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Will I?
By Michelle Armas

The first day of school, a year ago, was as rainy and cold a day as January has ever known for Atlanta. I was so excited because it was the beginning of the realization of a dream. It took ten years to convince myself that I could be a designer. During orientation we raised our hands, introduced ourselves and talked about our ambitions. We proudly announced to each other that we would make a real difference some day with our work. I vowed to bring attention to causes that I believe in, support sustainable and ecologically friendly design alternatives and seek truth. I felt that it was possible, even though I had no idea what lay ahead for me. This coming year will be equally challenging but I wonder if it is really going to prepare me for the choices I will have to make as a designer in the future.

The first week of school was like a blow to the head. In the first year I aged five. I shed gallons of tears and survived sleepless weeks, exacto wounds and crippling insecurity. It was the hardest year of my life and there is one more to go. My confidence has grown but at the same time, as graduation looms I am becoming more nervous. My ideals about creating sustainable design and keeping a commitment to be ecologically responsible still drive me, but I am wondering, where will they take me? And I have so many other questions. Will I be able to work in a place where these ideals are valued and respected? Will I be able to make a living?

On a recent trip to New York with a class at the Portfolio Center, my peers and I had dinner with James Victore, a designer I respect very much. He is one of the most fascinating designers I have had the pleasure of speaking to. His work has inspired me since I first saw the Columbus Day poster for the centennial celebration in New York. The Columbus Day poster featuring a photo of a Native American Indian with a death mask scribbled over his face is an exciting example of design that inspires with James’s own unique voice. He began his career as a poster designer because he had a voice to share. He didn’t make money from his posters so he expanded his range of clients and now works from his studio in Brooklyn with about three to four clients at any given time.

In addition to speaking with James, I have been collecting bits of advice from professors and designers whom I admire and respect. Below is a short list of questions that I posed, and a summary of the responses that I received. The questions focus on drive, commitment and idealism as I feel these ideas are at the core of my search for answers.

What guides you?
As designers we eventually define our own ideas of what we want to contribute with our work. You form a philosophy for yourself and live by it: you stick to it, even if it means turning down potentially lucrative offers if it means going against what you believe to be your core motivators. I decided that the search for truth is at the core of what design means for me. This philosophy will guide me in my work as I build my portfolio and after that, as I begin searching for my first job and the second and third, for the rest of my career.

What kind of commitment did you make?
Choose design as a way of life, let your design philosophy inspire your life goals. Perhaps the most obvious lesson about design that I have experienced is that once you start, you can’t stop. I can’t believe that I ever lived without design I my life. This means that if I believe in pursuing sustainable design alternatives in the future, the designs I create now in school will reflect my attitudes as well because it is a way of life.

How idealistic are you?
Be as realistic as you are idealistic. I imagine a revolution of package design whereby everything will be completely biodegradable and recyclable, non-toxic and beautiful. Thus I shall design with these ideas in mind. Ideally someone who sees that passion in my work will hire me. Realistically that may not happen and not all jobs are a perfect fit, obviously. Eventually I will find one that fits, me. Nearly every designer I spoke with felt that they had found their perfect match, for now.

When I first began this article, I was terrified that I would have nothing to say, after all I am just a student, what do I know about design? Now I realize that my questions probably weren’t too different from those of the people I admired in the design field. I was so pleased to discover that so many of my peers were willing to begin a dialogue with me. In addition to what I included above, I have learned that my career will be a long and curving path that will change and evolve as I do. I don’t have to find all the answers to my questions by the time I graduate, and I will always have questions. At least I know that I will forever be searching for truth. For me, at this point on my path, the truth is about learning and becoming a designer with the power to make the kind of impact I know I can make.

Michelle Armas is a student at Portfolio Center. This essay is the seventh in a series by PC students who took part in Bryony’s long-distance Design Thinking class during the quarter of winter 2005.

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PUBLISHED ON May.03.2005 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Bradley’s comment is:

The day I left PC, Hank told me that the keys to success were commitment, persistence, and patience. He's right. Challenging as it is, the one thing you can always be happy about is that YOU control it--what you do, where you go, what your life becomes is a product of your choices and your actions. The design education at PC is about that before its about getting a job or winning awards or whatever mirages there are that we chase.

