You have called yourself a graphic designer raised as an architect. What led you to study architecture in the first place, and how did you discover that you were actually a graphic designer? Where do I even begin? I was born and raised in Queens, here in New York City, where my dad worked for the city. Right before I started fifth grade, my dad got his dream job at AT&T Bell Laboratories. We were so excited to move to New Jersey, but before a year had even passed, my whole family was miserable. AT&T had a program where they would send their engineers to teach computer science at historically black colleges and universities, and my dad opted to teach at Hampton University in Southeast Virginia. So I spent middle school and high school there. I took all these courses over the summer, and when I was near the end of it my guidance counselor said, “We don’t have anything else for you.” I graduated early and went to college at Virginia Tech when I was 16.
Studying architecture was a miscalculation in a sense. When I was in high school, I was into math and art. I figured that math plus art equaled architecture. After five years of school, I realized that architecture is about buildings. So after I graduated college, I didn’t want to become an architect right away, but I did want to move to New York. In addition to math plus art, I was a big reader and writer, so I applied for editorial jobs. I interviewed with Cynthia Davidson at a publication called ANY, which was my favorite publication on earth at the time; it was a mix of architecture and theory. She said, “Look, we really like you, but you don’t know anything.” I didn’t. I was 21. She said, “My husband needs an archivist right now. Maybe you should go work for him.” So I worked as a publication and exhibitions coordinator for Peter Eisenman for two years. It was the best education I ever had.
I still thought that I was only taking a break from architecture. I figured I’d go to graduate school for architecture and get back on track somehow. In the meantime, I was working on books and magazines and exhibitions and learning, in Peter’s words, “how to be a mensch.” I never made a mistake that went unnoticed, and every time I was successful with anything, he would up the ante and give me something he wasn’t sure I could do. Peter’s office was infamously behind in paychecks, though, and near the end of my time there, he offered me the opportunity to design a book. All I ever wanted was to design a book.
I worked at Peter’s office for two years and then I quit, which is a funny story. I had moved to New York with my then-boyfriend who I met in college. Two years in, he fell in love with someone he worked with and left me. Suddenly I had an apartment that I couldn’t pay for, I worked a job that couldn’t pay me, and the last straw was when I tried to schedule a doctor’s appointment and found out my health insurance had been canceled. I walked into the office the next day and said, “Hey, Peter, I’m leaving.” He asked, “Where are you going?” and I said, “I’m leaving the office.” A little before noon, I walked downstairs, out the door, and down 25th Street. I was elated, but I had nothing. The boyfriend was gone, the apartment was gone, the job was gone. Now what?
About three weeks later, Peter’s managing partner called and said, “It’s been three weeks. We realize that you’re probably not coming back, but we’d still like you to do some projects for us,” including the book. In the most generous act, they set me up: they gave me a computer, printer, scanner, and monitor so that I could work. I was on my own as a freelancer doing projects for Peter and others. I don’t know what my plan was, but during that time period, Peter said to me, “Why don’t you just become a graphic designer?”
You had never considered graphic design? No. I thought of myself as a designer and architect, and I was doing graphic design, but I had never thought about becoming a graphic designer. That was the first time the thought crossed my mind. In 1999, I applied for digital production work at MoMA after I saw an ad in the newspaper. Ingrid Chou, the assistant director at MoMA who now teaches with us here at Parsons, also encouraged me to be a graphic designer. At the time I thought, “I like these people,” so I decided to go to graduate school and study graphic design as a way to commit. I went to Yale from 2000 to 2002 and continued freelancing the whole time, which was probably not a good idea, because all I wanted to do was work.
Speaking of school, you’re a columnist for the Dear Design Student series on Medium.com. I loved the advice you gave about the importance of learning to accept criticism. It was interesting to read about your struggle to do that during your grad program at Yale. Tell me about that. Ah, that column is fun to write.
Yes, I was a terrible student throughout school. I had a technique for critiques. If I made this coffee cup (holds cup in hand), I’d go in and say, “Yeah, I made this cup, but it’s the wrong material, the color is wrong, and I should have used a different typeface.” I would go ahead and pre-critique it to make sure there was nothing left to say.
Did that work? It worked like a charm in that people mostly expressed sympathy and I walked away without having made contact.
But it didn’t leave you with useful information about how you could’ve made your project better. No, it left me with absolutely nothing. I finally learned to accept critique by working. After I graduated, I went back to work at MoMA. We had internal clients at the museum. Many times during the week, I had internal client meetings on my schedule, but all I wanted was for them to disappear. Why couldn’t they send in their specs so I could make the work? The meetings seemed like a waste of time.
