Multimedia — Sep 20, 2013

2013 Convocation Address: Lisa Strausfeld


Lisa Strausfeld opens the 2013-2014 academic year with a Convocation Address on design, defining success, and finding what makes the difference.

Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) opens its 2013-2014 academic year with a Convocation Address by Lisa Strausfeld, Global Head of Data Visualization at Bloomberg LP.  Convocation, which derives from the Latin term for “calling together,” is an annual opportunity for the College’s community of students, faculty, staff, and board members to come together to mark the beginning of the new academic year. The annual Convocation address is one of PNCA’s four Cornerstone Lectures, which also include the College’s Homecoming Lecture during Alumni weekend, the Edelman lecture in March, and the Graduation Address given at Commencement in May.

Lisa Strausfeld joined Bloomberg LP in January 2012 as its first Global Head of Data Visualization and is the CEO of Major League Politics (MLP), which she founded in April of 2011. Prior to founding MLP, Lisa was a partner at Pentagram from 2002 to March 2011. She and her team specialized in digital information projects including the design of large-scale media installations, software prototypes and user interfaces, signage, and websites. Her clients included One Laptop per Child, GE, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Bloomberg LP, MIT and the New York Times.

Strausfeld received the 2010 National Design Award for Interaction Design and was a finalist for the award in 2009, the year the Interaction Design category was created. Fast Company magazine featured her as one of its 2009 Masters of Design. She was named one of BusinessWeek’s “Cutting Edge Designers” in 2007, and her work has been featured in two MOMA design exhibitions, including the current show “Talk to Me.” She has received six International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) and her projects have been regularly honored by the Art Directors Club, the Type Directors Club, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Society for Environmental Graphic Design.

MLP is the second start-up Strausfeld has founded. The first was Perspecta, an information-architecture software company, which was later sold to Excite @Home. She joined another startup, Quokka, a digital sports entertainment company, to lead the development of its real-time data visualization products. She later left to start her own studio InformationArt.

Strausfeld holds five patents relating to user interfaces and intelligent search and retrieval. In 2006 she was named to the Senior Scientist program at the Gallup Organization. She has taught interactive design at the Yale School of Art and at NYU’s ITP program. Strausfeld has a BA from Brown in art history and computer science, an M Arch in architecture from Harvard, and an MS from MIT’s Media Lab. She is also a member of the PNCA Creative Leaders Council.

2013 Convocation Address: Lisa Strausfeld

Lisa Strausfeld gives the 2013 Convocation Address on Friday, September 13 in the PNCA Commons. Strausfeld is a design professional, information architect, and currently Global Head of Data Visualization at Bloomberg.


2013 Convocation Address (Transcript)

Lisa Strausfeld, Global Head of Data Visualization, Bloomberg LP

I’m here, presumably, because I’ve achieved some level of success in my career.
 And the presumption is that perhaps I could share some wisdom with you, as you embark on your own design and art education and future careers.

I’ll break it to you now. I can and I can’t. I am both an inspiring and a cautionary tale, depending on your character makeup.

What I mean by that is I’ve always loved doing the work, but I still struggle on a daily basis with all of the other “stuff” that’s required to get the work made.

Paula Scher said this to me when I joined Pentagram. Creating the work is only half of the effort. (Brad Cloepfil, an architect, says the work is only 10% of the effort - which would suggest some relationship between scale of work and effort to get it made.)

Still I’m here. And you’re here. Presumably no one bribed you to go to art or design school. You had conviction in your work and you made a heroic choice – at a young age – to focus on it. I applaud you already.

It’s so nice to be here, by the way. In Portland and at PNCA.

So, like I said, I’m not sure anything I say will be helpful, but we’ve got some time, and I thought I’d tell you a couple stories about who I was as a design student, and how, despite some deep character flaws, I got here.

Years ago, while I was a student, I attended a two-week art workshop at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I was there to draw and paint (and to learn about printmaking) so was quite disappointed by the very first assignment. There were about twenty students - each of us was given a block of plaster that was cast in a large plastic butter container, as well as a mallet and a chisel. We were asked to sit in a circle on the concrete floor and, for the remaining class time, carve a sphere out of the plaster block. No talking.

I rolled my eyes in frustration, sat down, and started chipping away. After an hour and a half of twenty tapping mallets and chisels on plaster blocks we were asked to stop working. The instructor joined our circle on the floor and asked the group to share what we’d been thinking about during the exercise. Everyone looked a bit stumped, but no one more than me. One confessional student said she was thinking about the rest of her day, including what she’d have for lunch after class.

Another student claimed he was thinking about the meaning of life. I said nothing. I couldn’t even recall what I’d been thinking about. About twenty minutes later, while I was on the the subway back to Cambridge it suddenly came to me. For the entire hour and a half I realized that I was thinking of only one thing. The sphere.

I have always defined success by the quality (and some degree of quantity) of my work. As judged BY ME. That’s important because there are other judges, as you well know. You can’t rely on any of them, even if they are paying you, or grading you. I’ve come to define happiness in my work by the sphere. By that blissful focus on a singular creative mission.

Creative success and happiness are related but not always bound together. I’ve found that the zen-like happiness I experienced years ago through drawing and writing code gets harder as you scale the scope and the ambition of your vision. Proportionally so. Collaborations, clients, institutional politics. Technology. Money - to fund the work or simply pay the rent. These all conspire at times against the work. And the work, in all honesty, has always been, for me, an escape from the real world. Just me and that block of plaster.

