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Good advice on starting (or re-starting) a creative career

Chris Pullman was the design visionary at WGBH for 35 years. I met him at TED a few months after he made this classic retirement speech in December 2008. He was very surprised that I had read the speech. He had no idea at the time that it had gone viral. That’s the power of great ideas.

(Via Design Observer)

Chris Pullman: What I’ve Learned

1. Work on things that matter.

If you possibly can, use your skills and your time to make a difference. Long before I came to WGHB, I developed a preference for non-profit projects. In my freelance work and in my years at the office of George Nelson, the projects that interested me most were the ones for non-profit, pro-social clients. Early on, I decided that I wanted to work someplace that made a positive difference for people, and that affected a lot of people, not some boutique studio doing design for other designers.

So when the phone rang and it was Ivan Chermayeff saying that there was an opportunity to work at a TV station in Boston, my first reaction was “definitely not.” This was because my teachers and mentors at Yale had made it clear that the only way to squander a good education faster than going into advertising was to go into television. But I was vaguely curious to see what a TV studio was like, so I decided to just go up and scope the place out.

After about 20 minutes with the then General Manager, Michael Rice, it became clear to me that what WGBH was up to was very different from what television in general was up to. So I said “yes,” and have found myself for the past 35 years in the ideal environment to do the kind of work I had hoped to do.

In this first lesson I may be preaching to the choir, but I think it is particularly pertinent for young people who may be at their first way station on a longer professional journey. Given all the ways you could use your skills and your valuable time, pick something that serves the greater good.

2. Work with people you like and respect.

Birds of a feather flock together. That is a natural thing. Most of the people here at WGBH are here (or certainly stay here) because of our mission. Certainly, my long tenure has been largely because of the people in this room with whom I’ve shared such personal and heart-warming recollections of our time together. Since April, when I first announced my intention to leave WGBH, the private expression of these feelings has been so gratifying, both personally and professionally, that I recently suggested that maybe we should institute the policy of encouraging individuals to make periodic “mock retirement” announcements, with the goal of releasing more regularly the flow of kind remarks for the nourishment of the individual, since we are otherwise so reticent to praise or encourage others in our busy, self-centered daily lives.

Which leads me to:

3. Be nice.

And be positive. And be respectful of the work of others. Strive to understand each others professional contributions and then respect them (as you would want them to respect you) with your actions and your comments. Remember: we are all applying our own particular skills towards a shared objective.

4. Have high standards.

Don’t settle for “whatever.” The corrosive Dilbert mind-set is depressing and demeaning. Wherever you choose to work, don’t give it a foothold. I prefer the “see you and raise you one” escalation of good ideas, even crazy ideas. High standards is something that has set this place apart. Even in hard times, it is important to keep hold of this core distinction, whatever it costs.

5. Have a sense of humor.

Humor is the grease of communications. Wit not only engages your head, it engages the other guy’s. Be serious, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t lose sight of the potential to use sly humor to make connections and put people at their ease.

6. Design is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.

I knew this before I came here, but my time here has reinforced this idea. My position, first established in 1973, and unusually high up in the org chart, allowed me (and I should say: expected me) to attend to all aspects of the way this organization expressed itself. My job, and that of scores of designers I have worked with in my area, has been to help define and then express through our work, a consistent, honest and engaging persona for WGBH. (Today’s name for this, by the way, isbranding, but it is a process as old as the profession.)

This role has led me into a weird soup of assignments: wacko projects like a giant 2 on wheels or a pre-stained dish towel to promote Julia Child’s show; important projects like a capital campaign case statement or the first proposal for AMEX; inspiring projects like the informational graphics forVietnam: a Television History or four different title sequences over the years for Masterpiece Theater; and gnarly projects like how to help frame the long-term strategic goals for this company.

Each of these projects was a puzzle to figure out within the constraints of budgets and time-lines, and with respect for the unique context of a particular problem. Whether it was how to draw a dog with low self-esteem or how to convince a company to underwrite a project, all of it was design to me. Ultimately this led to the biggest project of all: the design and construction of our new headquarters. It was an honor and an incredible 5-year high to work on this project. This was the project that for the first time gave us an opportunity to apply the same high standards we insist on for our programming to the physical environment in which we all work and in which we welcome the public.

