At a young age I was fascinated with the built environment; my uncle was an architect. In my teens, we collaborated on developing a three-dimensional modelling application programmed in Basic (an early programming language). The architectural component of my High School art program was particularly memorable, but it was a science fair project had the greatest impact on my immediate future. The project was an automated system to monitor, predict, and control heat-gain and heat-loss in R2000 homes. It won numerous awards and editorial attention, and resulted in my receiving an entrance scholarship to Saint Mary’s University.
Some lessons are learned through success and others are learned through varying degrees of difficulty: my first year belongs to the latter. I realized that the project responsible for my being at the University was of interest to me not because of its science, but because it dealt with systems. This was a revelation. I became aware that it was the creative applications of science and technology that drew me to the subject.
Academically, the year was a disaster; the lesson, however, was fundamental.
THE SEMINAL YEARS
The following year I was accepted to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). It was in my foundation year that I discovered graphic design; at the time I was unfamiliar with the practice, although I very much admired the creations produced by practitioners in the field. Through a combination of introductory courses in architecture and communication design, I realized how graphic design could be applied to the built environment through exhibition design and signage. With this interest, I applied and was accepted to the Bachelor of Communication Design Honours program. NSCAD’s design program taught me how to solve problems across a broad range of media. Critical thinking was the emphasis, and the program had a long tradition of research and design history, with a particular emphasis on semiotic design theory.
I have come to appreciate that these years were seminal.
Upon graduation I decided to start my own business: 123 Media Design. With two other partners soon joining the firm, 123 media design worked on projects that included: an interactive kiosk for the Nova Scotia film community; Halifax Wrecked: The Halifax Explosion exhibition for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic; broadcast graphics for CBC’s Newsworld and This Hour Has 22 Minutes; and title sequences for a five-part pilot series for Nickelodeon.
However, I was working on exhibition and print projects while the partners were interested in pursuing animation and gaming projects. We parted ways. This transition reaffirmed my interest in environmental graphic design, forcing me to consider my motivation. It was the exhibition and broadcast projects that affected me most; they were both about delivering information to a very broad audience. My conclusion: I was, and still am, attracted to design that has the potential to improve individual lives and tangibly benefit society. To inform, rather than to entertain became my mantra.
During this time, I was also introduced to teaching. I was a guest lecturer for Mount Saint Vincent University and conducted a two-day workshop for Henson College, both in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
an enriched career
Shortly after dissolving 123 Media Design, I received a call from NSCAD alumnus David Peters offering me a position in New York as Senior Interactive Designer for Two Twelve Associates. Two Twelve’s objective was to provide accessible, user-centered design to organizations that communicate with wide cross-sections of the public. I coordinated the design and production of two very successful retirement planning software applications for mutual funds giant T. Rowe Price. Software applications were free for people with investments in the company. Some of the individuals who received the software had low to modest levels of income and education, and as a result of this software tool, made better use of their investments. As a result of this project I truly realized the power of design, and that my profession could bring about change in a meaningful way on a grand scale.
Two Twelve was also hired to redesign the Census 2000 questionnaire. We spent close to three years rewriting the decennial form. The project that received my primary focus was the revised American Community Survey, a questionnaire designed to replace the decennial form. These projects influenced me, as I came to appreciate how good design can profoundly affect large public audiences. A jury of distinguished design experts selected the Census 2000 for a Federal Design Achievement Award, presented to Two Twelve by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Concurrent to this questionnaire, I worked on signage systems. Projects included: writing a design standards manual for the Chicago Park District; developing a comprehensive wayfinding strategy and signage system for Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; designing a signage program for Seattle’s Sound Transit; supervising construction for Queens West State Park; developing a wayfinding strategy for Yale Divinity School; and creating preliminary signage designs for Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
While at Two Twelve, I managed a team of designers and discovered how much I enjoyed enabling and empowering junior members of staff, but my teaching was not limited to the office. I was invited to be a guest critic for Yale’s Master in Design program, and was a professional advisor to students during a workshop for Carnegie Mellon’s BFA Communication Design Program. As a compliment to my design work, I found I was attracted to teaching.
