What is the value of a design education today?

r. michael hendrix
5 min readAug 3, 2023

On May 19, 2023, I had the honor of giving the commencement speech to the graduating class of the College of Architecture and Design at my alma mater, the University of Tennessee. Here is the transcript.

a photo of R. Michael Hendrix, standing at the podium in cap and gown

I arrived in Knoxville in 1990 as an analog creature. Four years later I left digitally transformed. In that time CDs overtook the sales of cassette tapes. The internet and email were launched. And the graphic design program itself changed too.

The first two years were about learning the craft by hand. Pen and ink. Type burnishing. Masking images with something called Rubylith. In my junior year we were introduced to a computer lab transferring our analog skills to a new digital craft. Learning about bitmap resolution and thermal transfers and floppy disks.

What I didn’t realize at the time, to paraphrase Marc Andreesen, was that software was eating the world. In the graphic design industry jobs were disappearing like today’s glaciers (sorry). These were the last years of typesetters, mechanical artists, photo converters and retouchers, and I was sitting at my newly acquired computer unaware that it—or that I — was eating all those jobs.

I was equally unaware of the new jobs that were being born. Jobs like “web designer” or “game designer” or the short-lived “multimedia kiosk designer.”

The desktop publishing revolution and the internet fundamentally changed the way society communicates. Since then we’ve built upon those fundamentals with the proliferation of mobile apps that have unlocked new services and streaming media on demand, changing our entertainment landscape. Today we’re in a similar disruptive moment for the creative professions.

This new generational disrupter is consumer access to artificial intelligence, or AI. This is bigger than desktop publishing. It’s bigger than the revolution of the iPhone, which by the way put our calendar, mailbox, desktop computer, maps, radio, photo albums, television, musical instruments, drawing boards and more all into our pockets.

AI is changing all of this. And it’s creating new jobs as it destroys old ones.

I’ll jump to the front of the line to express my own anxiety about AI. I truly believe it is revolutionary and in the wrong hands can be destructive. But I also believe in AI as a new, essential creative tool. And so that’s the tension we’re going to live with. We’ve created a tool that can take the best of everything we’ve done, scrape it into a soup and deliver it back to us in a blink. On any topic. With any photo. With any video.

As a creator, this can be really helpful. And it can be a threat. You can write essays in seconds. You can illustrate concepts in minutes. And as part of your creative process it’s a jumpstart from a newly set base line. All human knowledge in the digital sphere is now the most basic of ideas.

Surely there will be many consumers that find this satisfactory. They will write their dating profiles and final essays with it. They will create expressive bio photos, and illustrate their newsletters.

But what about you, the newly graduated creative professionals? What relevance will you have now? Will you become the typesetters and mechanical artists of my era? Or will you become something new?

Now let’s talk briefly about the value of a creative education. You have learned fundamental craft skills. You have learned fundamental design skills. You have also learned fundamental ways to think critically and innovatively. And as you go forward, you will see that those thinking skills are going to be your most essential skills to stay ahead of technology’s march, or at least to help you dance with it.

AI will commodify our crafts. But it cannot invent something truly new yet. It is only returning to us what we give it. To do things that are truly innovative in the world, we have to turn to you, with your creative, critical minds that are working in the big open space of nothing. Your creative minds that are problem solving for problems that are yet to be created.

I’m from here… East Tennessee. I grew up in Johnson City. Went to college in Knoxville. I spent the first 15 years of my professional career in Chattanooga. I know something about this place. And I think we need to be honest about it.

Tennessee is far from the heartbeat of entertainment in LA, business in NY, manufacturing in Chicago. It’s far from technology in San Francisco and cultural influence of Miami. What we have here, is what we’ve made for ourselves. We have a character created from the ingenuity required to do it ourselves, make our own fun, fix what’s broken, try new solutions. This is called creative problem solving. It’s what I heard John Maeda once call critical making. And I think it’s a valuable asset to getting an education here.

I’m not downplaying all the significant technological resources, accomplished professors and new ideas that have come from UT. I just want to remind you that those are things all schools strive for. What we have is deeper than that, and in fact, it’s a character and a mindset that makes all those things better.

So who will be the next designers and creators that think and make critically? Using these new technologies, including AI, to solve problems big and small, to create new-to-the world experiences, to delight and surprise us? It will be you, class of 2023. It is you.

I didn’t graduate from UT thinking I’d become a leader in one of my era’s most renowned design firms. I left thinking about where I was going to work, get married and live. It was pretty basic. But there was one thing that remained true. I had a fire in me to be a designer and an insatiable desire to create and explore. I had my DIY Tennessee character fueling my higher education knowledge and my new creative skills. And that fire has burned hot throughout my career.

Now I’m going to share a cliche that you’ve heard many times before: “Don’t let your education end today.” Here is why—if you find success in the future it will be because of your commitment to continued learning, to curiosity and to responding to the world with your imagination. The underpinning of AI is that it is always learning. That is a human trait that we have given it and a trait that we must continue to value and pursue ourselves.

You’re going into the unknown. Technology is eating old opportunities and building new ones, but your creativity is your future. You’ve invested in it. You’ve worked hard to develop it, and now you get to apply it. You are best equipped for this new era.

I congratulate you for sticking with it. And I know your grit, commitment, ingenuity and creativity will take you far in this world, a world you will design.

View and listen to the speech here.

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r. michael hendrix

Author @public_affairs, Professor on pause @BerkleeCollege, Boston experimental musician @rm_hendrix, former @IDEO partner