Heroes and legacies

Lately I've been thinking about mentors, heroes, and legacies.

When I started my design career, there was an established model of mentorship. There was a short list of designers (mostly white men), and an even shorter list of respectable design publications that everyone looked up to. Motivated young designers sought out who they wanted to work for, and worked for little, or for free, doing production mechanicals for years for the chance to work alongside a hero. The stacks of unsolicited portfolios that stacked up in Tibor Kalman's office was legendary. Many famous careers were launched this way, including today's heroes. It's easy to draw lines from the people making history in the past to those making news today. Design was becoming an increasingly recognized commercial profession, and heroes loomed large.

Yang and I worked for Steve Frykholm at Herman Miller early in our careers. Steve is certainly one of our heroes. Steve worked our tails off, but most importantly challenged us, respected us, and helped us take first important steps on our own. We still work with Herman Miller, along with many other clients. Here is a picture of me at the time, the last time I can think of that he spoke locally, probably 20 years ago. I drew this portrait to promote the event.

It's different today. In some circles, design is widely accepted and highly valued by high-concept businesspeople. In others, professional design is threatened and commoditized by automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, spec work, and other downward price pressures. The modern monolithic ideal of the lone hero is giving way to a team approach to design, celebrating diversity, greater influence, and emerging complexities in new types of work. At the same time, the opportunities for design influences are broadening.

When I'm asked to speak at student events or when collaborating with young designers, I like to ask who their heroes are. Motivated learners are usually following somebody, but the same names rarely come up. To my surprise, some students can't name a design hero, or they cite a blog or website collective instead of a person or a firm. It's a sign of the times for the design industry. Legacies are created now by groups and confabs.

Of the names that do come up, Stefan Sagmeister is the most common. He's a headliner at AIGA events. He's our Alec Baldwin on SNL. While I thoroughly enjoy Sagmeister's talks and appreciate his brilliance, I see him as much a conceptual artist as designer on the professional landscape. It's hard to see him as a peer. Of course it's worth noting that among Sagmeister's mentors was Tibor. I guess everyone comes from somewhere.

Recently, we've been working on our annual project of finalizing our holiday mailing list. We decided we'd try to reach all our past staff members. To my astonishment, no fewer than 50 people have been part of our team in 14 years. That stopped me in my tracks.

I started taking Peopledesign's legacy seriously when I started having kids. Kids will do that. Part of the foundation we've tried to lay here is helping to create a local AIGA chapter, where we hope to bring regional designers together to build a stronger future for designers in our region. In only 18 months, AIGA West Michigan has more than 300 members and a level of youthful enthusiasm I could not have predicted. The optimism about the future is exhilarating.

It's fitting, then, that to celebrate Steve winning an AIGA Medal this year, in the spring our local AIGA chapter will host an event to honor his accomplishments. I probably won't do the poster this time, but I'll be in the audience, still a fan of my hero and old boss. I hope that younger designers today find the kinds of opportunities I had, and that through the blur of evolving media and design expansion, they can find and learn from others, and in turn contribute to a strong design legacy.

Author: Kevin Budelmann

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