What helps me step outside my solipsist mind

On days filled with gathering knowledge and learning

Von Holger Windfuhr

Die Rede unten hielt der Art-Direk­tor Hol­ger Wind­fuhr vor Absol­ven­ten der Stu­di­en­gän­ge Kom­mu­ni­ka­ti­ons­de­sign der Hoch­schu­le Konstanz.

First off: con­gra­tu­la­ti­ons to the gra­dua­ting class of 2016!

I have a Ger­man name, but was born and rai­sed in the United Sta­tes. So I hope you will indul­ge my giving this talk in my mother ton­gue. I think you deser­ve a level of elo­quence that I can­not live up to in the Ger­man lan­guage. Plus: it makes me seem more intel­li­gent than I real­ly am.

When Jochen Räde­ker asked me if I would like to hold the com­mence­ment speech, I said yes wit­hout thin­king. Only after­wards did I think to mys­elf: “What in God’s name do you peo­p­le want to hear from me?” Then I recal­led a com­mence­ment speech by the gre­at aut­hor and phi­lo­so­pher David Fos­ter Wal­lace. His thoughts and per­spec­ti­ve real­ly reso­na­ted with me, and arti­cu­la­ted what, up to that point, I hadn’t been able to. So I deci­ded to adapt part of it. And as Pablo Picas­so said: “Good artists copy, gre­at artists ste­al.” Who am I to ques­ti­on Pablo?

Two young fish are swim­ming along and they hap­pen to meet an older fish swim­ming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says
“Mor­ning, boys. How’s the water?”
The two young fish swim on for a bit. Then one of them looks over at the other and asks
“What the hell is water?”

I’m not the wise old fish. The point of the fish sto­ry is mere­ly that the most obvious, important rea­li­ties are often the ones that are har­dest to see. Being tru­ly awa­re of what is around us.

You, like me when I finis­hed design school twen­ty-five years ago, lear­ned about typo­gra­phy, color theo­ry, prin­ting tech­ni­ques, html, design histo­ry, illus­tra­ti­on, pho­to­gra­phy, and much more. Your days, like mine, were fil­led with gathe­ring know­ledge and lear­ning how to think about design and lear­ning approa­ches to pro­blem-sol­ving. And you, like me, have enjoy­ed the sup­port of your par­ents, grand­par­ents, fri­ends and tea­chers in get­ting your education.

The grea­test cli­ché about edu­ca­ti­on is that it is not such much about fil­ling you up with know­ledge, but about tea­ching you how to think. But the cli­ché about tea­ching you how to think actual­ly goes much deeper. The real­ly signi­fi­cant edu­ca­ti­on in thin­king isn’t just about the capa­ci­ty to think, but also about lear­ning to exer­cise some con­trol over how and what you think, and con­scious­ly choo­sing what to think about. To real­ly ques­ti­on and con­front the often auto­ma­tic way we react to oppo­sing views, cri­ti­cism, annoyan­ces – and dai­ly life. To not get lost in abs­tract argu­ments insi­de our heads ins­tead of sim­ply pay­ing atten­ti­on to what is going on right in front of us, in the world around us. To not assu­me that ever­y­thing is being done spe­ci­fi­cal­ly to me, and for me or against my ideas.

It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a mat­ter of my choo­sing to make the effort of somehow get­ting free of my natu­ral default set­ting. Which is to be deep­ly self-cen­te­red and to see and inter­pret ever­y­thing through this lens of self. Becau­se if you can­not exer­cise this kind of con­scious choice in how and what to think about, you will be total­ly lost.

I can only tell you about my expe­ri­en­ces, and what I have found to be true for me. What helps me step out­side my solip­sist mind when I feel it beco­ming too small a space.

I grew up in a tru­ly mul­ti-cul­tu­ral sur­roun­ding. A uni­ver­si­ty town whe­re all sorts of natio­na­li­ties gra­vi­ta­ted. Japa­ne­se, Chi­ne­se, Iraqi, Ira­ni­an, Ger­man, French – even Swiss. The inte­rest in other cul­tures and their way of thin­king about the world has accom­pa­nied me ever sin­ce. I was con­fron­ted by all sorts of dif­fe­rent views – some­ti­mes dra­ma­ti­cal­ly dif­fe­rent opi­ni­ons on things I felt very stron­gly about. They chal­len­ged me to think about why I think the way I do.

Back then the Inter­net as we know it had not yet been born. The sin­gle big­gest repo­si­to­ry of know­ledge – but also of bull­shit – man­kind has ever known. It wasn’t as easy to get lost in the echo cham­bers of »Face­book« time­lines and spe­cial­ty blogs that sim­ply repeat back to me what I alre­a­dy belie­ve to be true.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Inter­net and the Inter­net of Things is one of the grea­test deve­lo­p­ments for our pro­fes­si­on – on a socie­tal sca­le as well. It frees design from ador­ning paper pulp and film strips to beco­me tru­ly inter­ac­ti­ve and mul­ti­me­di­al on a glo­bal sca­le. It allows us to com­mu­ni­ca­te on an indi­vi­du­al level. The­re has never been a grea­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty for us. And I say this not in spi­te of but espe­ci­al­ly as a mem­ber of a publi­shing group.

But it takes tre­men­dous will to seek out artic­les and inter­act with peo­p­le who have oppo­sing views. To dis­co­ver how other cul­tures inter­pret what is hap­pe­ning in the world, on our con­ti­nent, in our coun­try. The Ame­ri­can view, the Eng­lish view, the French, Rus­si­an, Scan­di­na­vi­an, Chi­ne­se view; the intellec­tu­al Ger­man com­men­ta­ry – and even the less intellec­tu­al com­men­ta­ry. But I pro­mi­se you, it will be worth it. It’s a well­spring for your work, an end­less sup­p­ly of refe­ren­ces, jux­ta­po­si­ti­ons and ide­as to play with. The intellec­tu­al depth will shi­ne through.

Ano­ther thing I have found to be true for me: being trus­ted is ever­y­thing; espe­ci­al­ly in our pro­fes­si­on, whe­re our opi­ni­on isn’t based on a mathe­ma­ti­cal for­mu­la or sci­en­ti­fic method. Trust in our pro­fes­sio­nal inte­gri­ty is the one thing that makes the dif­fe­rence bet­ween being able to do gre­at or medio­cre work. Trust is what allows us to take risks. But ear­ning that trust also means being able to put yours­elf into someone else’s posi­ti­on and con­sider their cri­te­ria for good work. What they need it to do and how they need to com­mu­ni­ca­te with their audi­ence and who else they turn to in jud­ging the qua­li­ty of design. And who they need to impress, both insi­de and out­side the company.

Be curious. Not just about what new fonts are coming out, what the coo­le­st par­al­lax scrolls are or what new inde­pen­dent maga­zi­nes are being published. They are a means to an end. The end is what and how we want to com­mu­ni­ca­te. What audi­ence are we com­mu­ni­ca­ting to? The con­text in which we are com­mu­ni­ca­ting. The awa­re­ness of socie­tal shifts, bumps and grinds. Awa­re­ness of what and who is affec­ting socie­ty, and why. Awa­re­ness in not belie­ving the hype.

It is in essence about the real value of a real edu­ca­ti­on. It has almost not­hing to do with know­ledge, and ever­y­thing to do with simp­le awa­re­ness. Awa­re­ness of what is in plain sight all around us, all the time. That we have to keep redis­co­ve­ring and remin­ding our­sel­ves over and over:
»This is water.«
»This is water.«

I wish you all gre­at success.