One of the projects I was assigned to that year, though, was doing the identity and graphic design work for the two cafes (Cafe 2 and Terrace 5) and the museum’s restaurant, The Modern. They were partly owned and run by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality group. In the course of things, I got to see how they worked, and sat in on their staff training sessions. It was life-changing. They had already made a name for themselves for being service-focused, and so they were constantly asking for feedback, constantly asking how things could be better. I worked closely with Will Guider when he was just starting out, and he saw every small irritated comment as a gift, another stepping stone towards being the best.
That was the point at which things switched for me and I realized that even though those meetings were the worst part of my week, they were the best part of my clients’ week because it was the part of their job that was creative. I started to think about that process—the talking that happens and what it’s for. I stopped wanting it to be so efficient. Instead of going into meetings thinking the purpose was to get people to agree to do the work the way I wanted, I started to ask: How do I make this a better experience for them? What can I learn that I didn’t already know? What information will make this design better? That’s part of my job.
“Instead of going into meetings thinking the purpose was to get people to agree to do the work the way I wanted, I started to ask: How do I make this a better experience for them?”
How do you talk to students about learning to accept critique? When I talk about critique with students, I try to get them to see it’s not an oral examination or evaluation. You have to get out of that mindset and question what led to that mindset. If you’ve been taught that you have to go through particular hoops in a particular order, when it doesn’t happen that way, you get upset.
I’ve seen so many students who behave like I used to. I come from an immigrant family; my parents are Turkish. If you’re a woman born into an immigrant family, you can’t fail, you can’t make mistakes. This whole idea that you can walk into a school situation and not be rigid is difficult. I would have told you I was wired that way and couldn’t change.
In college and as a teacher, I’ve watched some students start and finish high and others come in low and rise incrementally. Anyone who’s gone to school or worked has seen this happen. What’s the difference between those two people? It’s not core ability. In many cases, the person who never improves actually has more core ability, but they have such a high need for achievement that they require constant positive feedback, so they stick to what they know. When people tell them things that might be helpful in any way, they get rattled because it doesn’t follow their chain of events, or because they didn’t come up with the idea on their own—another failure.
“When I talk about critique with students, I try to get them to see it’s not an oral examination or evaluation. You have to get out of that mindset and question what led to that mindset.”
I want to talk about your role as President of AIGA/NY. Was that something you imagined doing? Not at all. A grad school friend, Glen Cummings, was vice president of the board three years ago, and when we’d meet up for drinks he’d patiently listen to me go on and on about all these things that I wished would happen in design and in the design community. So he and a few others on the board recruited me to come on. I’ve been on the board for three years and president for two.
I have both a native’s love and an immigrant’s love for New York. Being a designer here has changed a lot and we haven’t had moments to talk about that; we talk about it one on one, but not much in groups. Also there are many different design tribes in New York, but I’m in this weird position where I feel like every tribe is my tribe. I see value in all of these different design communities and can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to get everybody together to talk about the bigger issues, whether they’re economic or social or actual design issues. There are a lot of really great people who should be talking to each other—not just amongst themselves.
It’s a difficult thing to do. If I talk to a hundred different designers, each one will say, “I wish we had more of a design community in New York.” This is a funny statement. Everybody believes that there either is a community and they’re not part of it or that there should be one and it doesn’t exist. But what we’re seeing now is that people have broken up into individual communities where there is a single person in the center of each—and this isn’t just happening in design. Part of me wants to get people really talking and interacting with each other. The other part thinks maybe there is value in the tribes, but asks how we can discover new ideas. If you’re in your own echo chamber, it’s difficult to grow as a person.
If someone in New York is reading this and has said, “I wish there was a design community here,” what would you say to them? Make all people your people. Sometimes when you say you need to find a design community, you mean you want to surround yourself with people who are like you. Sure, do that for a year until you feel more comfortable. But then really start to think about what your communities are and how you can give back to them: your neighborhood community, your school community, your work community. Thread them together. If you’re looking for a community, go do anything. Don’t get crazy about how your membership or non-membership in any given community reflects back on you.
Actually doing stuff is important. We have this conversation over and over again within AIGA/NY when we talk about increasing member numbers. I don’t want to increase membership. I don’t want more members that have nothing to do with the organization. Those numbers don’t buy us anything. I want people to actually be in it, do stuff, and lead conversations. It’s taken us a while, but we’re getting there.
