Following is the full text of the commencement address made to Fall 2010 graduates on Dec. 18, 2010, by Gene Bressler, Head of the Department of Landscape Architecture, College of Design, NC State University:
Good Afternoon, Dean, College Colleagues, Parents, Friends and Guests, and Graduates:
Today marks a game changing moment in our lives!
Parents, and friends of the graduates: the College of Design says “thank YOU” for all you’ve done and sacrificed along the way to support and encourage your daughters, sons, and friends.
Members of the College of Design family– the tireless faculty, caring support staff, creative administration, and generous the extended alumni and extended design community: Thank you for your individual and collective dedicated hard work in behalf of our graduates and the reputation of NC State University’s “world class” College of Design.
Graduates: This day has finally come and this is YOUR day. You are the main reason we are here. Today’s commencement marks the right of passage into the society that values the design-educated person and expects great things from you. On behalf of everyone here, CONGRATULATIONS!
I’ve never given a commencement address before. So to prepare, I looked up commencement addresses. I found some terrific ones given by Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, Oprah Winfrey, John F. Kennedy, and my favorite, Professor Paul Tesar, who spoke at last year’s College of Design Commencement. Rest assured, that I am no Jack Kennedy, nor am I a Paul Tesar. But, I am in good company.
This afternoon I want to talk about the notion of Game Changers – what they are, why they’re important, and share some personal experiences from which I learned a few things along the way.
First, what are they?
Game changers are the events, people or things that alter the ways things get done — Something that changes the status quo.
Game changers motivate us to do things differently, and for we, who are designers — to do things better.
The other night, when I “Googled” game changers, it took a mere 10th of a second to generate over a half million results.
Here’s a few examples of game changers:
- Famous People: President Obama, Bill Clinton, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Steve Jobs, Oprah, Emeril Lagasse, Sarah Palin, Lady Ga Ga, and our own new Chancellor Randy Woodson.
- Then there’s the game changers of their day like the Pony Express, Western Union, the Telephone, and the FAX Machine.
- What about the digital camera that changed the photography industry? Ask Kodak who stopped making its iconic Kodak carousel slide projector and this year, its game changing Kodachrome film.
- Another game changer is Google. Want to know something about something? “Google it.” Not only is it a game changer, it’s both a noun and a verb!
- To do that, you get on the Internet. A game changer!
- To do that, you use a computer, an I-something or a smart phone. All Game Changers [by the way, I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was about 50. My 14-year old daughter, who is now up to 8000 text messages a month still can’t believe how I survived my first 50 years without cell phone. I don’t know either!]
- Here’s some more: Playstation 360, Wii, The Colbert Report, and one of my personal favorites … YOU TUBE.
Not to be outdone, here are several College of Design student game changers:
- Industrial Design Student Sean Coleman won the 2010 Shell Eco-Marathon Americas (SEMA) Urban Concept Car Competition and saw his prototype manufactured by Shell. At the awards show he was able to take the Mayor of Houston for a drive.
- Our Industrial Design students claimed first, second, third, and fifth prizes in the 2010 New York International Auto Show’s safety design contest. They designed prototype safety features including a way to remove ice from bridges using solar panels.
- Art + Design student Shelly Smith who graduates this May was among a handful of NC State Caldwell Fellows who launched the project, called New Sense Studios. They teamed up with Haven House, a community organization that helps struggling young people and their families develop positive and successful relationships at home, at school and in the community.
- PhD student, Traci Rider, who is in the current graduating class and working under Professor Wayne Place is a nationally recognized figure in sustainable architecture practices. She was one of a handful of people whose work was cited in Vanity Fair’s issue on Green Design.
- Graphic Design has over 25 of its graduates teaching in US Universities and Colleges. Most recent among them are Marty Lane, Rebecca Tegtmeyer, Alberto Rigau, Brooke Chornyak, and Tanya Allen. Tanya, by the way is currently teaching the College’s Design Thinking course with Dean Malecha.
- Four College of Design students and one UNC-Chapel Hill student combined to form the winning team in the prestigious 2010 Urban Land Institute’s Annual Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. NC State’s team beat out over 100 other graduate schools including ones from traditional favorites Harvard and UPenn to claim the $50,000 cash prize. Two members of this team, Rebecca Myers and Matt Tomasulo, graduated last May. Marie Papiez and Jeff Pleshek, both master’s students in architecture, graduate today.
- And, I would be remiss if we failed to mention the landscape architecture students in Andy Fox’s Syme Hall Rain Garden Design-Build studio. Melissa Miklus, Michael Lynsky, Heather Vickery Bishop, Nathan Bass, and Jason Weathington who graduate today were among this awesome group of 18 students who proved the point that We do better when agile, creative, hard working design thinkers come together for a common propose. Their built landscape captures rain water coming off roof tops and condensate coming out of building air conditioners through innovative landscape technology and returned to the aquifer thereby reducing runoff, while creating an experientially rich campus landscape. We just learned this week that their achievements have resulted in a 5-year $175,000 grant to fund similar low impact design workshops.
