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I stand two feet from my husband, John, and hear a tick tick
tick that runs with the precision of a Swiss watch. (Is that
expression used anymore? Are Swiss watches still made with the
noteworthy precision that they once were?) I wonder about the
mechanism making that telltale sound, the new valve in his heart.
Does it come with a battery? Do I have to change it? No,
John is the battery, and his heart's natural blood-flow through the
valve is what makes it “tick.”
The valve I imagine is exquisitely simple, an elegant gizmo made
from new-fangled synthetics—no whalebone or catgut here—engineered
with the latest polymers to high-tech manufacturing standards to,
say, thousandths of a millimeter (or even smaller). The exactness
flips out my mind. Or does it? As a designer, I understand basic
From left: Illustrations of the human heart from Gray's Anatomy
(1918) and the Bjork-Shiley
valve of the 1970s (source: Wikimedia Commons).
In the 1980s, I worked with a printing rep who promised to
introduce me to a company in New Jersey that manufactured
replacement parts for humans: man-made sockets and hips and other
joints. The rep showed me photographs of some of these devices, and
they were beautiful, looking more like miniature pure-white Henry
Moore sculptures than prosthetic devices. Nothing ever came of this
project, but the images have stayed with me and I recall their
beauty whenever I think of John's repaired heart.
Designers help make stuff. Some of this is junk that litters the
world, making it an overcrowded place to live—too many consumer
products provide no enhanced quality of life. One of the most vivid
memories I have from when my mother, who was a master of tidiness
and organization, was critically ill, is of the “stuff” that would
just accumulate on her hospital bed tray—you know, that nasty,
ill-functioning 1 x 3 ft. table that is supposed to go up and down
so you can perform normal functions like eat while reclining in
bed. Imagine that while you doze, strange, unwanted objects appear
but rarely disappear from this space in front of you: cups, wiping
clothes, containers, literature, the general detritus of medical
care (yuck!). You have no control over the way this space looks or
how these objects are arranged because you are too weak to do
anything about it. My mom found that tray to be viscerally
annoying. As often as possible, I would throw unnecessary items
away and arrange what was left in sensible order. Every time I
would do it, my mom would visibly relax and become more
One thing we can all do as professional designers is to help
give order and meaning to everyday existence by being good
organizers, critical thinkers and aesthetes. As a designer, I have
learned to do this for a living. Putting things in order is a trait
I inherited from my mom and is reinforced by my husband.
Valentine's Day card design by Nancy Sharon Collins for Jeff
Mckay, Inc., NYC and Miami.
As a designer, I aspire to work on projects as important as
improving the human experience, but content myself with exacting my
craft on behalf of my clients. Each year I design a Valentine's Day
card for an old client, always using a unique manufacturing
process. Paper, scoring, cutting and trapping specifications go
into the one-thousandths of an inch. I revel in discussions with
the die cutter about where to place the artwork on what portion of
the spine of a fold-over card. I can “see” what he is advising
me—the art has to “wrap” enough into the spine so it “appears” to
stop on the front of the card and not bleed to the back. This is
why magnifying in the thousands is so useful in programs such as
Adobe Illustrator. Eyeballing is crucial. Being able to see when
proportions and individual pieces work together, and when they need
improvement, is a gift—this acuity is engineering in consort with
(To the consternation of the rest of my family, my mother could
tell if a picture was hung crookedly on a wall by a 16th of an
inch, it was an innate ability. While a picture on a wall is
non-crucial, if the fix in my husband's heart had been off that
much, he would be dead.)
In autumn of 2000, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and
underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
After six months of intensive chemo and several more surgical
procedures to finish my new set of breasts, it was time to make the
From my mother, I learned perfect composition and can identify
incorrect measurements down to a 64th of an inch with my naked eye.
In the cold O.R. at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, the Park Avenue
plastic surgeon was chagrined when I said I wanted to tell them
where I wanted the two new concentric circles that would be my
nipples and areola to be placed. We argued—the surgeon's assistant
wanted to measure and I said, no, this has to be done optically.
Thus I stood buck-naked before a mirror and the 12-member surgical
team, with a Sharpie marker in my hand. To my satisfaction, when
the surgeon's assistant measured my work with his millimeter ruler,
it was quantifiably perfect.
I teach my students that researching a design problem is at
least half of discovering the solution. Prior to my surgeries I
studied shapes and dispositions of height, angle and stress
pertaining to my favorite breast shapes. When it came time for the
“mark-up,” my trained eye was understandably accurate.
Currently, I am documenting oral histories from southern
Louisiana graphic artists to make public the rich design legacy of
our region. As we wrapped-up an interview with Kathy Cain and
Paulette Hurdlik, principle and principle emerita of Zehno Cross Media Communications, the
first “girl” design shop in New Orleans, they talked about how they
process prospective employees. A deal breaker is when they ask, by
what percent does the candidate more enjoy design: the artistic
part or the engineering part? If the engineering attraction is not
at least 50 percent, the applicant is immediately disqualified.
I agree with Kathy and Paulette—making things pleasing to look
at is half function and half aesthetics. No brush with mortality or
major health “event” is welcome, but it does afford a lot of
valuable time in intimate proximity to hospitals, doctors, nursing
and all of those industrial decisions that end up as protocols and
products for something called “quality of life.” This reminds me
that our job as thoughtful, accomplished designers is to use our
abilities wisely, with sensitivity to others and the world's
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