In May, Design Futures Council President James P. Cramer delivered a commencement address to the graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts.

Artists and Designers of the Future

By James P. Cramer

It is a beautiful day to celebrate here in Virginia. Congratulations graduates of VCU. I am honored to be here with you to celebrate your success.

This afternoon I talk directly to you – each of you – about prospects for your future success within the context of adversity and extreme challenge.  Look at the front page of USA Today: “U.S. Limps in Job Creation:” The nation has 5 percent fewer jobs today – a loss of 7 million – since the recession began in 2007.

However, you are the artists and designers of the future. Let us look forward.

There are three brief themes:
1. Just ahead you will face more adversity than will seem fair.
2. Your attitudes will underpin your success more than most of you realize.
3. Your life plan will need a design that will include heavy doses of continuous improvement.

Let me explain: If we had a film crew recording your actions over the next few months, we would see a creative unfolding of your careers in art, communications, music, design – and life. 

The future will be different. The world as we know it is history. The future is fiction. Yet you can navigate this future and you can imagine forward to the new horizons. 

You can actually see trends, shifts, demographics, technologies, and scenario charts that will give you insight into your future. Some of you can actually become trend masters, and you will take your career right into the evolving marketplace where you will be change agents. 

However, before getting into the future and your own fit into that future, let us pause and talk about getting jobs now in art and design. Think for a moment with me about being the next neo-professionals in fields that will include broad and exciting career opportunities. 

The newest statistics tell us that college graduates are discovering different career options during this reset of the global economy. 
In the United States today, the unemployment rate is just under 10 percent, but those with college degrees have an unemployment rate of around 4 percent.
Thus, in the big picture, your college degree positions you for opportunities that you would otherwise not have. Your earning potential will be significantly higher than that of non-graduates.

Despite statistics of mounting debt, which is a sober concern, your college degree still translates into greater earning potential. For those with a bachelor’s degree, that earning level is now about $3.3 million over a 40-year career compared to graduates with a high school diploma. If you decide to be an entrepreneur in art and design, you can perform at even higher levels.

A degree from VCU is not a ticket. Your future is still about you and your value as you apply what you have learned here and what you do to keep learning. You are well positioned now. Still, it will not be an easy path forward. Some days it will seem unfair. It has always been so. Those graduates who understand their value, who have a sense of direction and a vision of who they are and where they are going, will have a nearly 100 percent employment rate plus highly regarded, highly respected careers that will evolve. Graduates who have a cause, a purpose, and full engagement will be in high demand. 

With degree in hand, you will be well served to have an attitude of constant adjustment and resilience. Call it artistic pragmatism. The designer Charles Eames had this essence we he started his career in the Great Depression of 1930. Call it rapport with your context, your targets of opportunity.

In life, it is attitudes that matter more than we give due credit. Attitudes are important because they underpin our strategies, our approaches to success. Flawed attitudes equal flawed strategies. Attitudes that are cynical, for instance, will most often fail to recognize new enterprise opportunities.

I am not here to throw cold water on your celebrations today, but I do need to remind you of something you already know. There is a problem with success. Success does not have much staying power. You have to keep on being a success. That takes courage. Moreover, if you decide to coast for a while, you’ll go down the path toward irrelevancy, decline, even obsolescence. There is only one way to coast: Downhill. Resting too long – coasting – can be a trap. 

You know that the pace of change is accelerating. During these times of change, there will be accelerating opportunity but also uncertainty. In this context, you can navigate all around the emerging zones of relevance and the emerging power of art and design to benefit the human condition.

The only real career security you have is your commitment to continuous improvement.  You can enhance your circumstances by having an attitudinal commitment to getting better all the time.

However, even when you are getting stronger in your art you will face lots of rejection requiring personal resilience. Nevertheless, in the face of adversity successful designers and artists tough it out and become even more determined. They say to themselves: This is unfair, but I will get above it.