Second, why talk about game changers today? Why is game changing important?
- Game changers affect us and other things, at many levels. 9/11 was a game changer. Think about how the events of that day affected the world and the way we now do things.
- Game changers motivate and fuel Design Thinking, the “main thing” that every one of our graduates today learned in the College of Design and share in common – the creative process for solving problems, for “imagining what does not yet exist.” [Dean Malecha]
- Most important, everyone one of today’s graduates is a game changer in the making!
Suppose I confront you with the following unconventional commencement-like situation:
A guy walks into a bar. He asks the bartender for a glass of water.
Instead of giving the man a glass of water, the bartender pulls out a gun.
Then, the guy dies.
The first question is: How did the guy die?
The second question is: Why did he ask for a glass of water?
The third question is: why did the bartender pull out a gun?
To solve the riddle you start with what you know, and then ask questions. About the guy to which I reply either yes or no.
“Was it hot outside?”
“Was he choking on anything?”
“Was he bleeding?”
“Was he ill?”
And so on. Eventually you ask:
“Was he afraid of the gun?”
Eventually, you put all the clues together and shout out,
Did the guy die of a heart attack?
Did seeing the gun scare the guy to death?
“Aha!” you say!
So, then I ask,
“OK . . . why, did the guy come into the bar asking for a glass of water in the first place?” and why did the bartender pull the gun?”
You will ask me a bunch more questions to gather more clues.
Did the guy look menacing?
Was he going to rob the bartender?
Did the guy have a gun?
Did the bartender intend to scare this guy on purpose?
Did the bartender intend to kill the guy with the gun? “NO!” “NO?”
Did the guy intend to drink the water?
“HMMM” you say to yourself.
Was there something about the condition of the guy that motivated the bartender to want to scare to him. “YES!”
The guy came into the bar and specifically asked for water. What does wanting drinking water have to do with the bartender wanting to scare this guy?
And then, in a moment of brilliance and genius you figure it out and with all the excitement you can muster SHOUT:
“Did the guy have the hiccups?”
The guy came into the bar, asked for a glass of water to cure his hiccups. The bartender noting the condition of the guy thought he had a better solution for a case of the hiccups. Sure, he stopped the hiccups. But in the process of pulling out the gun, the bar tender scared the poor guy to death! Do you think that maybe, the bartender went a little too far? That maybe he over designed the solution?
So here we have a solution for solving the problem of hiccups. It was based on a good intention but resulting in bad ending! In that the cure killed him.
Morals of the story –
- Never go into a bar and just ask for a glass of water.
- Give the customer what he wants before taking matters into your own hands.
- Think about the consequences of an act before you do it.
Designers are like this bartender, to a point. We see a problem needing a solution. We use our imaginations to create a number of solutions. The difference is that we apply the knowledge of our disciplines combined with the processes of design thinking to make sure we don’t kill our clients in the process. That’s another lecture.
Here’s a personal story about the influences of game changers in my life that redirected, challenged, and then reconnected me to my main thing.
In the 70’s and 80’s I was a dashing young professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I was teaching land planning and design computer applications. And at the time I thought we were doing some pretty neat advanced leading edge things using computer technologies to simulate and evaluate alternative urban development plans to accommodate Oregon’s growing population.
One brilliant Sunday morning in May 1980 Mt St. Helens erupted.
Within a year National Geographic came out with a multi-page spread showing computer-generated images of Mt. St. Helens before and after the blast. Now, this was state of the art computer modeling! To this landscape architect these images were game changers.
And then I painfully realized that the computer technology I was teaching in 1980 and thought was state of the art was essentially the same as when I started teaching in 1971. We were teaching our students decade-old technology.
I had become so isolated and content with our own “great stuff” that we failed to pay attention to the computer technology revolution going on all around us. Thank you Mt. St Helens for rocking my world. I needed to get current. I needed to learn this new technology. I needed a game changer!
I wasn’t alone, for living in Eugene, Oregon, in the 1970s was a lot like living in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where everyone is just a little bit above average. I started snooping around the University to find out what other faculty in the other academic units were up to. Sadly, I learned that I was not alone. That many of my colleagues from around the university had the same technology lag problem. 1980, UO was in dire economic straits. And, remember, there was no Internet, no You TUBE, and no Google in those days to “click on” to find out what’s going on elsewhere.
So we teamed up, put on seminars and created something called the Annual Pacific Northwest Computer Graphics Conference. We had no money, but we were able to put together a plan that brought in some world – class computer graphics doers to speak – they came from such places as Boeing, General Motors, Lucas Films.
