Commence Writing

I encourage you all to write a commencement address for the following reasons. First, you can not be depressed about what your students are failing to learn. One chooses to teach because they have every confidence in (the power of) communication and they believe they have some skills to teach a complex and often shifting subject to a broad range of complex and often not so complex group of subjects (collaborators) that are constantly in flux. Writing a commencement address brings you to this truth.

Now this is no over-blown ego thing—its generally just the opposite of that. It is belief in the power of well-crafted communication and hope in possibilities. It is good to engage in the act of designing—pixel massaging, argument debunking, writing, reflecting, context recognition, the whole range—but, it is one hell of a kick in the pants to put a series of events in motion that no longer consumes more energy than it gives back. Particularly if it occurs in a very complex and shifting subject.

This is when a student of yours works something out on their own terms and begins to refine a visual language or two without obsessing if they should have a style or if it is too early for them to develop such a thing. This is the goal, the reason, and the end of any depressive, negative, ranting, jabbering, what-not.

This particular post has moved from the primary point which can be stated as, “quit with the complaining and jack up such a smile that it has your ears touching the back of your head ( !!! ), and has arrived at a reiteration of why one teaches. Cogitating on commencement address goals brings a clarity and renewed understanding of what you did this for and why you are going to continue doing it. If teaching is your primary goal for being in academia then you are not trying to support some obtuse, often times ‘personal,’ impenetrable frivolity, you are alright by me, and alright by your students I wager. If you see teaching as a means to support some other true love, go away and quit wasting everyone’s time.

I could rattle on about why you should write a commencement address, but I will wrap this up before I go off in one of ten directions. Write it, find an audience to deliver it to, and know that you have the key to fixing what ails you.

posted by Tony Brock on November 25, 2004 | comments: 1 | post a comment

Here is the address:

Graduates, Family, Dean Malecha, Faculty and Staff of the College of Design, Friends, it is truly and an honor and a pleasure to be with you today. Commencement has always been a favorite time of year for me. Graduates, congratulations on a job well done. I wish you many years of good health and prosperity in your life of design.

I graduated from NC State with a graduate degree in Graphic Design just a few years ago and I enjoy graduation much more now than the day I walked. I was exhausted and ready for a long summer of doing nothing. I remember little more than the incredible heat and humidity that day and the fact that my bike got stolen.

If I prove to be so dry and uninvolving that you completely zone out and come back thinking you missed something of importance, I will be posting my speech on the web for you all to reference (repeatedly). You are welcome to go ahead and zone out, sleep, whatever—you’ve earned this day of celebration and relief.

I think it is tradition to now say that I will be brief in my remarks even though I may not. To speed things along I have put together my personal ‘to-do’ list.

A commencement address is a complicated list. Make it memorable, speak from the heart, don’t use a lot of statistics. Not witty enough, not serious—you’ve blown your ethos. This string of words cannot help but be cliché to some, lacking to others, and far too deconstructionist, introspective, and self conscious. For all the effort, I can’t get away from critique. I have always enjoyed the process more than the end result.

There always has to be a list. Lists are the rule for such occasions. Numbered metaphors, parables, illustrations—The Art of Worldly Wisdom, The Art of Living, The I Ching and host of others—they all outline the good life in a digestible list. One of my favorites is the not-so-well-known Tact, Push and Principle from 1880:

What is success? It is not the mere gratification of personal ambition. To accumulate wealth, to win the highest office, to become famous for learning, eloquence, or statesmanship, may not be success. One or all of these objects may be gained, and still life be substantially a failure. Wealth acquired at the expense of principle, honors won by chicanery, learning and political distinction used for personal emolument instead of usefulness, do not constitute success. The highest success is achieved by making the most of one’s powers and opportunities.

Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium is as fine a list as one can hope for. Calvino describes the virtues of Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity in such a way that the admonitions move beyond the act of writing to design. He suggests gradients—descriptions of extreme that transfer to one’s breadth and depth of exploration and understanding. The descriptions and details of Calvino’s list bring a level of reflection that elevates and encourages a meaningful creative life—$9.00 on Amazon.

Now for my list. This is how I saw things as of 3:00 PM yesterday. I don’t think it will change much in the next 24 hours, but if they do I will update it on the website.


You have been given the perspective needed to continue your education. Design is in your hands, and in no more capable hands could it be. Believe this, know this, and never doubt it. For however over-the-top this may sound, it is the fact.

You have the skills to apply what you have learned. You have the skills to continue learning. You have the solutions to combat misinformation, malicious manipulation, misdirection, and a thousand pains—great and small. You have the potential to do nothing less than change how we communicate, learn, imagine, and ultimately live. That is fact.


Use your morning commute to analyze the social tendencies exhibited by your fellow drivers, riders, or walkers. This trip is repetitious and can be used to gather a great wealth of information. Your morning commute will have you analyze a grand array of lowly events and objects that would otherwise be ignored.

I choose a path to the College of Design that takes me by a certain chain link fence that once had a large line of bushes growing beside it. Some are still there, but several were chopped down—I have not been able to discern why. The interesting part is that what was left was a peg board of stumps that had grown through, in and around the chain link fence. It is a horizontal net that has caught a school of logs. I have used these suspended logs to illustrate an array of ideas—these ideas tend to be rather grand and cliché, but they are all too perfect to be ignored. It is the frozen and highlighted intersection of two disparate forms. It is the meeting point between disciplines and how that fusion of thought may remain as the strongest marker—even after the components are gone. It also speaks of collaboration and commonality. Smell the roses. What do you see in the clouds?

An early diagram of the disciplines represented in the College of Design shows a tree branching out from a common foundation. Its branches intertwine and intersect. The College has established a Ph.D. program and is planning programs in Design Studies and Animation. With the existing areas of study, these new programs greatly increase the opportunity for new ideas and collaboration. This stop on my way to work continuously reminds me of these meaningful intersections.


