could avoid smearing ink on their noses. And anyway, when exactly were we a nation of pot-throwers? We’re couch potatoes, remember? We’ve been staring at television screens with our mouths open at least since the 1950s, and before that we were stupefied by movies and radio.

According to popular wisdom, we miss not only sensory experience but authenticity too. We’re spending a lot of time in quasi-real, digitally engineered worlds and we’re spending a lot of money on factory-made objects. We apparently like one-offs or limited editions with imperfect forms and surfaces because they bear narratives of their facture that seem more enticing than the story of clones brought into existence on an assembly line. Yet when have we not taken every opportunity to customize and thereby humanize mass-produced goods, whether by adding decals to our bicycles or ripping our T-shirts?

A further concern about authenticity that has helped to rekindle our love affair with craft lies in the power to disguise ourselves through technology. We fret about inventing online personae and communicating avatar to avatar, as if we haven’t always constructed false selves in some form or another and hidden behind them. When were we ever transparent? We worry that lurking behind every digital photograph is the threat of manipulation — as if photos haven’t been retouched since the birth of the daguerreotype. When haven’t we edited experience, consciously or unconsciously, as a rhetorical strategy — to make a point or win people over?

You may think that, at this important juncture of your lives, that I’m endorsing dishonesty. I’m not. I am trying to face up to reality. I believe that technology is not a force that is segregating us from real time, real space, and real experience. Technology provides us with a window onto reality, but it is we who narrow that window for fragmentary glimpses — a quick succession of headlines, a video clip, a place on a branch of a social network, a doodle that passes for a design concept — and then we treat these fragments as wholes. Yes, if we sit in front of a computer screen all day, or staple our iPhones to our bodies, we will lose an important dimension of our lives, but it’s not detachment that will be thrust upon us. It’s detachment we will have chosen.

And why shouldn’t we choose it? The truth is, we don’t want reality to be all that real. Is it strange that we as a nation shy away from contemplating the conditions under which our stylish, mass- manufactured products are made, though these conditions are increasingly shown to be compromised? Is it strange that we haven’t really come to grips with potentially catastrophic problems like climate change? Is it strange that we can’t tolerate movies about the war in Iraq?

Is it strange that the best-selling advice book today is based on a talk seen by more than 10 million people on YouTube? Last September, the computer scientist Randy Pausch, who had recently been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, gathered his Carnegie Mellon colleagues and students in a room and spoke to them about how to realize their childhood dreams. Pausch, with his boyish looks and cheery demeanor, is a man one hates to contemplate losing, and there is nothing to dispute in his homespun advice about finding the best in everyone and preserving one’s sense of childhood wonder. But his "last lecture," as it is known, is powerful in context only; the lecturer, who happens to be a specialist in virtual reality, tactfully spares us the deeper emotional currents of his condition. I would even suggest that he hadn’t really come to terms with them himself. “I’m not in denial,” Pausch says quite convincingly at the beginning of his talk, but later, he shares one of his student’s projects: an animated creature who refuses give up the stage for the next student presentation, and instead howls in fury over the extinguishing of its world. I got the impression that Pausch was raging under the placid surface of his delivery, and that if we were privy to that anger, far fewer than 10 million viewers could have tolerated it. Nor would his message have been so benign.

The question is not whether people should frankly expose pain, which is a private matter, but whether we as a society should be more mindful of what passes for sensation. For it is mindfulness — the steady, deliberate processing of experience-that we’ve been missing when we talk about our hunger for tactility, authenticity, or individuality in the material world. It is mindfulness-the experience of thinking through feeling — that makes craft, craft.

As a writer, I can tell you that, although the hand is identified with craft, materiality can be thought as well as felt — you can hear the click of a well-constructed sentence being assembled in your head; you can feel the stretch of a good mental workout. You don’t need to get your hands dirty to be a craftsperson; you need to get your minds dirty. And where I will point an accusatory finger at technology is in providing shortcuts to the slow deliberative process of acquiring a skill, which is guaranteed by working the hand. If you’re not careful, technology, with its immediacy and high resolution, swaps the illusion of mastery or wisdom for the real, hard-won thing. As the sociologist Richard Sennett recently wrote, “The slowness of craft time serves as a source of satisfaction: practice beds in, making the skill one’s own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination — which the push for quick results cannot.”

For Sennett, the value of practicing a craft is not just improved technique but also an ability to make imaginative connections to other parts of culture. In a recent interview with I.D., he discussed a widely held belief that 10,000 hours of practice are required to build expertise in any discipline. For the first 5,000 or 6,000 hours, the student simply learns to ingrain the physical gestures associated with his or her craft, whether glass-blowing or cello playing. “But,” Sennett cautions, “if your habit is fixed, you never get better.” So, somewhere between the 6,000th and 7,000th hour, the student begins to apply lateral thinking to develop new habits that are influenced by other areas of culture and work to enrich his or her own. There are social and ethical, as well as aesthetic, dimensions, to this process, in Sennett’s view. And he makes a very convincing case for it.

So you see, I’m not disputing or opposing the reawakening of a hunger for craft — and certainly not picking that fight on this campus. I am disputing and opposing the easy polarities that pit craft against technology, materials against ideas, and the hand against the mind.

In fact, one bit of evidence that craft is deeply permeating our culture comes from the decay of the word itself. Just as Borges noted that you can read the entire Koran without ever encountering a camel, the word “craft” is melting into the landscape of its making. It has been famously dropped from the names of the California College of Arts and Crafts and American Craft Museum, though it has hardly disappeared from those institutions Richard Sennett uses “craft” freely to describe the activities of the violin maker, surgeon, chef, computer code writer, architect, and parent.