A sustainable world is not a fantasy and its not overly idealistic--its a necessary reaction to an increasingly grim reality. If you believe in this, you will find a way to achieve it. The fact that it takes time won't matter because you accept that the goal is time-consuming. The fact that bosses, colleagues, and clients resist you won't matter much either, because you want to do it, and like hell someone would stop you.

Design is tough, but yeah, I have no idea how I lived without it either. It's been an interesting road from a personal vantage point because I've considered doing something else on a number of occasions now. It never gets any easier, you just get better at dealing with things...and after awhile, nothing is that frightening, and nothing is impossible.

On May.03.2005 at 05:38 PM
Brian Hurewitz’s comment is:

I work as an art director for Green Team, New York's first and only environmentally focused ad agency. We consider the environment to include every social, natural and cultural surrounding that impacts the health of our minds, bodies and spirits. So defined, museums and marshlands are equally critical habitats, workplace diversity and World Heritage Sites are both in need of preservation; and racial discrimination is just as toxic as diesel fumes.

Our clients include non profits and NGOs such as National Geographic, Environmental Defense, FSC and WWF— because to affect change you have to help promote grass roots organizations on the ground.

We work with travel clients and tourist boards such as VisitScotland, VisitBritain, Belize and Lindblad Expeditions— because we believe if people travel around the world they will have a better understanding of how to protect and preserve it.

And we work with progressive brands (corporations leading the way in social and environmental responsibitlity) such as Pret A Manger, Stonyfield Farm and Johnson & Johnson— because the only way to really reach the masses in a capitalistic system is through corporations and the products they prodcuce.

We are a movement in progress, and we are always looking to collaborate with like minded creatives (designers, art directors, writers, artists...) to help push the movement forward.

Contact us through our web site at www.greenteamusa.com or email me at [email protected]

On May.03.2005 at 10:42 PM
Tan’s comment is:

When I was in Maui recently on vacation, we spent a day driving the famous road to Hana. It's a twisty, narrow road that carves its way through dense forest, hugging the coastline for about 50 miles. Along the way, there are approx 600 curves, 60 waterfalls, and lots of places to pull over to puke. It's a magnificent drive, full of spectacular vistas and sights—but it's unmerciful to those prone to motion sickness. It's also a little dangerous — there are occasional old wrecks along the way to remind you. At the end, there's a little tiny town called Hana. Nothing really special, just a small fishing village at the end of the paved road. Most people stop just long enough to eat lunch, then turn right around and head back.

The road is also called the road to nowhere. Driving back, you realize that it's not the final destination town of Hana that draws tourists, but the winding journey itself.

That journey is very analogous to a career in design, I think. Lots of curves, a little dangerous, lots of good moments, some puking along the way.

There's really nothing amazing waiting for you at the end, but the journey itself can be spectacular and unforgettable.

On May.04.2005 at 12:54 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Michelle,

I wish you an exciting career. Here's a quote for you to remember on your road ahead:

Never be afraid to try something new. Remember an amateur built the Ark, a group of professionals built the Titanic.

On May.04.2005 at 07:55 AM
Michelle Armas’s comment is:

Bradly,

Thank you for your reply (I was not able to email you.) Sounds like a Hank thing to say, and it sounds oh so true. He has been telling me the same thing, that passion alone will not guide me, I must give it direction. It was that advice that lead me to dig deep and call myself to action with this essay, but that was just the tip of it. Thank you again for taking the time to let me know what you think. I was so nervous about writing this essay and gasp, people reading it! It has been such a great experience.

On May.04.2005 at 12:30 PM
Michelle Armas’s comment is:

To all:

The wonderful, constructive and engaging dialogue that has been created here has lead me to think about one other issue that is close to my heart. I hope that by opening an avenue for your thoughts I might gain some insight into the issue from your points of view.

I am wondering, what is it really like to be a woman designer? The things to sacrifice for family, or the personal joys to sacrifice for fulfillment in your projects. I am too young to think about babies right now, but I do see on the horizon this quandary of life's efforts.

I am curious about the culture as you see it in the profession for mothers or would-be working mothers.

I am looking forward to continuing this discussion.