Your own VCU basketball team shows what can happen against all odds. Most observers during the NCAA tournament were doubters that VCU had any business in the tournament. When VCU got into the tournament, a TV sports analyst – I believe it was Jay Bilas – said of the selection of VCU was “indefensible” and he wondered “if some people on the selection committee knew that the ball was round.” Your VCU coach Smart said, “Anytime people disrespect you, especially on national TV, it kind of hurts you a little bit. We decided to prove people wrong.”

Coach Smart used rejection as a rallying point. VCU created audiovisual montages of all the naysayers, and before playing Georgetown in the second round, VCU replayed the clip of ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi suggesting that the Rams were so bad defensively that they could not guard even him. The team played that audio clip repeatedly. 

They turned barbs into victory. They turned conventional wisdom on its head. They went to the final four. They inspired everyone.

Now, today is most likely one of the rare days that you are likely to be without rejection. However, when rejection hits – and it will, perhaps tomorrow – remember to keep a thick skin and just get stronger. Do not be the victim; be the victor. 

Do not let rejection give you an emotional recession. Keep your eye on future achievement. Call it your own artistic license toward success.
Take rejection as a stepping stone forward. It may be a slippery stone, but it is there to get you to the other side – where you want to go.
In music think of Johann Sebastian Bach, who lost both of his parents when he was nine years old and then endured the pain of his children preceded him in death. Yet he mustered the strength to create some of the world’s most loved and enduring music.

Or think of Steve Jobs of Apple, who was put up for adoption only to be rejected by his new parents who told the agency that they preferred to adopt a baby girl. He faced unfair circumstances repeatedly. Jobs was fired from Apple when he was 30. He formed NeXT Computer and would later rejoin Apple as CEO. He had an awesome design mind, but he almost gave up when he was 30. The rejection hurt him personally, and it was tough for him to regain leadership stamina. He wondered if he would ever return to Silicon Valley. He overcame rejection and you know the rest of the story. Apple is now the No. 1 global brand according to yesterday’s Financial Times.

The first time I visited this VCU campus I went out for an early afternoon walk – a day much like today – and I took with me that now nostalgic Sony Walkman. The baby boomers here this afternoon remembers it well. Mine was yellow. It was big and clunky. At that time, I thought it was cool. I had a several tapes I would take with me on road trips. 

We do not use those Walkmans anymore. Almost all of us have iPods and iPads. Tiny. Efficient. Awesome design. New tech tools are empowering designers with new capabilities in design, and this will bring even more power to design. Some of these design solutions you will use to improve the quality of life.

For example, we see plenty of reason to believe that you will have X-ray vision. You will go online without a laptop – just by blinking, thanks to wired contact lenses. Some scientists say you will live to be 125. Micro-machines smaller than a pen dot will perform surgery. Graphic designers will work in nano-technology solutions. 

Interior designed spaces will have walls that think, floors that create energy from people’s dancing, and spaces that heal. Your zoo designs will include animals that are now extinct.

Over at the medical college they are learning about advanced surgical robotics. Interior designers in this school are learning how BIM models will use artificial intelligence in building for sustainable and beautiful environments. 

However, the relatively stable professions in the fine arts, communications, and design are moving to a time that will be more dynamic and entrepreneurial.  

You will be moving from art and design as pure material and entertainment art to design as organic art, biomimicry, and social science. You will be artists and designers of experiences.    

The minute you decide to be part of the future, you will lose some things and gain others. What you are going to gain is synergy where one plus one equals more than two. What you are going to lose is waste, status quo, and complacency.

You can intercept the future. You can bring wisdom to decision making and embrace change as a friend. Your life is yours to design. It is like other design problems. Listen for clues to the new opportunities. Be guided by your vision, not the dogmas of the past. Set your goals higher. 

Let me close and say to you just this: Remember, through the rejections in your career and in your life – rejections that are both predictable statistically and those that are unfair wild cards – remember that you can get above them and feel the positive equity of your actions. You will never regret it.

Thank you all very much.