Leave Something Behind
Eleven years ago I paid 15 bucks for a short 40-page paperback called “15 Things Charles and Ray Teach Us.” Unknown to me at the time, the investment turned out to be a significant impact on my life as a designer. The book now sells for $127 used on Amazon.
In this book, Keith Yamashita writes an essay about the designing duo Charles and Ray Eames. It is comprised of 15 mantras that in summary change how we look at the world. Every one of the 15 things is a lesson to live by. For example, lesson No. 4 asks that we, “Design not for the elite, but for the masses.” Anyone who designs under the constraints of web standards will appreciate the difficulty and positive affect this can have. I could write an article for each of the 15 things. The artist in me would like to write about “No. 6, Get lost in the content.” Whereas the designer in me resonates with “No. 7, Get to the heart of the matter.” In the spirit of AIGA’s head, heart and hand, I would like to focus on “No. 15, Leave something behind.”
Lesson No. 15 can be interpreted in two ways. First, as Yamashita articulates, to leave something behind is to realize the legacy that you leave (intentionally or not) will live on through the people you influenced and worked with. The inspiration to write this came from my three-year-old son after catching him staring at me while brushing my teeth. Such a simple and mundane task. With hope, he will avoid getting as many cavities as his dad. In truth, the most influential moments happen when we don’t realize it. With every action we take, we leave something behind.
The other interpretation is about growth. We must leave something behind in order to open ourselves to something new. The most basic explanation of this was presented to me by the artist Dave Kinsey. He speaks about how we all grow up learning to think in absolutes. Grade school art class is comprised of paint-by-numbers and coloring books with clearly defined borders. We are taught at a very early age that the sky is blue, the grass is green and that we must color in-between the lines. His words, “we must unlearn what we have learned” is a reminder that in order to explore new possibilities we must leave something behind. If Picasso stayed between the lines we’d be without Cubism, one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century.
A big part of my job is to be a leader. I admire people who can do it well. Not unlike fatherhood, the trouble with this is that I have no formal training. Like my son, the people who I work with are always watching me, even as I do simple things. My craft is graphic design yet my career has brought me to a position of leadership where I am expected to bring out the best in people. It is really hard to lead and even harder to lead by example. I am a control freak, so for me a big part of leading is about putting aside the survival instincts of self-preservation in favor of acknowledging and supporting the strengths of others. Growth happens when you choose to leave your old habits behind in favor of new ones.
When I first started out, I questioned whether design was a worthy profession that could bring good to people’s lives. It didn’t take long before I was convinced by those who came before. People like Massimo Vignelli who designed the iconic New York subway maps by making the complicated, simple. And designers like Saul Bass who moved people by bringing great design to movies through the art of title sequences. These pioneers teach us a great deal about what is possible. This enables us to discover something new without having to reinvent the past. We are privileged to stand on their shoulders, leap forward and reach higher. It is no surprise that I conclude with a humble request: It is now our duty to leave something behind.
A few short takeaways:
1) People remember what you do way more often than what you say.
2) Borrow from what others have left behind. This is called learning.
3) Build from what others have left behind. This is called progress.
4) Get in the habit of doing something really good, again and again.
5) Never be afraid to leave something behind. It will make room for something new.
6) It is your duty to leave something behind.
15 Things Charles and Ray Teach Us
Ron Edelen is a Partner and Executive Creative Director at Myjive, an agency that creates innovative, long term platforms that fuel engagement between people and businesses. Their mission is to help companies evolve and thrive in a connected world. For more information, visit www.myjive.com or follow @myjive.