On May.04.2005 at 01:34 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>what is it really like to be a woman designer

Women designers get to carry smaller laptop bags without being accused of having a "man-purse." Men don't have that luxury.

Seriously though — i think this is a very pertinent question, and I'm curious to hear from our female audience. The fact is, our industry is comprised of 65% women (last I read), yet I know of very few firms with beneficial policies for maternity leave, work share, or child care. In fact, most owners (male or female) would rather ignore the problem until confronted with losing a valuable female employee.

I know that a number of our male audience also have spouses or girlfriends that are designers or in the business somehow. My wife used to be in the business — till our second child came along, then she quit to raise our kids. How does everyone deal with that decision? For women, does it always come down to career or family?

On May.04.2005 at 04:38 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Tan, your Road to Hana analogy is very poetic... and true.

The evolution of all of the various components of our lives, including our careers, is a journey. Being mindful of all of the beauty and wonders that are presented to us, as we round each corner, is indeed the best part of being alive. We enter and leave this world with nothing.

"Commitment, persistence, and patience" gives us the ability and strength to adapt to all of the unescapable curves that is an intrinsic part of life.

Michelle,

I would absolutely agree with the notion of having your design philosophy inspire your life. I think most passsionate, "successful" designers infuse their lives with design. But don't be surprised if there comes a time, down the road, when life comes back to inspire your vision of design.

In your quest for a "revolution of package design whereby everything will be completely biodegradable and recyclable, non-toxic and beautiful," you will need to channel commitment, persistence, and patience to see this through. To change the way we package our products in a more environmentally responsible manner is a long uphill battle that will probably take decades and will require changing and/or modifying the perceptions of many people. But the difficulty of the task should not deter you from trying to achieve it. It's one of my goals, as well.

To that end, I strongly recommend that you read (if you have not done so already) Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. In the book they introduce the notion of biological and technical nutrients, and the importance of avoiding "monstrous hybrids," as well as pointing out the pitfalls of efficiency and the overlooked value of effecacy. I think all of these are enormously important when considering packaging, as well as all other industrial processes.

On May.06.2005 at 04:53 PM
Steven’s comment is:

How does everyone deal with that decision? For women, does it always come down to career or family?

Tan, I know of a few women designers who work freelance from home.

My wife and I have been pondering this question too. (Me: 45. She: 40. Tic-toc!) I'm hoping that we can work out some sort of arrangement where we can both sort of split the responsibility.

Of course another irony of this situation is that paying for decent child-care is almost as expensive as one person's income, and you don't get to raise your child during their most crucial (and precious) early years. So many women opt out of their job. And in certain instances where the woman has the higher paying job, the man stays with the kid. (Of course, breast-feeding gets a little complicated in this case.)

I wonder, too, whether this is more of an American issue. Do other cultures have a better way of dealing with this? Or is this a condition of "modern" living in all cultures?

Um... And aren't we getting off-topic to Michelle's thread?

On May.06.2005 at 05:28 PM
Michelle Armas’s comment is:

Thanks so much for your comments. I have read Cradle to Cradle and I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps the most influential book that I have read to date is Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek, a classic. I am very passionate about making a difference in the way our society produces and exposes of goods and I am excited that I will have a hand in shaping perceptions in my lifetime but I do realize how much work it will be. I have no illusions that we are on the cusp of some revolution but I am optimistic.

Concerning my questions about women designers, yes it is a little off topic but it is none the less a topic I am equally as passionate about. I think it is a problem for working women in the developed world, but perhaps more so for American women. Our society is not developed to support young families. There are few social programs or services to make having a child easier for working parents. As you say, the astronomical price of child care causes women to make choices that working women in countries like France or Germany don't necessarily face. Recently when I was in New York meeting with firms, a young woman partner at a prestigious firm told me about her career path. I vividly remember her saying that her superior left to have a child (with the intent to come back) and she filled her position. The message was clear, step out of line and lose your place. This isn't surprising, but I was still somewhat saddened. I was hoping by introducing the topic that women would reply about their experiences.

