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the many creative mentors to whom I am indebted, one of the most generous and
articulate was the architect and industrial designer George Nelson (1908–1986). Nelson
came of age during the great depression when, as he put it, “no architects were
being called.” So he expressed his talents as editor, journalist, industrial
designer, product and graphic designer. Fortunately, the demand for
architecture returned just when he was reaching the height of his powers.
Dialogues With Creative Legends and Aha Moments in a Designer’s Career grew
out of my own search for design employment and mentoring. Often the search was
as educational as the interview! Despite the great connectedness of the current
business world—perhaps because of it—aspiring design professionals today
face new challenges in the age-old problem of getting noticed, especially by
the elite practitioners.
My relationship with George Nelson, excerpted below,
marked a turning point; he followed my work and his terse, eloquent letters of
recommendation opened many doors. Nelson’s wit and insights helped me—among a
great many of his students—understand design as both a serious profession and
a creative adventure. I offer here a few choice Nelson observations, leading to
some important conclusions about the special relationship we know as
My boss plunks on my desk an article from ID Magazine about George Nelson; he is teaching an evening class at
Pratt Institute. After calls to Nelson’s office and Pratt Admissions, I receive
permission to audit the class. Until this time, my primary way of approaching
my design idols has been by trying to reach them by telephone and ask for an
interview. With my relative inexperience, it was the coldest form of cold
calling. So this opportunity to learn from a top flight designer seems like a
real gift. It turns out to be that and much more.
“Philosophy of Design” becomes the high point of my week. It’s an evening
class, and I quickly see I am not the only student who sometimes arrives
feeling wrung out, but Nelson—then 68—keeps up a full head of steam
throughout the two-hour session. He has a gift for encouraging student
participation and weaving it into his extemporaneous discussion. Raconteur,
storyteller, evangelist of good sense—here is a man who has assumed the role
of spokesperson for the design profession, yet rarely mentions the word “design.” After several classes, I marvel to Nelson about his ability to talk about
design so fluidly, to discuss complex design problems and make the solutions
understandable. He squares his shoulders to me like Napoleon bucking up a
scared young artilleryman before battle.
“Public speaking is not an innate talent. It’s just practice,” he says
matter-of-factly. I find this simple bit of mentoring very reassuring. The
extraordinary speaking skills of leaders like Charles and Ray Eames, Saul Bass and Buckminster Fuller make it look easy, but experience teaches
otherwise. The idea that, with preparation and practice, I could become as
eloquent as they about this profession lifts my courage.
Nelson’s mission as a design spokesman is to convince his listeners that
world-class design is within reach for anyone with good sense and a passion for
quality. A world traveler, he sells his design services not by showing his own
projects, but by screening his show “The Civilized City,” which consists of
several hundred visuals of amenities that make urban spaces come alive.
In one class he talks about his youthful admiration for great
architecture, and how he traveled Europe, seeking out famous European
architects, and later how he met Frank Lloyd Wright. I feel a link through
Nelson’s vivid stories of mentoring layered back through time.
the beginning of one class, a young architect asks about streamlining. Nelson
pronounces it one of the master ideas of twentieth-century design, and proceeds
to devote the rest of the two-hour lecture to that subject—what an
began as an engineering technique, but quickly became a driver for style. Such a movement begins with a philosophical zeal, proclaiming a new scientific
basis between form and meaning. As it is assimilated into the mainstream, it
becomes a vernacular, something applied more and more carelessly. Even things
that did not need to move through air or water were subjected to wind tunnels —
furniture, toasters, even parking meters! Eventually it becomes a form of
visual pollution, until some new innovation captures the popular imagination
with a new, world-changing design philosophy.”
to write for Time-Life the book that became Tomorrow’s
House, he filled many chapters easily but when his press deadline
loomed, he was stuck on the topic of storage. He recounts, “I found myself
staring at the wall, idly wondering how thick it is. Six inches, maybe? Then,
for no reason at all, it hits me: add three inches on either side and you have
a cubic foot, times the dimension of the wall, more volume than the average
closet.” This line of inquiry leads to some quick prototypes, and he writes a
chapter about “The Storage Wall,” which becomes the most influential part of
the book and a signature of post–World War II interior design.
product designer and architect, Nelson is unabashedly consumerist. “I’m
comfortable with my role helping people feel good about their material
surroundings,” he says, “about helping them find an identity in the things they
need to live. Remember that design has only recently become an academic
subject, taught in universities. It began as a survival skill, before recorded
history. Design should be a force for good, of course, no one argues with that.