My sphere moments have come from two types of activities: programming (which I started doing in college) and any form of drawing, particularly the drawing I learned to do in architecture school. Both could occupy me for hours at a stretch, including countless all-nighters. 
My first project in architecture school was to design a tower. It was a two-week project and I went, blithely, from an idea in my head to final drawings. What I learned in design school was what to do between that idea in my head and final drawings. I learned how to explore the idea and, to borrow a quote from Brad, to find, rather than invent, a solution. I learned to incorporate research, how to work and rework the form, push it and test it. I learned how to use drawing as an investigative tool rather than solely as a presentation tool. I had to actually learn that and I think it’s truly the most valuable suite of skills I took away from design school. I’ve been able to apply that rigorous investigative work process to other design disciplines outside of architecture.

Specifically, what I did in between an idea and production drawings, when I was an architect, was layers upon layers of plan drawings. The architectural floorplan, by the way, shouldn’t even really exist anymore, given the fully dimensional digital tools we have at our disposal. It’s a legacy representation. (I could do an entire talk about this but don’t want to veer off on too much of a tangent.) I bring it up because the odd abstract qualities of a plan (it’s an impossible horizontal slice of an occupy-able 3-dimensional object) provide the perfect opportunity for the investigation of an idea - an experiential idea. With this one drawing, this singular human-scaled activity, you can visualize and craft an experience through time and space. Like the sphere, I lost myself in that drawing type. The plan.

When I left architecture to move into the digital design world, I struggled with the loss of the plan drawing. It was my single most useful investigative tool. I’ve had to replace the plan with other tools of investigation but that’s a subject for another talk.

In architecture school, like many other art and design students, I worked day and night (mostly night) and I always stayed up all night before my studio reviews.

As I mentioned, I was a good student and a strong designer, but I was a horrible presenter. After my tower project, I came to resent doing production drawings and models because I never wanted to stop working on my projects. I often presented my investigative drawings and models, which went over well with some critics, and less well with others. I had a particularly difficult review in an option studio where a very well-known architect at the time was the guest critic. I will spare you and myself some details, but suffice to say that there were tears. My studio critic and this guest starchitect had some very harsh words to share (in this public forum) about my project and my drawings, which were so light and scaled so small, they were nearly illegible to everyone but me. My model was a messy process model and I had no elevations. I was never good at elevations and I never cared about elevations.

Three years ago, and a good twenty years after that studio review at Harvard, I saw that famous architect in the reception area at Pentagram, where I was now working as a partner. He was waiting to see another one of my partners about a project. I was passing by and introduced myself. When he said, “Nice to meet you,” I mentioned that I had met him years ago while I was a student at Harvard. He looked at me curiously and, completely unprompted, started telling me about a final review he was on years ago with a student who cried during her presentation. He talked about it in an almost epic way, as if he had either never seen anyone cry during a studio review, or as if he had been traumatized himself by the consequences of his critique, and was somehow still working through it, twenty years later. I hesitated for a moment, and then I surprised myself by saying, “I was that student.”

At this point, he looked a me again, now in utter disbelief. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but his reaction said it all. How could that student have become YOU?

I’ll tell you how. I was always then and am always now focused on the quality of the work by my estimation. I still remember and love that project, twenty years later, I still hate doing the equivalent of presentation drawings, but I’ve since learned the importance of communicating the work to people than other than myself. I don’t know that I regret anything I did or didn’t do in architecture school - or have any advice to dispense based on this experience, because I got a great education, but I do acknowledge that my presentation style was both inadvertently disrespectful and a missed opportunity for thoughtful feedback.

I saw Jony Ive, head designer at Apple, give a rare interview at a conference a few years ago. He was sitting in front of a large Apple monitor that was displaying a slide show of products shots. He very simply said, with a gesture like “this” in front of the base of the monitor we’re all so familiar with and probably take for granted – “You have no idea how hard that was.” He was a man of few words in that interview. Introverted or guarding corporate secrets, or both. But that one quiet sentence revealed everything. Both his conviction about his work, and the battle he fought for it - which no doubt was against cost, fabrication challenges, and gravity. He might have given his life for it, from what I saw.

I never saw myself as a fighter, especially in design school. And I still find it hard to believe it about myself now. There still are tears (not typically in public) and it is my nature to avoid conflict. But not where the work is concerned.

And through the fights and battles, I’ve gotten a lot of support, to be sure. Like-minded designers with similar challenges. It also helps that we all stick together.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of difficult stuff to deal with in a design career or as an artist. But that stuff only forces you to do better work because you will only fight for work you believe in.

One of my dearest friends and mentors died recently. Red Burns, who was the founder and director of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program for nearly thirty-five years, still one of the most innovative design and technology programs today. She welcomed the incoming students on the first day of the school year with a list of hopes for her students. They’re worth looking at in full online, but I’ll leave you with a few.

I hope:

That you combine that edgy mixture of self-confidence and doubt

That you make visible what, without you, might never have been seen

That you look for the question, not the solution

That you find what makes the difference

That you think of technology as a verb - not a noun

That each day is magic for you

I hope that you find a friend and mentor as phenomenal to you as Red was to me.

Lastly, I hope you’re the kind of people who take no one’s advice on anything. You listen, like I did, maybe quietly sitting in the back of the room, but you find your sphere moments here as students at PNCA and do work you don’t just believe in, but will fight for. That, at least, is my understanding now of how I got here.

You all made it here and I believe in you. Welcome class of 2017 and good luck!


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