On May.06.2005 at 06:41 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Just to play devil’s advocate:

Is this a women’s issue or a wider choice issue? If a man “steps out of line” to write a novel, care for a sick relative, train to race the the Ironman triathlon, build a boat, explore other options, raise a child, recover from an illness, teach, deal with a personal problem of any sort—any of the many choices people can make about their lives—do jobs stay open, employers act like they never left, etc.?

It is true that it is common in our society for women to carry much of the weight of raising children. (Note that this is done largely by choice.) This means that men who choose to devote their lives to their jobs are more reliable and productive for their employers. Is it unreasonable for employers to reward productivity? Is it reasonable to expect that vital parts of a company be left in a vacuum for long periods of time because of an employee’s choice to (perhaps temporarily) do something else with her life?

As a society it may make sense for us to reward particular life choices. Having children may or may not be one of them. Raising children well seems to be a clearer candidate for reward and encouragement. But does it make sense to expect an employer to pay the price? Every reward to someone who makes one choice is, like it or not, a missed opportunity for someone else. Should a woman who focuses on her career have to stand by while another who has chosen to do something else has “her” place in line held for her?

On May.08.2005 at 01:49 PM
Michelle Armas’s comment is:

Devil's Advocate,

Thank you for your comments.

Now let me clear some things up. I completely agree that it is ridiculous for an employer to hold a job for someone or for that employer not to reward an employee's commitment and reliability. Also, just to be clear, I am not referring to anyone, man or woman, who leaves work to do any old thing they feel like doing. Nor am I suggesting that we should punish successful childless women to support women with children.

I do think it is ridiculous that these matters even have to be addressed. However, I was not clear in my comments and it is possible that you actually thought that I meant to imply these things. Let me make it clear that I would like to discuss the culture in corporate America regarding women and the options they have and the choices they make when they chose to start a family.

My questions are about what it is like for a woman working today in graphic design. What is the culture like? Is it really as cut-throat as it seems? Do employers routinely discriminate against women because they may leave to have children; does this create an environment where women who leave are looked down on?

You say that "Raising children well seems to be a clearer candidate for reward and encouragement." Are you saying that you encourage women to leave work to raise children. Perhaps you see it as the more noble choice. What do you mean by "raising children well," Are you suggesting that raising a child well means that a mother stay home and devote herself to her children? Then is there a need for any reform in the attitude toward women in the workplace?

On May.09.2005 at 12:21 AM
graham’s comment is:

in sweden a new mother and father get about a year and a half off at 80% of pay (for freelance, 80% of previous year-figures differ but you get the idea). their jobs have to be kept for their return by law. this is funded by government, employees and insurance. the u.k. has about 40 weeks maternity leave (not sure abut the money).

gunnar, by 'society' i presume you meant american society.

not all western governments (perhaps even societies) consider 'reward' and 'choice' to be useful modes for building society. it's not a question of being 'rewarded' for raising children 'well' (your 'well' may be anothers monster)-it's a question of everyone, given their circumstances, having the possibility from the outset of raising their children safely and healthily. what has 'reward' got to do with it?

how much tax do you pay in the u.s.?

On May.09.2005 at 02:46 AM
graham’s comment is:

some of this relates to the 'life is choice(s)' thread: the thing is, life isn't a choice.

it's not about having children (the parents)-it's about the child. a child does not choose to be born. we all come in the same way. there is as much self-interest (call it pragmatism) as there is caring in any attempt at the communal raising (whether through physical, emotional or financial means) of children.

even ants manage it.

On May.09.2005 at 04:07 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Graham—

Gunnar, by 'society' i presume you meant american society.

I suppose it would have been more accurate had I said societies.

not all western governments (perhaps even societies) consider 'reward' and 'choice' to be useful modes for building society. it's not a question of being 'rewarded' for raising children 'well' (your 'well' may be anothers monster)-it's a question of everyone, given their circumstances, having the possibility from the outset of raising their children safely and healthily. what has 'reward' got to do with it?

It may not be the way you talk about it. It may not be the way you want to think about it. It is the way you act and it is the way people respond.

On May.09.2005 at 10:24 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Graham—

Gunnar, by 'society' i presume you meant american society.

