Addressing Transdisciplinary Graduates 2013
Posted by mabel on Jun 03, 2013

Jamer Hunt, designer education innovator and  director of Parson's the New School's new MFA program in Transdisciplinary Design, invited me to deliver a short commencement speech to their second graduating class.  Almost rendered speechless at the prospect of dispensing words of wisdom, this is what I managed to cull together to address an inspiring group of smart committed designer graduates:


Good afternoon graduates, and welcome to parents, spouses, partners, family, friends, administrators, faculty, and fanbases. I’m honored to be here and to have been invited address this year’s second graduating class from Parson’s Trans-disciplinary Design program. I hope these words of inspiration may ease what could be diagnosed as the onset of Post-Parson’s depression. I suspect that graduates throughout the undergraduate and graduate divisions of Parsons The New School are all biting a few nails and nervously asking themselves:  What will I do next? Where will I go? What have I learned? And the bottom line so to speak—will this degree help me find work? I would advise to hold off on tackling those existential interrogations till tomorrow because today is a day of celebration—we celebrate your determination and we applaud your accomplishments.


On this day, you should be elated at having completed two years of intense graduate study. Overjoyed at having survived: the studio critiques where of course the reviewers didn’t understand a word you said nor did it help your video links were non-cooperative; the Red Bull fueled all-nighters drafting that perfect sentence of the perfect thesis statement; the wack-a-mole deadlines, the never-ending paperwork, the giddy revelation that you might understand “thing theory” after all and the joys of correcting lay people that Deleuze and Guattari are not a Milanese fashion house. You should be buoyed by the optimism for how the implementation of your design strategies will reshape all facets of our shared domain—from reinventing the public of our urban streetscapes to imagining new learning scenarios and interfaces, from developing new procedures for adjudicating differences to creating ways that improve how healthcare, social services, and policy are delivered to various constituents. You have embraced a collaborative ethos in your work that has opened new pathways for what design can achieve. You better than anyone understand why design matters and to whom it should matter the most. Thus I want offer a few words take with you as you launch your respective practices of design.


We live in age where we no longer have to comb the stacks to gain enlightenment from musty leather bounds books. Knowledge—archival scans, census data, whole film libraries, redacted government documents—is literally at our fingertips—one key board stroke or swipe away. Indeed this past half century has been a digital revolution or perhaps more aptly put a digital revelation—one that never ceases to surprise. For example, just out of curiosity and since I’d only ever been on the listening end of graduation speeches never having to delivered one, I did a quick web search for graduation speeches.

Within 0.42 seconds Google connected me to a quarter million search results. The top ones in the yield:

  •’s great graduation speeches

  •’s newsfeed instructing how to give a commencement speech; the example cited Steven Colbert’s hilarious Northwestern University speech (upon hearing it my ambitions were duly checked)

And there was: 

  •’s wisdom on how to write ye olde high school graduation speech


Inquiring minds can find out almost anything if they have web access. The internet has radically altered our access to information (some say we now live in a knowledge economy, the scale of which none of us quite comprehend). But let’s put a damper on the giddy techno-philia for a moment. For I’m sure these sharp, well-versed trans-disciplinary design graduates would keenly remind us that access to the worldwide pool of knowledge is nonetheless contingent upon access to a computer or smartphone, which means access to electricity, but also assumes the level of literacy of the user and in many instances, given the content of the web, the ability to read and comprehend English. Thus perhaps the web isn’t so world-wide after all. This gap in access to knowledge is therefore precisely one that trans-disciplnary thinking and collaborative methods will tackle. You have learned to think across borders—to think and make differently. To work collaboratively outside the conventional disciplinary battle lines that inscribe where knowledge should be located, produced and dispensed. Your stealth abilities make you a double agent, someone capable of operating in two or more camps simultaneously. You are tomorrow’s design innovators and we eagerly await the outcomes of your dazzling multivalent abilities.


YOU—your talents and imagination—will change the world. To define change in the most basic material terms, we recently discovered through the most innovative and creative work being undertaken in the sciences that change in our world happens when scalar particles—known as bosons—interact and decay. On an everyday register, we experience change as social, cultural, political and economic transformations that shape where and how we work, live and play. “CHANGE” in all its red-white-and blue graphic splendor can turn a graffiti artist into a bonafide art star and make a presidential candidate from out of left-or rather center field appeal to voters of any age. And yet in the aftermath of electoral change, I think we’ve learned that regardless of all of the paraphernalia proclaiming “Change” that real change won’t transpire unless we occupy the streets and demand it happen. Rather than change the world, I think this group of spirited designers will create a different world. To create isn’t just an act of making something new. Instead I want to suggest that to create is to act ethically. The philosopher-cum-rapper-cum-Matrix phenom Cornel West has cogently argued that “every social issue has an ethical dimension.” Meaning, West writes, that “there is some value judgment built into every issue, some moral vantage point from which the world is viewed.” Design is a social practice as your theses projects duly demonstrate and therefore you have already assumed a moral vantage point through your work. The ability to engage difference—human, cultural, ideological, however you want to characterize it—is precisely that threshold across which the creative act bridges. Through engagement with the unknown new knowledge is created, new things emerge, new alliances form. That the creative act—the desire to pursue that which you do not know—is indeed a risky prospect we should be well aware. All journeys to the unknown, as Homer foretold, involve risk. But these are also journeys toward horizons of future possibilities, a quest sparked by curiosity and undertaken with courage.


To this newly minted cohort of trans-disciplinary designers, I will end by saying that you may not know what happens next when you will leave this room or when you leave this institution or leave New York City to head elsewhere in the world—no one knows. The unknown is where creativity flourishes. In launching your trans-disciplinary design practice be smart, be wise, be hopeful, be fearless, be bold in your ambitions but most importantly be CREATIVE.


Best of luck and we applaud your achievements!