The practice of design — dare I call it “intelligent design?” — has helped WGBH achieve a distinction among broadcasters and public media publishers. It is my hope that the next person to hold this responsibility for the foundation will have as much fun and have as expansive a mandate as I have had.

7. Variety is the spice of life.

When I came here in the early 70’s the trend was toward monolithic design programs governed by a thick and sacred style manual. As I got to understand the business, this strategy seemed to me to make no sense for WGBH. With programming as diverse as The French Chef, NOVA and ZOOM, no one mode of visual expression could logically suite this range of content. It occurred to me that in fact variety itself can be a kind of consistency. But when the visual expressions of a company are always and rightfully different, you have to have some other constant that binds the work together, something that lets individual expressions be different, but makes them recognizable as a family of related materials. The goal in this game is to strive for the smallest number of constants and the largest number of variables. And you have to turn to non-visual sources of consistency.

So, soon after I got here, I proposed that our design team adopt a set of nonvisual criteria to define “good design” without resorting to the normal formal jargon. If you and your client could answer “yes” to the following questions about a solution, then it probably is a good piece of design:

Is it clear? Can I understand what it is, can I read it, can I sense its purpose?

Is it accessible? Does it engage me, does it invite me in, is it easy and intuitive to use?

Is it appropriate? (to its budget, to the amount of time available to make it, to the language style and level of the audience, to the medium, to the objectives of the project, and to the family of materials it will join, etc.)

A final measure, and perhaps the key measure in a business where variety is the norm, is quality. “Of the highest quality” does not mean expensive. It means thoughtful and well-executed in its genre. If all these things are present in a project, then it is likely to be successful, from a design point of view, and otherwise.

8. Institutions have a character, just like people do.

In fact, it is impossible to not have an institutional character or image. It is the sum total of a person’s experience of our staff, our physical plant, our programming and services, our communications — everything we say and do. Every person out there experiences a different assortment of these expressions, but they average out to define our institutional character or persona. This character cannot be contrived. If it is contrived it will only fool people for a little while. Like a person you know who says he is one thing but whose daily behavior suggests another. But a person’s character inevitably shifts as they mature. The same thing happens to companies like ours. Over the years I have observed that our own institutional character has shifted as our own self image has shifted.

In the seventies, we identified ourselves as a local public broadcasting station, and we acted locally. We were known by our channel brand: Channel 2. Our self-image as an upstart local broadcaster willing to make a lot out of a little, encouraged a kind of smart-alecky attitude in our local persona. In the eighties, we identified ourselves as a national producer, creating one-third of all prime-time programming on national public television, as we do to this day. The focus shifted to our national, institutional identity and we became more of a big business.

In the nineties we identified ourselves as an educational publisher. As media options began to proliferate, we became major publishers of program-related books, we had a catalog and product division, we began to dabble in new media, publishing video-discs and CD’s and producing content for new on-line services like Prodigy. In the 90’s we began to see ourselves as a “content company,” down-playing the “broadcaster” moniker and focusing on our role nationally and internationally as a high quality educational publisher. And now, in this century, we identify ourselves as a major public media producer and distributor, a major driver of public media policy in the future.

Each of these shifts in self-perception required a shift in expression for our work, ideally without changing the underlying DNA of the place. We are now approaching the end of this decade. What will our self-perception be in 2010? How will we express it? How can we respond to these natural and gradual shifts while still maintaining our core character, a character that people, both locally and nationally, know, respect, and willingly support?

9. We’re all in the “understanding business.”

This term was first coined by the architect Richard Saul Wurman to define the design profession but it strikes me that, no matter what we call ourselves, what we all do here is ultimately about helping people understand the world and their own life. This is the idea that our mission statement reflects, and is at the heart of our institutional character. And it is what has attracted me to this work all this time.

10. You are what you eat.

We are all the result of a lifetime of experiences, some good, some not so good. My 32 years of experiences before I came here prepared me to be useful to a place like this. My 35 years here have enriched me and allowed me to grow in ways I never would have imagined. Now I’m going to see how that diet has prepared me for my next life. I will miss you all. Bye.

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