SVA MFA in Interaction Design
“The people that I respect the most, the people who are doing great things, are people who care so much about what they do that they can’t stop.”
How did you get started after your undergrad?
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was an undergrad. No, that’s not true. I knew, but had no words to express what that was, so I was an English Major.
I started to become somewhat aware of information design, instructional design, and information and design together and that became what I wanted to pursue. I had no idea what it was called. I thought it might be “advertising,” but that didn’t seem right at all. All I knew was that I had no idea how to do that and I wasn’t ready to start, so I decided to travel.
I went to Japan for a couple of years. While I was there I studied for the GREs and found graduate schools that focused on design and writing. I came back and went to Carnegie Mellon.
I’ve always been a little bit too concerned with the right manners, and knowing the right way to do something. If I want to learn how to do something — whatever it is, like interview someone — I’m a little bit too hesitant to just dive in. I will first go research the proper way to interview someone. So while I was an undergrad, what I should have done was say, “What is this? I’m going to figure this out and go get a job.” Instead I decided I would travel for two years, study for the GREs, find a great school, go to graduate school and then get a job. That’s a perfect case study in the way that I approach things.
When you graduated, did you have a plan that you wanted to follow?
No. I don’t think there was any plan. I’m a terrible planner and I’m trying to figure out if that’s intentional or not.
I’ve said this before: if you know what you believe in and you know what you’re passionate about, you can make good decisions. Because what’s presented to you and what you choose to do are very closely aligned with what you believe in.
I think it’s really important to have short-term goals and check in with yourself to see how you’re doing. Otherwise you could be in a position of never failing, never taking a chance and never failing. If you can’t fail, then you won’t know what you believe in.
Do you think it’s necessary to fail to be successful?
I wish I knew. I really wish I knew. I think you have to see failure to be successful.
I know that sounds like something you would find in a fortune cookie. But if you don’t see it, and by that I mean if you don’t put yourself in a position where you can see what is on the other side if this doesn’t work, if you don’t see the realness of failure, then how can you possibly say you believe in the project? Then it’s not really your success; it’s someone else’s.
Were there any specific people that really made an impact on you?
There was this woman named Jeanine who was my creative director at a larger company. I’ve always been like a bit of a perfectionist and she was not. She used to come to my desk and stand behind me and I could feel her shaking her head. She would say, “Liz, you’re working too much.” She would walk by later in the day and say, “Liz, you need to go home,” or “Liz, when was the last time you had a vacation?”
She sat me down a few times and told me how I have let go and stop being a perfectionist. I didn’t believe her for the longest time, and then I thought, maybe I am working too hard and I should go home when everyone else goes home. I was always the first person there and the last person to leave. So for a few years I started “regulating my passion,” I would stop even if I wanted to continue working.
But I’ve realized that the people that I respect the most, the people who are doing great things, are people who care so much about what they do that they can’t stop. They are not unhealthy. There are those people who are unhealthy, but I’m talking about the people that care so much about what they do, that they go out of their way to have coffee and do interview projects [like now]. They care. They are not working too hard. They care about quality.
I realized that this person was not recognizing the difference between someone who is a perfectionist and someone who deeply cares about quality. I think I have a bit of the perfectionist thing and that needs to go, but it can be an endearing quality. I just deeply care and I love that.
What is nourishing about the world to me is that I love what I do. It took me a few years to realize that if I’m a healthy person and everything is in balance, I don’t need to curb that. Everything is just in balance. So that person, she tried to regulate me through this advice she gave me. But then I ended up reversing it, which I’m really happy about.
How does one create the best possible opportunities for oneself?
By going back to what you believe in and that set of interests or beliefs that surrounds you. Maybe you write about it, read about it, or just talk about it, and the people that are attracted to the same thing will come to you. That goes for professional interests and personal interests. You’ll be invited to things or you’ll start your own things and those opportunities will just happen naturally. I know it sounds too good to be true and not even good advice, but it is absolutely true. You’ve probably seen it yourself in the typography community.
Oh definitely. I’ve seen it a lot just in my short time in New York.
It’s strange but if you do know what you believe in and that could be in an area that is super-wide, like local food or small like raising honeybees on rooftops, as you start talking about it everyone you know will start sending you things and saying, “You know you should…” and all those opportunities will start popping up everywhere.
That’s how it happens. At the next party you’re at, or the next dinner or conference you’re at, somebody will say, “…not only that, but we actually need someone to work on this project.” But it’s important that you evaluate what you really believe in from time to time. You can’t say yes to everything and you can’t believe in everything. You have to make some decisions.
Are there any missed opportunities or decisions that you wish you had taken advantage of?
I went to Japan to go to graduate school and during my time there I realized that one doesn’t need to be so structured. Not everyone needs to go to school; I’ve got plenty of time. I had found a program that sends people to visit parts of South Africa. I remember coming back and talking to my parents saying, “I’m not going to go to grad school, I’m going to Africa and I’m going to do this project,” I remember my parents telling me, “you’re going to be too old when you come back.” I listened to them, which I shouldn’t have done, and I made this decision based on what someone else had advised me to do and I didn’t go.
That’s one thing I regret. I think it’s very important to sort of follow your own intuition. Age, color, or location, none of these things matter if you know what you believe in and you want to do it. Everything else can wait and it does. We know that so much more now, but at the time nothing was as public as it is now.
Things worked out pretty great, but yeah that’s one thing I look back on and I wish I had done because I didn’t follow what I knew to be true, doing what I actually wanted to do rather than some one telling me that I was too old when I was 24.
Where do you think the motivation for decision-making come from?
The fear of indecision. I don’t think we can wallow in indecision. Otherwise we would be just like wallowing in this dream state of nothing. I think we often have deadlines or people over us demanding decisions, but making a decision just feels better.
I wonder if decisions are cultural because where does motivation for making a decision really come from? It feels like making a decision is the right thing to do. It feels better when you’ve made a decision.
For example, we’re sitting here and neither of us are really hungry, but it feels better to order than not to order. But if we we’re in a different culture like Fiji for example, where time doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter if you order. You can order now or in five hours. Therefore we would not make a decision. So no, the motivation to make a decision is purely cultural. I think the culture of work by deadlines and the culture of family when it comes to tradition or holidays, sometimes by human need, obviously with more basic decisions.
Do you think being a richly experienced makes you a better creative?
Yes and I think that the more experiences you have, the more informed you are, although it’s not necessary to travel or have those experiences. Every time I go somewhere here in New York, talk to someone new or when I travel, I’m just so surprised. What I thought to be true, like this glass getting filled with water throughout dinner, or that we are polite to one another because we are friends is not true in another culture. What we know to be true is only true because it’s true in this culture, which is the United States, in New York, in Carroll Gardens. Everything is cultural and that’s fascinating. It makes you feel so humble, small and aware.