Back to the Mt. St Helens story. As I said, I was impressed with the 3dwire mesh terrain images. Thought it was something that would revolutionize landscape architecture. So I called up National Geographic to invite who actually generated the Mt St Helens computer graphics spread to speak at the University. They didn’t generate the images and directed me to a small computer graphics software development company, Dynamic Graphics, located in Berkeley California. They were the ones inventing, creating, and doing world-class state of the art digital terrain modeling.
Long story short, within two years I took leave from the University of Oregon to go to work for that company to do world-class digital terrain modeling. What was supposed to be a one-year leave of absence from UO ended up being an 11-year career change! “So long landscape architecture. Hello, hi-tech!”
This was a huge game changer for me. I took a leap, and it paid off, for awhile…
As I worked there, the company’s direction moved into the lucrative oil and gas and big government markets. Our clients were Mobil, ARCO, and Amoco and governmental agencies like the Department of Interior, Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense. They procured the software to find oil or to model subterranean ground water pollution plumes typically resulting from the disposal of nuclear and other sorted wastes. I’m told that during Desert Storm, the Army used the software to simulate and model the concentrations of poisonous gas plumes drifting over the terrain [not landscape] as the result of an exploding scud rocket.
This was hardly the world of landscape architecture!
Nonetheless, during the 11 years that I worked in this arena, I learned a lot of technology. I learned about the hi-tech business. I met and worked with brilliant and very good people. I earned some very big money.
About 10 years into my computer graphics career I got married. My wife, Karen, and I went looking for a home in suburban Denver. We found the new developments and homes being sold were poorly designed, energy inefficient, and in general, the epitome of just plain Suburban Sprawl. I found this painful to see. In my former life, community design was one of the areas that I pursued way back when I was a landscape architect and professor at the University of Oregon.
The more we looked for a home, the more I realized that I missed landscape architecture and teaching and needed to come home to design. I also realized that I was not interested in oil and gas exploration, exploding scuds, and subterranean nuclear waste.
Most important I realized that I got distracted from doing the main thing in my life, while letting myself be lured away by the technology and the big money opportunities afforded by the hi-tech world.
Guess what? It was time for a game changer!
Within a year or so, I left Dynamic Graphics and started my own landscape architecture practice in Denver. The next year I was hired by the University of Colorado in Denver to head the landscape architecture department. Life was good for me and my family in Denver at the University of Colorado until the spring of 2005 when the phone rang.
On the other end was Art Rice, a former student of mine who was then (and still is) associate dean at NC State University College of Design. He called to tell me about the search going on at NC State for a new department Head for the Department of Landscape Architecture. I said I really wasn’t interested in leaving Denver. He said he knew that. A year and a half later, I moved here. And 4.5 years later I’m telling you this story.
Here’s what I learned:
- to look before I bravely leap,
- to be willing and agile to change course when the ground shifts beneath me, and
- to find my way back home to do the things that really matter, to focus on the main thing.
Graduates: Whether you have a degree in industrial design, graphic design, art and design, architecture, or landscape architecture, you all share the gift and legacy of Design Thinking.
Our goal (and I want you to remember this) in the College of Design has been to prepare you for the profession and discipline of today and the one that you will help to change and eventually lead. And remember that you are armed with the values underlying the importance of being attentive to the social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental imperatives and contexts within which we work.
After this commencement ceremony you and your loved ones will likely go out to celebrate. Tomorrow when you wake up, you may discover that you landed in your own new Twilight Zone called, “The Day After I Graduated from the College of Design.” You will likely look in the mirror, freak out, and scream, “Now, what do I do?”
To help you deal with this awesome question I offer the following Three Things that I learned about game changers:
- Welcome the game changers in your life. They provide the motivation to apply design thinking to help you figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.
- Build on what you know; you’re not starting at zero. Keep your sketchbooks, your notes, your drawings, and your papers, and most importantly, your friendships. Remind yourself about what you learned here. You have incredible resources to build upon.
- Seek creative, bright, passionate, hardworking, and good people to work with. Game changers need partners who will work together to make a difference in the world.
In closing, Graduates: we need you to remain connected to your College of Design. This is your home!
- You are needed to mentor our new and continuing students.
- You are needed to continue engaging faculty in the ongoing questions about our future directions.
- And, you are needed to join with the graduates who came before you, as, in the words of Dean Malecha, “we collectively face the challenges that ask us to consider what does not yet exist – to endeavor to anticipate what is to come.”
This is your mission. This is what you will do!
No commencement address would be complete with out a fitting quotation from a famous person, so I offer the following:
Forrest Gump: “What’s my destiny, Mama?”
Mrs. Gump: “You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself. Life’s a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
My name is Gene Bressler, and I’m a game changer, too!
Congratulations and best wishes.
Speech by: Gene Bressler