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President’s Blog: Reflections on a Design Life

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On April 22, the College of Design at NC State University moved me deeply by honoring me with their Designlife Award. It is an award I helped create 20 years ago as dean of that college, but I never thought of being a recipient.

I grew up in a small town. My father operated a Mobil garage and service station. He was a mechanic who never quite knew what would come through his door for repair work on any given day. I realize now that he was a creative spirit who thrived on invention. We lived next door to the garage. I like to say that I grew up under the sign of Pegasus because it was the tallest thing on our property.

I worked in my father’s service station from about the time I could walk. One summer in particular, everything needed to be changed. It was a moment I remember because the impact of design first became evident to me. We were told that Mobil was undergoing a “face lift”—even the flying red horse changed directions—and we had to conform.

Later, when I was a student at Harvard, Eliot Noyes came to speak. I was excited. He was, along with Chermayeff & Geismar, the architect of that “face lift.” His presentation confirmed for me the importance of that early moment in my design consciousness. Even from within the context of that small-town service station I felt the power of design. It is an inspiration that led me to teach design thinking for more than 20 years.

The Designlife Award recognizes “the practice of good design as a sign of good citizenship.” The importance of citizen architects and designers is something I believe in strongly. It means being part of a community first, understanding its context, place, and culture. I was very fortunate to be part of the NC State community for 22 years, just as I am now fortunate to lead NewSchool’s.

As I was growing up, my mother taught me that the strength of a community is in its ability to think in diverse ways by regularly reminding me that “if everybody is thinking alike, nobody is thinking very much.” I see the Designlife Award as encouragement to keep the design of life as a priority. My imagination is inspired by what is yet to come.

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