Your super computer will blow all others away! My first super computer was build at the North American Headquarters of Philips/Magnavox in the fall of 1993. It was composed of several paper mailing tubes with a fine array of textures, a miniature cow bell, a few cardboard boxes, a rectangular magnifying lens, and the name plate from a vintage Frigidaire refrigerator for cooling purposes—I needed to keep the system cool or the whole cubicle would most certainly have gone up in smoke.

Your super computer will stave off any angst caused by a fulfilling career delayed. The super computer will keep your mind fresh when your projects do not. Those who visit you will ask what that pile of junk is and you will tell them with a strait face that it is your super computer, smile and say nothing more.

Your super computer will need constant upgrades and may grow to a scale beyond the patch of real estate that you have been assigned. That is the case with my current super computer. Many of the hard drives are at their limit even with periodic optimization. They are filled with a steadily growing collection of paper ephemera—postcards, advertisements, letters, brochures, photographs, postage stamps, zines, posters, books.
Racks, bins, cabinets, frames, and cases form the architecture which my students fear will fail some day and crush me under a mound of weather-worn paper and stainless steel.

No matter how busy you are, no matter how difficult the day, you must maintain your super computer. It is what keeps you going. I have at times questioned the hours that it demands—I really should be doing something else. Something more important—like my job. Or to be more specific, why do I collect all these scraps of paper and spend hours rummaging through bookstores, antique stores, junk sales, movie sets, and the like? Then there are the hours of sorting, resorting, arranging, rearranging.

At one point I swore off hoarding this flotsam and told myself that the NC State University and State of North Carolina surplus sales were off limits. The super computer promptly crashed and I had no other choice than to upgrade it. Your super computer is demanding, but it will keep you well through your career.


Don’t be a design snob. Take the hulking octagonal end table that my folks won on The Newly Wed Game in 1967. I keep it, albeit at arms length but appreciate it because it forces me to look beyond aesthetics to contemplate the full range of meanings and interrelations an artifact may possess.

I am reminded of these inter-relations and interpretations every day as the direct view from my front porch is of a vintage mobile home suspended on blocks. It takes surprisingly little to see a spare, elegant, modern geometry cantilevered gracefully between the pines. There is no need to erase this from sight. It is a poster of economic form and economic reality worth review—worth new eyes and possibilities.


Share your design opinions openly. You are being hired for your opinion. If you are not being hired for your opinion go somewhere else. Get over any shyness immediately. If you do not get a three-month or six-month review then you have a great opportunity to exercise your newly found volume. This is the point at which a good job should be reviewed and rewarded.


Don’t be in a rush, but go, if the two options are equal.


The creative director and principle of the firm called it the most beautiful work of its kind. No more care had ever been put into such a design. The piece well exceeded the brief, and anyone’s expectations. It was printed by the hundreds of thousands. I was pretty happy with myself thinking that this master work had the potential to subvert advertising from within and call into question one’s very own eating habits. Maybe it would change lives for the better. Just maybe some parents would wonder if they should let junior eat that Happy Meal. This was the best McDonald’s tray liner to grace the planet. It met the goals of the client, a zoo seeking visitors; the sponsor and distributor, expressing community involvement; the ad agency, also expressing community involvement; and me, the designer, hoping to strategically subvert the fast food eating habits of parents in the four-state region between the age of 25 and 40 and their children by employing a blatant juxtaposition of a fine raw fruit and veggie diet preferred by several wild animals with that of the super-processed cholesterol feast tucked in its formaldehyde-laden, styrofoam container.
Believe that there are no bad projects.


That is to say there are projects that are devoid of any merit which all known skills of empathy and imagination will not excuse. In this case, expend all necessary energy to explain that the best solution is to design nothing. This is possibly the most proactive of all design solutions.


By all means don’t put thoughts in their heads. You are great at analysis and evaluation of artifacts—houses, chairs, voting ballots, and the like. Do not make the mistake of transferring these talents to the private thoughts and motives of another. Your ability to master form is a mere fraction of the equation when put next to the ability to work with others. You will collaborate with everyone to some degree. Don’t mess it up. By all means exercise grace in such matters.


People are your livelihood, but never, never, never allow any of these people to get between you and your client, audience, or end-user. Account executives, account reps, evaluators, middle persons of any size, shape or form must be bypassed at all costs. Remain close to your conception of the work and the final form it takes. If you run into trouble, you can keep the middle person at bay by confusing them with your super computer. This works every time.


Reinvent and renew yourself continuously. It is the only way to gain perspective on where you have been and what your capabilities are. Be patient with yourself and others—they may be working on surprising you and themselves.


It is a gift to yourself. Write it like you are going to give it at the Spring Commencement, here in this auditorium to the graduates in five months. Only after several months coming to grips with the task and examining your motives, successes, failures, and how to honestly step up to this podium and share your findings with others will you truly get the message and have the experience that I wish for you today. There are few challenges that will fill you with such a great feeling and knowledge of purpose.

It is an honor to be here. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I had planned to have you all file down here to the podium to get a fresh look at the audience and put yourselves in the proper shoes—those of the speaker—but I thought better of it. Better that you don’t know exactly what it looks like and what you might be in for. This bit of mystery will leave you sufficiently off balance and motivate you all the more to dredge your soul for untold days only to express a mere whisper of what you intended.

I hope you will all strive to maintain the first sparks of excitement and engagement that you experienced early in your design studies, and that you will share this energy with all those you meet in the course of your design endeavors. I trust you will all find an attentive audience.

Posted by Tony Brock on January 9, 2005 10:43 AM