“…I’ve watched some students start and finish high and others come in low and rise incrementally…In many cases, the person who never improves actually has more core ability, but they have such a high need for achievement that they require constant positive feedback, so they stick to what they know.”
Do you see yourself as a role model for women in design, or is that something you’ve thought about? You’re doing all of these things that put you in a leadership role, so do you feel a responsibility to that? That’s an interesting question. If I’m going to be a role model for women, or for anyone, I want to model a sense of freedom. I feel successful not because I’m a leader, but because I decide what I’m going to do each hour of each day, and because I get to talk to people I like about things I care about every day, all day. I also feel like I could pack up everything I’m doing now and go do something else. I don’t feel like there is that desire for freedom in most young people. They’re under constant surveillance, so they feel like they have to follow a script.
Being a woman in a leadership position is really, really hard. The dean of our school, Anne Gaines, has been such a good model for us. Until she came on board, I never saw someone address and own what it meant to be a woman in one of these positions. I don’t want to make anybody blue here, but I always thought the problem was that there were not enough women in leadership positions and that if you could get women into leadership positions, then everything would be fine. The truth is that your existence in that position changes the position. You have to constantly re-establish authority and convince people that the things you’re doing have value.
When I was director of the design program, at least once a week someone said to me, “Oh, god, what a thankless position.” I always thought, if I wasn’t female, how many people would walk up to me and say that? There’s this perception of, oh, you’re a woman so you must’ve gotten this job because you’re willing to do all of this dirty work that no one else is willing to do—
Or you’re more patient or more nurturing. Yes. You see this go all the way through and across. I’m going to get all feminist on you for a second. If you’re a white dude and you have a certain position or are teaching, it’s like, wow, that thing must be really important. For someone like me, I feel like I have to actually prove that the thing I’m doing is important. There’s a feeling that you need to justify and be better. Even taking on the presidency for AIGA/NY, I asked myself, “Am I doing this to be useful? Does this matter?” I should also say that I level a lot of this criticism at myself, too. There’s a part of me that tells myself, “If you’re doing it, it must not be that important.” It has taken a long time to correct for that and say this is important for these reasons. Use it. You’re at the wheel.
If I would want to model anything or tell someone about leadership positions, I’d say this: once you are given decision-making power, resist the urge to step back in case you make a mistake. It’s so much better to go in full speed ahead and say, “This is the way I want to change things, this is what I want to do. If anybody doesn’t like it, they can send me a sharply-worded email.”
And you’ll accept the criticism. Yeah, exactly. (laughing)
“…there are many different design tribes in New York, but I’m in this weird position where I feel like every tribe is my tribe. I see value in all of these different design communities and can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to get everybody together to talk about the bigger issues…”
It’s great to hear you talk about this. No matter the industry or field we work in, it’s challenging. Even as Editor in Chief of TGD, which I cofounded, it’s tempting to shy away from the power of my role because there’s a lot of pressure that goes along with it. But it’s totally not your fault for thinking that way. You get clues and feedback that people want you to prove what you are before they’re willing to take it at face value. Will that change? I’m not sure. All I know is that unless we get tougher about taking risks, learning new things, and really plunging into things—which is the only part we have control over—then it’s not going to change.
Two years ago, there was a day when the one boy in my class was absent. The students asked, “If we’re all women here, how come all of the famous people are men?” I thought it was interesting that they would say that. I’ve never thought all the famous people were men. They asked if it would be any different for them. I felt bad, but I was just quiet. I had to be honest. I told them, “Unless something changes, you’re going to see the same thing happen.”
Yeah, I agree. I hope it can change for them. Let’s switch gears a little. With everything you do, are you creatively satisfied? I’m creatively satisfied. To me, there isn’t much difference between designing a program or an organization and designing books or identities. The thing I’m not satisfied with right now—and haven’t been satisfied with for a while—is that I haven’t had the time to learn something new in a while. I’m itching to do that. Next year I’m on sabbatical, so it’ll be an opportunity to take time for myself.
That’s exciting! Have you thought about what you’ll explore on your sabbatical next year? It’s exciting and scary at the same time. I’d like to get back into coding. I’ll probably write another book, but I don’t know of what variety. Writing is something I’ve promised myself I will do, but for various reasons I’ve been slow to get it off the ground—honestly, that’s probably due to fear of criticism. There are a lot of projects that have been brewing. My sabbatical will be a good time to make and not have to talk all of the time.
Well, on that note, those were actually all of the questions I had for you. No more talking. (both laughing)
“If I would want to model anything or tell someone about leadership positions, I’d say this: once you are given decision-making power, resist the urge to step back in case you make a mistake.”