Remarks for graduates by Henry Steiner at the PolyU Design 28th Congregation

The following are the original remarks by Henry Steiner, Honourary Professor and Founder of Steiner&Co., who was unable to attend the ceremony as Congregation Speaker due to sickness:

In college I was initially undecided between majoring in Visual Art or Literature and decided that it was much easier for me to draw one picture than to write a thousand words. So I chose the Visual Art Stream.

At Hunter College in those days some of the star artists of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism were our teachers. But except for one class in printmaking and for reasons not understood at the time, I felt uncomfortable with painting.

In my senior year, the printmaking teacher was assigned to discuss post-graduation work with me. We agreed that I had absolutely no future as a painter so he asked me what I had really enjoyed doing at college.

I told him it was the extra-mural activities, like art editing the college newspaper, the literary magazine and yearbook, creating posters, and stage designs for school plays, etc. My mentor said: “You know, I also teach printmaking at Yale in a new department of the Art School. Why don’t you come and study Graphic Design?”

I replied:  “Sure. What is that?”

You see, at the time the only term I recognized was “commercial art”.

What had been a craft, albeit one that traced its lineage back to Gutenberg and even further back to the inscriptions on Trajan’s column in the Roman Forum, was by the 1950s, morphing into a sort of profession.

But, is graphic design a profession?  I’d like to explore this question with you.

To me, a real profession is one where you need to have a license, or other formal recognition, because malpractice could have serious consequences. It is said that while a doctor’s mistakes are buried, those of a lawyer are left hanging from the gallows for all to see.

Incompetent graphic design may keep the shredder busy, or get you lost in a strange city, or result in a migraine headache.

Incidentally, there is some confusion about the distinction between design as art or craft which was defined by a colleague as follows: “A designer tries to solve his client’s problems. A painter tries to solve his own problems.”

Yes, we’re designers, not artists. Like most of us, I prefer to receive assignments, not to create them. This explains my discomfort with painting, mentioned earlier. I have no message to inflict on the world, but I love to solve communication problems for my clients.

I should point out that this idea of Art (with a capital A) as something elevated which is dreamed up by inspired individuals following their passion, has only been around for the last 200 years or so. Before that, artists worked to order. They were hired to do portraits, landscapes, murals. Like a taxi, they don’t start moving before the meter goes down.

The big shift in design in the 50s was away from a consistent, painterly “style”. Designers formed in that period prided themselves on not being recognizable, in not repeating themselves. Their satisfaction came from analyzing a client’s specific communication problem and coming up with a solution not resembling anything they’d created before.

Can you picture a doctor who prescribes two aspirins a day to every patient she sees no matter what the complaint is ?  Get the analogy with a designer who pushes some variant of the same style on every client.

The joy of design, for me, is in new challenges, in the surprises. Ideally the design solution reflects the client’s personality not mine.

The designer/client relationship is a symbiotic one, and there are two ways of visualizing it.  One is to compare it with the structure of our brain. I’m sure you know about the functions of the left and the right hemispheres.  The left in computer language is a serial processor while the right is a parallel one.  Or put more simply, the left is numbers while the right is music.

Another image is that of the Tai Chi symbol, the central visual element in Taoism.

It stands for light/dark, hot/cold, male/female, plus/minus. Contrast gives life to a design. 

Once you grasp this fact you realize the supreme importance of communications between the two.

Our clients tend not to be thrilled by shapes and colors. They’re concerned with the bottom line. We must express to a client the reasoning behind a design solution in the form of a story which gives the idea underlying the proposal. Sometimes - and this should be our little secret – we might make up the story after creating the design. Now, this is not actually dishonest. Most creatives find out their true purpose after the fact. I’m sure you’ve had hints of how your subconscious can be working away even when you’re not. As form must follow function.

There is another little secret. Most of our best ideas…. come from the client. There should be no shame or guilt attached to this revelation.

Like a management consultant - or a psychoanalyst -  we should probe deeply and listen attentively to our clients. Our recommendation then comes from an insightful approach to their individual problems. It is from delving sensitively into our client’s story that we can uncover the idiosyncratic, the quirky, the fresh ideas they themselves didn’t appreciate before.

I’d like to think design is a profession. My father was a dentist, my mother a seamstress, a sample maker on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue. You could say it’s in my DNA. And design’s been good to me.

Still, as a profession, design is a modest one; useful but not terribly prestigious. Somewhere between an architect and a tailor.

But, as designers, we are here to make ordinary objects extraordinary – pleasant, useful, witty, and sometimes inspiring. Using our powers of observation and working with economy and improvisation, we battle the enemies: mediocrity, cynicism, neglect.

What matters is to send,  through our craft,  modest messages which others will receive saying: “Somebody cared about this.”

Congratulations and warmest wishes in your design profession.


More speeches at the 28th Congregation:

Welcoming Address by Prof. Kun-Pyo Lee, Dean of School of Design and Swire Chair Professor of Design, Alex Wong Siu Wah Gigi Wong Fook Chi Professor in Product Design Engineering

Valedictory Speech by Miss VONG Ka Hei - PM Session

Valedictory Speech by Miss CHOW Hiu Yim Ceci - AM Session