I suppose it would have been more accurate had I said societies (although the post I was responding to was directly relevant to American society.)

not all western governments (perhaps even societies) consider 'reward' and 'choice' to be useful modes for building society. it's not a question of being 'rewarded' for raising children 'well' (your 'well' may be anothers monster)-it's a question of everyone, given their circumstances, having the possibility from the outset of raising their children safely and healthily. what has 'reward' got to do with it?

It may not be the way you talk about it. It may not be the way you want to think about it. It is the way you act and it is the way people respond. Sorry. More accuracy and less dogmatism: It is a primary way you act and it is a primary way people respond.

On May.09.2005 at 10:48 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Gunnar, when my wife had kids, it affected the both of us. It's true that ultimately, it often comes down to a woman's career and her decision, but the ramifications of a child has impact on both parent's lives and work situations. My point is that while it may seem that maternity policies in a particular office only favor the women, it actually affects her husband's situation as well. If every office had fair and reasonable policies for maternity/paternity leave or flex-time and childcare — then everyone would benefit equally.

As to whether or not maternity policies are unfair to women who choose not to have children, well that's a fair question. But I don't think it's quite so black and white. People have many ways of thinking about what constitutes "fairness" as far as workplace policies goes.

But back to Michelle's original question. I do think there are questions and lifestyle/family decisions, and sacrifices, that female designers have to make that male designers do not. That's the reality, and yes, I empathize that it sucks.

>in sweden a new mother and father get about a year and a half off at 80% of pay

While that sounds amazing, I think it's overkill. Realistically, 6 months is a very reasonable amount of time, I think.

European policies for maternity/paternity leave have always been known for its amazing generosity. But the reality is that national labor productivity does suffer as a result when compared to national labor productivity in the US. I'm no economist, but it seems to me that in a global economy, that disadvantage would have a cyclical effect on everything in that European country, including employment rates, income tax, and standard of living.

I think the ideal lies somewhere in between.

On May.09.2005 at 02:05 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Tan,

Note that I didn’t endorse a specific policy; I challenged what seemed to be the assumptions in earlier comments. I happen to believe that (in addition to many other good reasons) it is beneficial to companies to support their employees as complex beings with real lives outside the workplace.

I find many claims of the plight of women in the workplace to be descriptions of very real problems and many to be hypocritical nonsense. It is very common to hear in a single breath that women are not granted equal opportunity and would benefit from meritocracy and that they have chosen lives that don’t allow them to contribute like the men they work with do.

I’m still mystified as to why I shouldn’t have assumed that

her superior left to have a child (with the intent to come back) and she filled her position. The message was clear, step out of line and lose your place. This isn't surprising, but I was still somewhat saddened.

was an objection a company failing to favor someone who made the choice to “step out of line” in the sense of voluntarily stopping work for personal reasons.

While I support the policies you describe:

If every office had fair and reasonable policies for maternity/paternity leave or flex-time and childcare — then everyone would benefit equally

I assume, upon review, you will agree that your use of the word “everyone” was hyperbolic at best.

More than the very real differences between the effects of US and Swedish leave policy, it is important to note that the Swedes put their money where their mouths are. They as a society chose to support parents—literally. (There are interesting choices made in the way they did it and important ramifications but we’re already way off topic and I don’t have time.)

Americans seem to want to shove responsibilities for health care, child care, and damned near everything else onto employers while claiming we’re “pro business” and “pro family.” What’s up with that?

On May.09.2005 at 03:33 PM
graham’s comment is:

tan-"but it seems to me that in a global economy, that disadvantage would have a cyclical effect on everything in that European country, including employment rates, income tax, and standard of living."

you're not far wrong (excluding standard of living-and in terms of tax, it's not about whether it actually hurts, it's about whether you mind if it hurts)-but the biggest negative effect is on thinking. things get very . . . parochial.

On May.09.2005 at 04:01 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>hyperbolic at best.

I totally agree w/ your points Gunnar. After all, I've been on both sides of the fence, employer as well as employee. I was just responding to your challenge for sake of discussion. There is great hypocrisy in how government expect businesses and working parents to fend for themselves, yet cry foul when we become a country of latchkey children.

>but the biggest negative effect is on thinking

Yes, I agree. It comes down to deciding what kind of world you want to live in and realizing how your country defines and prioritizes "standard of living."

On May.09.2005 at 04:42 PM