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April 25, 2017

Words from the Wise

Caroll Taiji’s address to the 2017 graduating class of VIU’s School of Graphic Design

Good evening faculty and staff. Good evening proud families and other guests. And most especially, good evening to the 2017 graduating class of Vancouver Island University Bachelors of Design Program. My heartfelt congratulations to each of you — you made it!

I met many of you earlier this year, and I have also had the opportunity to view your portfolios and learn a bit about each of you on the Grad Show website. As a graduating class, you selected the word Lucent, which means to shine, as a metaphor not only for your four years of study but also for your future. In looking at your talents and your passions, I’d say you have chosen well!

The body of work you’ve produced is impressive. I can see that you’ve worked hard and learned much. I can also see that you’ve had excellent instruction.

Like you, I am passionate about design. In fact, it has been my life’s work. I can tell you that you are fortunate to start out with such great skills and know-how. Over the years, I’ve had to teach myself many of the things that are in your toolkit right now as you leave VIU to start your careers. Most importantly, though, I’ve continued to teach myself – and I have no doubt that you will too.

I’m not quite sure how I’ve earned the privilege of helping to deliver this year’s graduation remarks, but I assure you, I am delighted and honoured. I’ve been a professional designer for 30 years — my entire career so far. I started well before designers had Macs. My tools were mechanical pencils, pantone chips, a pica ruler, hot wax, Exacto knives and Bandaids.

My constant source of support and encouragement has been my husband and business partner, Wayne Taiji. Thirty years ago, we got married, started a family and founded Taiji Brand Group, a business specializing in strategic branding. We now lead a group of 14 exceptionally talented and dedicated creative professionals who are not only colleagues but also friends.

Over the years, we have helped hundreds of clients maximize their success through branding and communications. We have brought clarity and focus to products, companies, ideas, causes, places and experiences. Our clients range from visionary startups and non-profits to some Fortune 500 companies. At the moment, we’re working on projects ranging from a brand refresh for a national sports organization, a sustainability brand for a Central American food producer and a new brand strategy for a US travel experience provider. As you can tell, we thrive on variety.

Aside from working in a beautiful location of our choosing, what keeps us motivated after all these years is the chance to make a difference for clients who are trying to create positive change in the world. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing journey.

In preparing for tonight, I thought about what your journey to this point might have been like. In many respects, it has probably paralleled your future life as a professional designer.  You will have worked hard —dedicating long hours to projects you were deeply passionate about. You will probably have also dedicated even longer hours to projects you were less passionate about (get used to it!). You will have suffered through that panicky fear of failure that always comes moments before you finally get the big idea. You will have obsessively sweated the details on a layout until finally, at version #47, it feels just right. You will have learned what good creative process looks like and how to conduct yourselves professionally. You have learned how to kern, lead and rag type, to vectorize, to specify, to pre-flight and to code…. And there about another million things yet to learn, because being a visual communicator is a journey of ongoing learning. They told you that, right?

But wherever life’s journey takes you next, tonight, you are a designer. I am a designer. And we have this special thing in common.

You see, as designers, we are a unique breed. We often express ourselves best visually. We see and feel patterns and connections that elude others. We naturally seek order and balance where colours, shapes and meanings all work in harmony. It’s not what we do,
it’s who we are.

I believe that there is tremendous power in what designers contribute.  We can shape how people see things and help them make sense of their world. We can challenge old ideas and promote civil dialogue. We can bring divergent groups together around common ideas. We can inform. We can educate. We can inspire. And isn’t this the point of all that kerning, leading and ragging?

By now, I’m probably making some of you nervous. Don’t be daunted. If you continue to apply what you’ve learned and work hard at your skills, the confidence and wisdom to lead clients will come. And to help you on your journey, I’d like to close my remarks by offering three pieces of wisdom that have stood me in good stead over the years.

Think of these tips as “future-proofing” yourself. I guarantee that no matter what small or radical changes come to the world of design, and whether you work for a large agency, an in-house team or for yourself, these three simple things will always hold true:

Number One » The process is the product.

This is a lesson I have learned the hard way. Like most designers, I thought the end-product was the most important thing. But it’s actually the process that you take clients through that has the most lasting impact. The best way to have someone love what you create is to give them a co-creative role. Do you allow clients and users to steer the creative process? No. But you can find ways to get meaningful input from your clients and their customers.  You can strive to be transparent about how you are working and to create more opportunities for shared decision-making. If the end result is a surprise to everyone, then you have missed the opportunity to bring people along with you and create buy-in as you go. You have also exposed yourself to the most regrettable outcomes of all: failed adoption of your creative product.

Number Two » Manage relationships, not projects.

The most effective designers who go furthest in their careers become amazing relationship managers. It’s often the most difficult job, and so many creative professionals are not naturally strong here. To see a great relationship manager in action is amazing. They can sell ideas, pull the right information from a client, push back where necessary, read between the lines and manage expectations. It’s a real art, and you should spend as much time cultivating your skills in this area as you do learning new software and staying on top of design trends.

Number Three »  Live (and learn) in perpetual beta.

If you are a typical perfectionist designer, this one may feel counter-intuitive. Beta mode is a software development term referring to the release of something before it’s 100% complete for the purposes of testing and evaluation. It’s similar to the concept of prototyping, which you studied in your Design Think classes. But I think it can also be a much bigger idea — almost a philosophy of life.  If you embrace the idea that change is constant and learning and improvement are never done, then the pressure to be perfect is reduced and you are always in the ready position — better able to respond quickly and comfortably to change.

Needless to say, you’ll discover many more ingredients to a fulfilling and successful career as a visual communicator.  The Internet is full of insights and predictions for the future of graphic design as a vital means of communicating ideas on behalf of businesses, governments, non-profits and social enterprises. The medium and the message will surely continue to evolve, but there will always be a need for well-crafted, intelligent design that can shape and shift thinking.

With that, I want to welcome you to the community of graphic design. I encourage you to keep learning and always strive to be your best.  And most of all, I challenge you to design the future you want.

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