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"Eric, is there a God?"
"Uh...it depends on your beliefs?"
"Eric, there's no God!"
This was my first interaction with Carnegie Mellon University
History Professor Richard Schoenwald in his course, Society and the
Arts. I was a 21 year-old, 4th year architecture student and my
concerns up to this point were strictly parochial: build models,
draw, drink wine, spin records, chase women, soak, rinse, repeat.
Then this short, bearded nebbish of a man asks me if there is a
Whether I believed in the Almighty wasn't Schoenwald's point,
but instead to consider what prompts people to believe in God in
the first place. He expanded on this notion in the course
description: "Human existence means finding ways to symbolize what
is going on inside human beings. 'Art' refers to some of these
ways. In this course we want to gain both some general
understanding of human symbolizing, and a more specialized grasp of
how art works."
Schoenwald never lectured; discussion was his modus operandi as
a teacher. We always started with the assigned readings but
inevitably spun the conversation into wider orbits like the impact
of photography on art, current political events, or comparing Frank
Sinatra to Public Enemy. He took us to the Carnegie Art Museum and
through its holdings illustrated the historical continuum of
painting and sculpture from the Renaissance to the Modern Age. He
had the music students play Chopin, Schubert and Mozart to us in
class; he encouraged attending the university-sponsored classical
concerts, and required us to view our fellow classmates' art
exhibitions. Schoenwald then assigned papers that required us to
link our own experiences to the authors we were reading and the art
we were witnessing. A typical assignment was "write a play where
you, author A, and artist B meet and discuss your life." No
meaningful artwork was passive in its delivery, and it was our
responsibility, as thinkers, to actively decode it beyond its
immediate appeal and surface beauty. This was "leading a life of
I was fortunate enough, also, to cultivate a friendship with the
Professor. I took his fall semester class, and visited him often to
discuss Beethoven's 7th symphony, Max Beckmann, poetry, and being
Jewish in the late 20th century. After graduation, I abandoned
Pittsburgh and a career as an architect for the uncertain glow of
the West Coast. My eagerness to break with the past, though
focused, left me rudderless, and while elated in my freedom, I was
also bitter that my education had not afforded me more immediate
opportunities. So I wrote to Professor Schoenwald about my
His response was wise and comforting: "Looking back with some
bitterness gets you nowhere. I think of you endlessly smart and
inquiring, so full of possibility, and now you're off on another
road. You have been simply a great joy, and one way or another,
that is what you are bound to keep on being. It doesn't mean
without regrets and mistakes and uncertainties and ambivalences.
Thoughtful people especially in the difficult world of today are
bound to experience frustration and disappointment and regret. Yet
some people have a spark and can keep that spark glowing. I bet on
It might be overdramatic to say this single paragraph changed
the course of my life, but when we are young, we gravitate towards
the poetic, and our momentous turns often spring from the minutiae
in life—pop songs, a flirtatious gaze, or personal correspondence
that, to our surprise, bears the fruit of wisdom. For the following
three years we corresponded by mail frequently, and on my trips
back to Pittsburgh I would stop by Schoenwald's office to say
hello. He would always exclaim, "Oh my God!" and quickly shuttle
out the student with whom he was meeting. He would then sit me
down, and inquire about my current endeavors and talk about his
courses, recent travels, and any art he had seen.
He died suddenly in 1995, and to add insult to injury, I
received a postcard from him immediately afterwards, dated a day
before his death. In it he spoke of illness (I had recently been
laid up with a broken collarbone) and how we rarely remember it as
an incentive to enjoy life. "Maybe we just go on, which is OK,
too," he wrote. "There is so much to do and enjoy."
I've never thought of graphic design as an end in itself, but
rather a vehicle to hopefully engage, enlighten, educate, or enrage
people. Effective communication cannot happen without an
understanding of the world beyond surface layers. This requires us
to be sponges, and it requires concentrated thought about what we
absorb and then spit back out. We don't exist in vacuums; context
is everything as everything is connected. If the study and teaching
of history is, as Schoenwald wrote, "examining the record of human
consciousness," then we as graphic designers ignore this study, and
the other worlds outside design, at our own peril.
I'm a professor myself now, and alongside critiques of concept
and form, I regularly engage my students in discussions of
readings, cultural events, and other design examples they see
outside the classroom. These discussions do not directly improve
their form making or problem-solving skills. Instead, they
encourage the students to think about design in the context of
their entire lives, rather than just their immediate work area. I
use the term, "Citizen Designer," to describe the obligation we
have to our society at large, if not all of humanity, which comes
before our urge to create design.
I also use the phrase, "Human first, design second," not as a
call for using more recycled paper necessarily, but to emphasize
that the road to successful, beneficial design starts with a degree
of humanity—towards your client, your collaborators, and the work
itself. Professor Schoenwald was no doubt a brilliant man who was
meant to teach others. But what endeared him to so many was the
willingness to display his humanity and to think of us not as just
names on a roster, but as an extended family. This is the trait I
do best to emulate in my own teaching.
As he said in one of his rare lectures I was lucky to attend, "I
am the creation, I am the gift of creativeness, of the drive and
urge and need to share what's in my head and in my heart, and
sometimes even to put into print, and sometimes, now, here, to put
it into these words that I offer you. I can't lead the life of the
mind in solitude, and neither can you, and together we defy the
tyranny of change, and we escape being imprisoned by falseness and
triviality, and we jointly venture onward."
We miss you, Professor.
Principal, Volume Design
Assistant Professor of Design, California College of the Arts
San Francisco, CA
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