But design is all about selling survival strategies—for countries, for
companies, for products, but ultimately it is always funded by people.”
one Philosophy of Design
lecture, a student asks if there will ever be another Venice. Nelson turns the
challenge around, placing the responsibility on the design community.
was a unique collaboration. There were visionary designers there, capable of
painting word pictures of things that had never been dreamt. They convinced
their bankers that through design, they could establish a mercantile empire,
drawing customers to their own, uniquely irresistible headquarters. Those boys
down on Wall Street have the money to build Venice ten times over. If New York
isn’t as spectacular as Venice it isn’t the bankers’ fault! We in the design
community must not be making a compelling enough case for the power of
of the students asks Nelson how to decide, from a daily flood of ideas, which
ones are most worthy of developing. Nelson is emphatic:
the good ones! Often, you think you have too many ideas, but they are really
variations on the same idea. Other times, you realize that of a hundred ideas,
80 have been done already and 18 are original but on quick
examination they fall somewhere between mediocre and stupid. That leaves you
with two good, original ideas! You have been given great talent: with that gift
comes the obligation to use yourself up! Don’t die with a single good idea left
in you untried.”
gets started talking about the creative process, how one idea leads to the
next. He is very animated on the science of heuristics, which he describes as
an enthusiastic intellectual wandering. The mind, Nelson contends, makes
connections between things seemingly unrelated. Why, he poses to the class,
when you are working on a problem, do unconnected thoughts pop into your head?
He believes that these thoughts, far from being disruptive, are gifts. The
connection may be obvious, or may require time to puzzle out, but it’s there.
Fuller describes (in Nine Chains to the
Moon) his creative process as laying out a problem in a workroom in
his mind, then leaving the room. A mental force Fuller calls his ‘phantom
captain’ solves the problem and leaves the solution lying on the table, for his
conscious mind to pick up and execute. Charles and Ray Eames talk at length
about ‘finding the connections’ as an enduring theme in their work.”
is a storehouse of information about creative people; I ask him about this. He “went
through a phase” where he couldn’t read enough biographies of famous creative
people. He wanted to see the big patterns in their lives. He never tires of
talking about the creative process, about how creative ideas occur.
“To succeed in design, you must develop your own resource library. Collect now,
and make the connections later. The time you invest in processing the things
you find intriguing will yield big dividends. You can, of course, begin with an
intention to seek out and study certain things. But you can work the other way:
keep your eyes open, and when something knocks you over, sketch it or
photograph it or write in your diary. You don’t think your way to creative
work. You work your way to creative thinking.”
participate energetically in Nelson’s discussions and assignments. He
recognizes that I am a working designer auditing out of interest, and he
responds with an invitation to visit his office and show my portfolio.
door to his office says “Nelson Design.” Next to it is another door that says “Nelson
and Chadwick, Architects.” On closer examination, I see that the second door is
meticulously painted on the wall, not a real door, but a trompe l’oeil
rendering. Nelson jokes his way through all design subjects, humor is perhaps
the one constant across the wide range of his activities. I begin to see that
his ability to make serious subjects seem lighthearted and fun is a key to his
success with clients.
office is an open plan. I’m surprised that it is not slick. No two chairs are
the same. There are components of many different office systems. A menagerie of
clocks and lamps can be seen. He sees me taking it all in.
do a lot of corporate interior design,” he explains. “I never like to specify
something as intimate as a chair unless we have lived with it ourselves to make
sure it sits properly.”
venture, “Having taken ‘Philosophy of Design,’ I thought your office would be
filled with Rietveld chairs and Futurist paintings!”
smile appears fleetingly at the corner of his mouth. “Try to snuggle with your
honey bun in one of those chairs! Who wants to sit on a manifesto? Design is
first and foremost about serving the needs of the user; only then is it about
expression. In the best design, the two appear effortlessly combined. But any
seasoned designer knows it is rarely effortless.”
left New York a year after the class ended, though we
corresponded occasionally. I last saw him at the opening of a Herman Miller
factory, in 1983. He was still as jovial as ever then, and as I look back over
the years of his on-again-off-again mentoring, humor was a constant. In his
designs as well as his writing, Nelson had a knack for wrapping a deep idea in
a lighthearted story or example—perhaps that is why it took a while to fully
realize how far reaching many of his attitudes could be. Many are still
yielding new aha! moments, even today. Such as:
speaking proves to be a crucial career skill; since verbalization is the first
step toward actualization. Nelson also suggested to the class that getting
practice alone in front of a mirror is helpful, but actively seeking
opportunities to engage with audiences is better still. The ‘public personality’
needed to build excitement around innovative work. As new media appear and
transform public dialogue, the types of publicity available to design
professionals are also filled with new opportunities. Every time I step in
front of a mic or camera, Nelson’s encouragement to practice and actively
engage in public dialogue takes on renewed meaning.
