Richard Keyes didn’t stay long the first time he took the stage at Art Center’s 2013 Summer commencement ceremony to accept the Great Teacher Award. That’s likely because he knew he’d return shortly in his other capacity, as the event’s keynote speaker. Keyes, who is both an alum (Graphic Design ’87) and beloved faculty member has made a habit of multitasking throughout his career at Art Center, where he straddles five departments — Graduate Industrial Design, Entertainment Design, Photography, Integrated Studies and Art Center at Night. For insight into why he received the highest honor awarded by Art Center students, look no further than the speech itself (posted in its entirety below), which culminates in a moving fable, accompanied by a slideshow of images hand-drawn by student, Katia Grifols, who has been Keyes’ T.A. for three terms.
You have reason to expect a celebrity sending you off into the world today, but you are getting a teacher. Conversely, when I came to Art Center 30 years ago I occasionally expected teachers and got celebrities, so I hope I can redress the balance somewhat. But not before I state how much I have learned from you, quite probably the most impressive student body in the creative world.
A very large chunk of the organization, the references and the insights I can offer in the classroom have been informed and inspired by such wonders as you, seated in front of me now. Students of your caliber take the job out of teaching. And you have taught each other more than teachers like me could ever hope to teach you. You are the value of our institution and the reason for its reputation, and now that I’ve met about 7000 of you in over two decades, I could be convinced that humanity has a chance.
You have enriched my life—what can I add to yours?
Well, I have a story:
Chui Park noticed that the passageway she was barreling down no longer had many exits along its path. There was one doorway left, and the hallway was narrowing towards it. A speaker grill was discernible in the soft light, but no lock and no door handle, and only a clock as a light source. “There’s a speaker,” Chui thought, “Maybe I need a password,” and remembered the incantations she had been drilled with in her last few years. “Concept,” she happily pronounced, but to no effect. “Bauhaus, Entrepreneur,” she continued, but the door remained stoically solid. “Process, Innovate, SWOT, Story,” all had the same lack of effect on the door. “Darn,” she thought, “I paid a lot of money for these.” One last try, “Apple, Tink, Ellsw…,” was interrupted by a red light from the area of the clock. The door’s first sign of life indicated that it was a time locked door, and it should be ready to walk through in about (look at watch) ten minutes.
And right on time the entrance opened to a vaguely familiar world. It was luminous on the other side, birds sang, and she could smell life in the air itself.
“Civilian Life!” she shouted out loud, and as she reacquainted herself to the fresh air, a heartening image appeared in the soft shadows ahead of her. It was a bed, not a futon, a couch or a cot, and it had her name on it. “Life is good,” she thought, as she slipped into dreamland.
After some weeks of sleep she began to recognize herself again, and started thinking of her future not as a nebulous haze of dreams and desires, but as a personal responsibility. It was her future, not the future. Chui realized that the world she had entered was not limitless and that the threshold she had most recently passed through was one of many before her. Each one required a key, although there were many kinds of keys. She chose one door and realized that she already had that key in her possession. The key was the one she had worked more than three years for, and she hoped that this would be one of many doors that it could open in her life. Straight through this new threshold she found herself in an imposing office, face to face with a threatening gatekeeper. The key had done its work, and now it was up to her to overcome the confrontation of this newest threshold.
She got the job, and it came with new threats—clients. She was up to the challenge, and was soon aware that she was growing faster than she had grown for years.
Growing enough to soon forge another key based on experience, money and luck to get her through the formidable passage called “first business license.”
Doors, thresholds accumulated rapidly and she couldn’t try them all in a single lifetime. Keys to doors were soon seen to be not as important as the decisions to choose which door. But the thresholds seemed to have proliferated all around her the further she went, and for each one she forgot how difficult all the previous thresholds were and wondered if she was up to the strain of a mortgage, a marriage, and finally a son. After arriving through the Mom gateway Chui, noticed a variety of other choices disappear, but she expected that. Each choice Chui made restricted her allotment of thresholds, but added a few, too.
She chose Jesse over Daniel and watched with regret as Daniel’s life blossomed without her. Choosing to stop smoking opened some doors for her, choosing to live in a small town closed some.
The first time a client offered her a job she didn’t choose to do, she quoted outrageously too high. But the client said, “okay“ and that door disappeared behind her. She would never charge $65.00 an hour again.
Some choices were mistakes, but she learned from them and became who she was because of them.
Her son was ready to go to college. She walked up to a threshold that wasn’t hers this time, and before her son walked through it, she said to him:
Learn what the world is before you go try to change it. You will learn that “the world” is a large or small set of rules, and you can only affect a few of them at a time if you are lucky. If you were to design a cure for heart disease, people will
- still drive badly, vote for the wrong party and continue to mispronounce your name. The world will still go on, but if you change a second of one person’s life, the world will also never be the same.
- Disagree more often. Question everything. Every encounter you have with ideas, art, or people offers you a chance to check your own convictions, of which you may have too many. You may be surprised that a gentle “I have another idea about that,” might provoke enough conversational grist to leave you with many more ideas about that.
- Step away from the keyboard and try to gather as much information as you can face to face. The hesitations, facial ticks, posture, and vocal inflections of a face to face connection create and nourish empathy, and offer at least as much content as your words do. You cannot develop empathy by typing at people. Face to face contact is not only good for your growth and general social cohesion, but is also the best way to pass on your ideas. The stickiness of change is communicated from eye to eye.
- Encourage civility. This isn’t a call for kindness, or gentleness, both very good ideas in their own right. It is a reminder that you share the crust of this rock with over seven billion other people, each one of whom is convinced that they are at least as important as you are. Acting as a model of the respect you want to be shown can encourage others to do the same.
- You come here wanting to be Craig Mullins, Stefan Sagmeister, Philippe Starck, Victo Ngai, or Alex Prager, but when you leave you are becoming yourself.
Go out and create who you are.