In 1999, after close to five years working for Two Twelve, I seized an opportunity to start-up an internet business. An initial $250,000 investment of angel funding was secured. However, we were approaching the latter part of the boom and bust cycle of the speculative bubble of the late 1990s. The next round of venture capital was lined-up, however we prudently declined and shut-down. Like other foreigners living in the states at that time, finding employment was difficult, so I moved to Budapest, Hungary for six months before returning to Canada.
Initially I worked for Parks Canada, developing policies and protocols, as well as creating project monitoring and planning tools for their newly commissioned National Visual Communication Design Centre. I also began teaching part-time at NSCAD University. The part-time course turned into an offer to teach full-time. I reflected on my experiences at Yale, Carnegie Melon, and Mount Saint Vincent University. I decided I wanted to know what it would be like to be immersed in the teaching experience. Teaching has been immensely rewarding, though if it is to continue, I would need a graduate degree; and so began initial investigations into pursuing further education.
After working for Parks Canada, and teaching for my alma mater, an opportunity arose to join the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. as their Director of Design. This position allowed me push myself as an exhibition designer, and hone my graphic design skills. It also allowed me to continue teaching and mentoring junior staff members and student interns.
Founded as a public institution in 1869, the Corcoran currently functions as both a college and world-class museum. The Corcoran Gallery of Art stands as a major centre of American art, both historic and contemporary. Founded “for the purpose of encouraging American Genius,” the Corcoran’s extensive collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th century American art represents most significant American artists. The school formally started in 1897, and has established itself as Washington’s singular four-year accredited institution for education in the arts.
My role was to provide design strategy and support for both the gallery and college. As an exhibition designer, I worked on a number of important installations, including: Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005, and Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power. As a Design Director, I ran an in-house design office that supported both business units. As Director of Design Integration, I focussed on providing a better learning experience for students by incorporating experience in the gallery as part of their eduction.
For the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Corcoran College of Art + Design, it’s demise was predicted as early as the 1960s. The institution had a troubled and infamous past that included Jesse Helms congressional pressure to shut a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1989, and a failed attempt to raise funds for a Frank Gehry extension in 2005. My last days were in 2010. Studying part-time, I had completed most of a graduate degree in Interior Design. I choose to continue my studies, and returned to Canada moving to Winnipeg to restart my graduate studies, again in Interior design, at the University of Manitoba.
It was during this academic period I was encouraged to reflect. Dr. Susan close opened my vision to new design theories, and Kelley Beaverford supported my mantra of creating a better world. Dr. Shauna Mallory-Hill and Dr. Cynthia Karpan pushed me to be succinct in my approach, and Dr. Mary Anne Beecher and Lynn Chalmers provided support at many levels on my development. To them I am grateful.
More than twenty years, undergraduate studies at NSCAD introduced me to design, and professor Hanno Ehses instilled in this designer the importance of rhetoric as a mean for ideation and design discourse. Graduate studies allowed me to understand that rhetoric—schemes and tropes—are the atoms of design, but what tied it all together was unresolved. Having a career that concentrated on design of and for the built environment, I began to understand that if design is built on a rhetorical footing, then the narrative—part of the human condition—plays an important role in design thinking, in particular for the built environment.
I have come to appreciate that these years were the turning point in my career as a designer, an educator, and even as a writer.
Concurrent to my academic studies, I continued to pursue a life in academia. I lectured for both the Bachelor of Environmental Design program and the School of Art. I used these years to explore my interest rhetoric, not only in graphic design but also as expressions in the built environment. Being a teaching assistant for George Jacobs’ graduate course cemented my profound interest in exhibition design.
The next phase
In 2015, I was given the opportunity to join Form:Media. As Vice-President, my task is to build a department that includes interpretive planning and design, wayfinding and signage, and interactive design. At first, it was an intradisciplinary approach: disciplined silos working within individual lines of business. Over the years however we have moved from a cross- or multi-disciplinary approach to a more pure inter-disciplinary approach. Integrating the methods and approaches of our sister companies—planning, architecture, and landscape architecture, experiential graphic design—has made this designer more informed and open minded. As we work closer together in a more integrated fashion, I believe we are becoming a practice that is more integrated, more efficient, and one that produces better design solutions.
Through education and practice I have come to realise that in addition to the designing of products—graphic design, interior design—system, program, service, and experience are integral to my approach to, what is traditionally considered, design.