was an early example of what is now dubbed ‘content marketing.’ He had
brochures, but he attracted a large and diverse client base through his writing
and his slideshow. This show, which he dubbed “The Civilized City,” was in fact
constantly evolving. In it, he discussed neither product nor process, but
rather the benefits of good design to society as a whole. Of his books, Problems of Design and George Nelson On Design are worthy of a
place in every design library.
the evolution of styles accelerates, I think frequently of Nelson’s quip about
streamlining toasters and parking meters. New trends in visual design are
frequently driven by ideas. When the look is copied without regard for the
suitability of the idea, it not only results in a clichéd design, but it hurts
the efforts of thoughtful designers everywhere. Nelson might say, “Sure there is
some way to teach thoughtful, rather than thoughtless, application of styles?”
His book How to See deals with his campaign for the teaching of what he liked
to term Visual Literacy.
suggest above that Nelson was unabashedly consumerist—this is my wording not
his. Dialogues with Creative Legends begins with Victor Papanek and Bucky
Fuller—both of whom had their impatience with overly commercial design. After
hearing them, Nelson’s philosophy struck me as very centrist. That said, I
believe he would feel right at home with much of the discussion of sustainable
design going on now. Nelson quoted frequently from E.F. Schumaker’s little
manifesto Small is Beautiful: Economics as
if People Mattered, still a very provocative and relevant book for
those interested in inventing Capitalism 2.0.
never heard Nelson say, directly, that having talent carried with it an
obligation to society. That is, nevertheless, the pervasive feeling I have from
the variety of his challenges to our class. His exhortation to “use yourself up”
and to take responsibility for convincing the prime movers in society that—like the example of Venice—design is at the center of civics and of life well-lived.
I asked Richard Saul Wurman to write the introduction to Dialogues, he read the manuscript and
objected to my description of Nelson’s method for going from 100 ideas to
two actionable ones. “I knew Nelson well,” Wurman objected, “and I don’t
believe a word of that description.” Though I stand by my transcription, I am
grateful to Wurman for pointing out a crucial omission of mine. Central to Nelsonian
design thinking—probably all design—is the role played by intuition and
passion in selecting which ideas to carry through. Some ideas may have
immediate commercial applications but we choose instead to devote energy to
ideas that are exciting more for their social, intellectual or aesthetic value.
I confess that some of my best ideas are things I pursued without being sure
where it would go, solely because it was intensely interesting. Sometimes, of
course, we go for the gold.
Nelson suggested that designers work their way to creative thinking, not the
other way around, I believe now he was trying to say that too much forethought
is as troublesome as too little, and that quick thinking, then quick
visualization of ideas, then quick critical analysis, in as many iterations as
needed, was his suggestion to his students. Nelson described a day he was
invited to visit the new products lab at Sony. He observed that the Sony team
met early and tossed around dozens of ideas for new portable radios, then
management picked one. Sony’s policy, he observed, was to have a working
breadboard and prototype by the end of the same day!
story of developing the storage wall stayed with me for a long time before I
figured out why. Many designers wrap their work in a process with research,
flow diagrams and secret sauce. His willingness to admit the haphazard nature
of his creative process is very disarming. It is not that he eschews process,
but he seems to be saying “recognize that talent and a deadline can sometimes
produce work as good as or better than a structured and scheduled effort.” Aha!
article is based on Dialogues with Creative Legends: Aha Moments in a Designer’s Career by David Laufer (© 2013). The piece was first published on Design Intelligence.
David Calvin Laufer’s designs first came to international attention with his rebranding of Oxford University Press for its 500th anniversary. This launched a career that includes branding programs for Fortune 500 clients, product designs for the Museum of
Modern Art, NY, more than 30 exhibitions, five U.S. patents and mentoring relationships with some of the great creative legends of the last 40 years. Mr. Laufer owns Atlanta based consultancy BrandBook LLC. He is a founding trustee of AIGA-Atlanta, and past
president of the National Investor Relations Institute Chapter in Atlanta. He earned a BFA in Design from Carnegie-Mellon where he was a Champion International Imagination Scholar. Mr. Laufer is a leader in the global Little Free Library movement.
David Laufer is the author of Dialogues with Creative Legends, Aha Moments in a Designer's Career,
published by New Riders, San Francisco.
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