The World Needs Artists & Designers Now More than Ever

By Deborah Obalil, Executive Director, Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design
As delivered at the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design Commencement 201

Thank you President Heil for inviting me to deliver the commencement address for this year’s graduation. This is a momentous occasion for all in the class of 2014, their parents, loved ones and supporters. I am honored to be here.

To the class of 2014, congratulations! All college graduates work hard to get to this point, but as students at an art and design school, you have experienced a special kind of challenge and expectation of hard work that others have a difficult time comprehending. So kudos to all of you!

Beyond congratulations, I want to say thank you. Thank you for being courageous, for following your passion, for daring to be artists and designers. I say thank you because the world need you – your genius, your passion, your expression, your questioning, and your solutions – more than ever.

I also want to thank your parents and others who have supported you along this path as well. Unfortunately, many individuals with the passion and potential to contribute greatly to our world as artists and designers are discouraged from pursuing their talents and dreams at a young age. Whether by teachers with a narrow definition of talent or success, or by parents who simply don’t understand what a successful creative life looks like, or by peers made uncomfortable by creativity and difference, the result is the same – stopping a promising career and life before it even begins. But by your presence here today, supporting these art and design graduates as they complete one era of their life and begin on the next, you are different. For some of you the challenges to be here, to be supportive, have been more significant than for others. But all of you deserve our thanks and recognition. Because of your support, these graduates will change the world with their creativity, daring and questioning of the status quo.

So why do I so fervently believe the world needs artists and designers today? For one, the challenges our global society faces are truly “wicked problems.” Many of you may be familiar with this terminology. It is used to describe problems that, by their very nature, cannot have a direct solution. They are complex, complicated and usually intertwined with other problems. Poverty, education, nutrition, the broader economy, sustainability, equality – these are all wicked problems that touch all of us in our lives and are made even more complex by the increasingly interconnected nature of a truly global society. Even beginning to approach solving these wicked problems requires asking different questions, considering previously unseen elements, and learning how to empathize with those suffering amidst these challenges. These skills of questioning, seeing the unseen, and empathy, are at the core of what you’ve gained from an art and design focused education. These are the skills needed in the 21st century, not only for personal success, but for the future success of civilization.

The other key skills of the 21st century are communication and what I call bridging. Interdisciplinarity is at the heart of addressing the world’s wicked problems. No one area of expertise can find the solutions. If they could, we would have found them already. True collaboration across multiple disciplines of knowledge and expertise will be required. Communication that can bridge across the divides of language, culture and experience will be required. Sounds like the super powers of artists and designers to me. Visual communications are often the key to overcoming the distances between interdisciplinary collaborators. Complex scientific data suddenly make sense to non-scientists when communicated visually. Links and commonalities across disparate problem sets or communities become apparent when illustrated visually. The needs and desires of students, patients and others whose voices were previously muted within the systems surrounding them gain voice when represented by artists or engaged by designers.

These powers of inquiry and exploration, communication and collaboration, are the hallmarks of artists and designers. I truly believe that when history looks back on the early part of the 21st century, you – the artists and designers of the generation graduating today – will be at the center of the story.

For those more persuaded by statistics, we at the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design, have collected a number of facts from independent sources that support the importance and value of an art and design education.

The hard work does not end today. Your college experience was simply the training ground for what’s next, no matter what path forward you choose. Whether you choose to pursue a traditional job someone hires you into, or you pursue a more entrepreneurial path creating a new product or business or establishing your own fine arts studio practice, you’ll continue learning and working hard in order to succeed.

I’ve been blessed in my life and professional work to get to interact with some of the most interesting, insightful, and curious individuals to grace our planet. Two that I have come across this year each have sayings or concepts at the core of their present work that I have found ring true for me and I think could be useful for you.

The first is from Carl Stormer, an accomplished jazz musician and business consultant whose life was changed when his wife, the mother of their two young children, had a massive stroke at 43 years old. Suddenly, the path of their lives took and unexpected, and in many ways unwelcome, turn. She survived, but her life and their life as a family was changed forever. Carl speaks about how this life experience brought into focus an idea that he recognized in his jazz improvisation and business successes – control is for beginners. To truly succeed you have to embrace the ideas and assistance of others, and you will likely need to let go of where you thought things were heading and embrace a new direction. Control is for beginners, those with skill and experience realize that real leadership and impact comes through influence, not control. As a generation that is predicted to have anywhere from 8 to 15 careers in your lifetime – careers, not jobs – reinvention of yourself and adaptation of your skills and experiences to new applications will be critical. As artists and designers, you already know how to approach problems in creative ways amidst constraints. As you move forward in your life and careers, remember to stay open and present, aim for influence not control.

The second person whose work I’ve recently become familiar with is Brene Brown, a psychological researcher whose life’s work has focused on the role of vulnerability in living a fulfilling and creative life. Her book, Daring Greatly, talks about discovering through both research and personal experience how showing up and letting oneself be seen is the true definition of courage and engagement in life. An artist’s life is the picture of vulnerability – laying one’s ideas and gifts out for the world to see and critique. To be creative takes courage, a willingness to be vulnerable when the rest of the world seeks to make itself bulletproof at all costs (and with little success). I would agree wholeheartedly with this quote from Daring Greatly: “nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up let myself be seen.” As artists and designers, you know how to show up and let yourselves be seen. As you make your way in this next part of your life, continue to dare greatly. Dance on the edge of vulnerability, as that is where the excitement, innovation and real impact live. And remember that control is for beginners, and as art and design graduates, you are beginners no more.