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Recently, I had the kind of down time that so many of us busy
people crave: vast amounts of it spent somewhere without cell-phone
service or an internet connection. Hours would pass without my
knowledge; days morphed from one into the next. Observation is one
of the great gifts of being a visual communicator and, in the
absence of normal “connectivity,” I lived primarily through my
eyes. What I became preternaturally sensitive to—it became a game
of sorts as I mentally cataloged each specimen—were the unsolicited
stream of logos, signage, way-finding devices, packaging, analog
and digital instructions that came, and went, in this temporary
As a veteran graphic designer, I have created and overseen the
production of everything from print collateral to packaging and
websites. As a contemporary design practitioner and teacher, I have
become aware of the power we as a consolidated profession wield in
everyday life. It is rare, however, to observe design in a place
where it becomes so critical, and life itself luxury.
My husband fell ill on January 14 and passed away on March 18 of
this year. I spent much of this time shuttling back and forth
between our home in south Louisiana and the amazing sci-fi/hi-tech
medical center at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal
Hospital in Houston. I made many trips back and forth, for what I
wanted—and more than anything else, it was the wish of my husband,
John, for me—was to keep teaching graphic design at Louisiana State
University (I teach two beginning courses, traditional and digital
Heart graph monitor (iStockphoto
Sometimes John would be in a hospital intensive care private
room that had internet and Wi-Fi connections. AT&T is not
supported in the Houston Medical Center, a huge facility consisting
of 49 not-for-profit institutions. Although, according to its
website, it is “31 million gross square feet of patient care,
education and research space, equivalent to the 12th largest
business district in the United States” and services “6 million”
patients annually, my cell phone was practically useless.
I taught online whenever, and wherever, possible. One day I had
meticulously planned an online conference with my traditional
design class so we could have a virtual formal critique of their
analog, very hands-on projects. I set myself up in the visitors'
room, usually a quiet place with flawless, zippy internet
connection. We were well into a great critique and the students
were responding just as we do in class, when the hospital
maintenance crew brought in loud equipment, cordoned off half of
the room, and commenced refinishing the floor. Moving would have
disrupted the tender thread that live (or virtually live) contact
affords, and I would have risked losing any connection at all. So
we muddled through, while I held the MacBook Pro screen almost
directly to my face so I could hear them, and them me, above the
I am fond of saying that, these days, to be a designer all one
needs is a laptop and an iPhone. Many times during the endless
hours spent beside my husband in the hospital, the internet was
totally inaccessible or was horribly slow and I found myself just
staring at the Apple icon on my screen (or the AT&T next to no
bars on my iPhone), waiting for something to happen.
One day, to occupy the time, I counted seven monitors on the
crazy equipment that my husband was hooked up to. On this machinery
were moving graphs and charts, levels and numerals, complex
equations quantifying life or the closest numeric equivalents to
John's sister, Mary, and I stayed three blocks away so we could
walk to the hospital. Our room overlooked the new hotel sign being
erected. The quirky old
Holiday Inn logo, reminiscent of a slower time, was being
replaced as part of a major corporate rebranding. Sometimes I would
stare out at the “modernization” in progress and think how much I
enjoyed the nostalgic old one because it was friendly and the new
one so cold and unapproachable.
Walking to and from visits to the hospital over this two-month
period, I tried to amuse myself by identifying companies by brand:
Burger King, Pizza Hut, Capital One, Chase. I learned to recognize
even the many hospital logos. While eating I'd ponder the Land
O'Lakes ladies scantily dressed on butter pats and the Starbucks
mermaids (is that what she is?) on my coffee cups. And always,
there were pro and college sports team marks everywhere, nearly
ubiquitous decoration on people's caps and clothing. I stared at
older signage towering atop tall buildings across the way and
miniscule company names on elevators, bathroom fixtures and paper
products—even logos tiny enough for screw-heads on moveable
partitions. These icons did not so much comfort as beguile me: What
did they say, anyway, about the life we lead or how or when we
John died a little bit before his 59th birthday. For those two
months in Houston, he had extraordinarily superb medical care, for
which I am very grateful. However, in the end, not even the most
advanced monitors and fancy gadgets with user-tested logos could
As designers, it is in our power to control what we offer our
clients and the public at large; let's become better squires of
that which we create and the responsibilities we accept along the
way. Meanwhile, if called upon to assist in some other, more
profound design—such as the helpless process of watching a loved
one pass away—I wish us all the grace of compassion, the patience
to see one moment from the next and the ability to cherish each
thing we can observe, every hand we hold and each kiss goodbye.
Walker Evans, the great American photographer, is attributed as
having said, “It's the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen
eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
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