If you've strolled through the Central Park Zoo in New York, participated in the 2000 U.S. census or selected an iconic stamp at the post office, then you've benefited from the work of design strategist Sylvia Harris. Throughout her vibrant 25-year career she has partnered with high-profile clients—in business, nonprofit and government—to yield rewarding projects and a life's work dedicated to removing barriers by ensuring that public information systems are accessible to everyone.
After graduating with a BFA in communication arts and design from Virginia Commonwealth University, in her hometown of Richmond, Harris set off for Boston. The move was initially motivated by romance, but her experiences there ultimately sparked her passion for design. Despite an undergraduate focus on film and photography, Harris was hired as a designer at WGBH, Boston's public television station. “I learned how to make visual things,” says Harris of parlaying one skill set into another, “and if you know how to make things, you can make one thing or the next thing.” Harris, who has an easy-going, approachable manner, is humble about the considerable talent and drive that enabled her to adapt so readily to her new profession.
On her first big break:
My firm got a series of contracts with Citibank to work on the design of the first ATM. I learned everything I know about user testing, product design and strategic planning from that experience. It was like going to graduate school in usability and I made contacts that have lasted to this day.
She had some basic design skills, but it was her WGBH boss, designer Chris Pullman, whom Harris credits with not only giving her a chance but for also recognizing her potential. “He showed interest in my career, in me, and he gave me advice.” The admiration was mutual, she recalls. “I liked what he was doing… working not for the private sector but in this other whole world of design for the public good. It made a big impression.” Pullman, who was in his early thirties, stood out in a professional landscape populated by older men. Harris notes, “There were few women, no people of color, few people close to me in age—there was not much to choose from for a mentor in the late 1970s.” Pullman's early influence helped inform her career path, and later her choice of graduate school, Yale.
However, before pursuing a second degree, she received invaluable on-the-job design training at The Architects Collaborative (TAC), headed by Walter Gropius, and the prestigious Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), then in Boston. TAC was where Harris got her first exposure to environmental graphics, which secured her future course. At SOM Harris first got involved in environmental urban planning for public clients such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and the U.S. Department of Transportation. She also encountered another important mentor of a different stripe in Karen Alschuler, who impressed Harris with her ability to balance a challenging career as one of SOM's first female partners and a family in such a male-dominated field. That a woman could do it all was still very radical in 1976, and Harris gravitated to Alschuler for guidance and friendship. In developing a connection with a mentor Harris advises, “There is work that needs to be done by the mentee to maintain the relationship, to stoke it and get more out of it. When people put energy into your career, you need to stay in touch with them to let them know how things are turning out.”
One lesson from design:
Design teaches us not to make assumptions.
Influential mentors and experiences aside, the always-striving Harris decided to leave SOM because, as she puts it, “I didn't know enough.” Her curiosity and a recommendation from Pullman led her to pursue an MFA in graphic design at Yale. Harris hungrily explored the Liberal Arts education she missed in her undergraduate studies, and was very tempted to jump the design ship and join great minds like bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates in the school's history department at the time. However, she stayed the design course, and in 1980 along with two partners formed Two Twelve Associates, her first graphic design consulting firm.
At Two Twelve Harris worked on dynamic projects for the New York State Council on the Arts, Pfizer, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Central Park Zoo, which was the first project where Harris witnessed the significant impact her design could make. “The Central Park Zoo was a real turning point,” she recalls. “The goal was to create this beautiful place where the public could go for almost nothing—admission was 50 cents. They were making the animals' habitats more humane and thinking about the interface with the public. We re-did all the displays, information, signs and interpretive panels… we were allowed to employ the best design practices we knew, and the public loved it.” Most significantly, she notes, “It's something I did that's still there—it's amazing.”
What's next for her:
I am interested in using design thinking to help the federal government create and deploy better public services.
Harris has also brought her knowledge and experience to the classroom, teaching emerging design students at Purchase College State University of New York, and in the graduate graphic design program at Yale. Harris has served as a guest lecturer at various museums and universities as well. While at Yale, she introduced the first graduate-level information design class, in which her students conceived and launched the ambitious redesign of the U.S. Census 2000 that she took to Washington, D.C. The census project was satisfying in that it addressed the compelling questions: Does the design help the public accomplish its tasks? What technology are we going to use to make that happen? And how do we have to restructure the organization as a result? The project contained all the elements that Harris loves about information design—a field that she was drawn to because she wanted to be involved with something that could make a difference in people's lives. Pursuing this service-oriented, out-of-the-spotlight field of design actually distinguishes Harris from her peers.
Remaining engaged and inspired is vital to Harris—which is why when she's not busy designing, teaching or consulting she likes to travel extensively. A true adventurer, she gets away whenever possible and encourages others to explore, too. “Take a lot of pictures. Get out of the country, because you learn there are many ways to look at the world,” she advises. Travel is one of the most important ways that she fuels her seemingly inexhaustible creative spirit.
Currently, Harris advises institutional clients on the design of public information systems through her firm, Sylvia Harris, LLC, which she founded in 1994 and runs from a leafy, third-floor office in her Brooklyn home. She is also an active participant in public design initiatives such as AIGA Design for Democracy, the Design Trust for Public Spaces and the U.S. Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. As for her next ambitious undertaking, Harris will be working with a coalition of designers to reengineer communications at Medicare. It's yet another endeavor along her full path that remains true to her calling—to create accessible, informative design for all.