Another curious sign of craft’s emergence is more arcane, but bear with me. In the 1990s, there was a three-word mantra that ruled many of our lives. It was Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.” This message told us that our lazy, cowardly selves — and nothing else — stood between us and self-fulfillment, and if we just had the gumption to try harder, we could be more like Michael Jordan, even though he was such a remarkable athlete, he didn’t even really qualify as human.

In this decade, we have a three-word mantra, too. It’s what Tim Gunn of “Project Runway” tells fashion designers who have less than an hour to assemble a dress out of bread dough or mismatched pieces of upholstery fabric. He says: “Make it work.” At a time when all hell is breaking loose geopolitically, we acknowledge that obstructive forces may be external to us. We recognize and even celebrate challenges before we hurl ourselves at them. This being America, however, we’re still expected to draw on our inner resources to overcome those challenges, and there are no excuses. Make it work.

Nike’s “Just do it” may have been good for our sense of empowerment, but it’s been terrible for the earth. We’re suffering from a glut of products, many tossed onto the market with a breezy heedlessness that probably has been mistaken for courage. You can imagine how a manufacturer, even after hiring consultants, doing research, and convening focus groups that challenged an idea for new product, said, “Aw, fuck it.” Which is another way of saying “Just do it.” How else can we explain a Procter & Gamble room deodorizer called ScentStories that “plays” like a compact disk, rotating in a heating device that releases a different smell every 15 minutes. “Just do it” is mindless. In fact, it militates against thought. It suggests that if Hamlet played extreme sports or ran a marathon or two, he’d have been a lot happier. The verb is truly active: “Do.” And the “Just” preceding it is a split-second sigh of impatience, a paper-thin slice of temporality before you’re supposed to get off your ass and onto that snowboard.

“Make it work,” on the other hand, is about deliberation; “make it work” recognizes the unlikelihood of perfection and the strong possibility of flawed performance. It’s based firmly in time; it represents limits. Most telling of all, it comes out of an age when remarkable athletes have been exposed as steroid users. This directive connects to a process, and the verb is constructive: “Make.” The items it alludes to are idiosyncratic and frequently lumpy articles of clothing — not perfectly machined Nike models or shoes. Sure, “Project Runway” is all about craft, but Tim Gunn could have used any number of catchphrases. This one really captures the ethos of craft, in both its material and mindful dimensions.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve circled back to Reality TV, or at least to reality. Randy Pausch, in his last lecture, urged everyone to “Decide if you’re a Tigger or an Eeyore,” an optimist or pessimist. Sorry, gang, I know I promised you encouragement but I’m with the grumpy donkey.

So ending on a more conventional note, here are my own directives:

Don’t worry about categories or definitions like craft, design, or art. Philosophers and magazine editors are happy to hammer them out for you, and you have better things to do anyway. One is to develop as many areas of expertise as you can without watering down what you’re good at. Diversity is a huge asset in any career, especially when the economy is on the rocks.

Now that you probably have some time on your hands, get out there and travel. This may be the last hurrah before the airline industry implodes and we run out of fossil fuel. Use energy responsibly, however.

Subscribe to a good newspaper — if you think there are any left — before that industry dies, too. The internet is not yet equipped to replace print journalism, and we’re going to be mired in ignorance and drivel, even worse than usual, if we don’t keep that business alive.

Don’t run for political office. It appears to bring out the worst in everyone. Make sure you vote, though.

Don’t subscribe to any publication with chirpy articles that never have anything bad to say. Someone — probably many people — is lying about what you’re reading, and is getting paid to do it.

Finally, only connect. I know, I stole that from E.M. Forster, and it isn’t even three words, but that’s what makes it so powerful. Only connect to what? Anything in the universe. Your lives are rich in potential. Now, go out there, and make the most of them!

Julie Lasky is the editor-in-chief of I.D. magazine.

Posted in: Education

Comments [10]

Ms. Lasky

I needed this today, perhaps every day. Thank you. It gave me the relief that only comes from feeling like I'm no longer alone in my concerns about our culture.

Thanks a lot for the article :)

I also needed this. Thanks very much!

Thank you for sharing this.



I too have needed this encouragement for a long time going.

I liked the reference to CCA(C), since practically no one in the Bay
Area has even heard of it, it's nice to know that the editor of I.D.
knows about my college, and of course I love the Gunnism.


Grumpy donkey, indeed. Lasky tells the graduates to travel before Big Bad American consumerism ushers in the Apocalypse...but to do so "responsibly." The average post-grad trip involves drunken partying, casual sex, and youth hostels--irresponsibility is precisely its point. What's a grad to do?

I try not to live my life by ad slogans, but at least "Just do it" allows one to judge an endeavor based on its end product. "Make it work," as Lasky defines it, invites a moral muddle that "militates" against earnest endeavor. The reality-tv metaphor is dead on; Lasky's "mindfulness" is as hostile to aesthetic creation as the standards on American Idol.

Shifitng gears, this is the first I've heard of ScentStories. This product sounds great! Anyone know where I can pick one up?

Thanks a lot for the article :)

I have some friends from the Cranbrook Academy of Art who told me about the different Academy programms there and said that their work and educations is very inspiring. What they like the most is, that there is a big diversity of things that a young artist can do. Some artists can work on creating sculptures, others on paitings, Möbel, abstract art and so on. All of my friends recommended this Academy so I thought it is good to read more about it since I want to become a artist myself.
Adam Miller

I try not to live my life by ad slogans, but at least "Just do it" allows one to judge an endeavor based on its end product. "Make it work," as Lasky defines it, invites a moral muddle that "militates" against earnest endeavor. The reality-tv metaphor is dead on; Lasky's "mindfulness" is as hostile to aesthetic creation as the standards on American Idol.

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