I discovered the field of interpretive planning and design by accident. Interpretation in this sense refers to a kind of storytelling applied to public cultural and natural sites, that is, the story behind the scenery. In fact, I hadn’t realized such a field existed upon graduating from ArtCenter in 1965. But as the playwright Katori Hall states, “Serendipity rewards the prepared.” In retrospect, I credit ArtCenter with preparing me to engage with the unforeseen. I’ll get to that, but here’s how I got there.
Upon graduating from high school as a science wonk intrigued by the orderliness of the material world, I had been awarded a Regents’ scholarship to the University of Michigan. So that’s where I began higher education. After two years however, I had become dissatisfied with the desultory curriculum and immature undergraduate social environment.
As I read the ArtCenter catalog, the prospect of being trained by professionals to produce tangible, useful results that solved problems appealed to me. I applied and was accepted for admission in 1962. I attended classes at 5353 West Third Street where the daytime student body totaled perhaps 700 undergrads. My classmates were men and women who ranged in age from late twenties to early forties. Many were military veterans funded by the GI Bill; many had jobs and families. All were adults who were serious about their opportunity to learn at ArtCenter.
The interior walls of the Third Street campus displayed exemplary work produced by students of immense talent, many of whom would go on to become famous designers, art directors and illustrators. I was both inspired and intimidated. Attending for eight consecutive semesters, I would discover that the ArtCenter learning environment challenged students (and faculty) to strive to perform beyond their best, yet to remain humble, knowing that there was always room for improvement. High praise from packaging instructor Mary Sheridan--a titan in her field--was, “Not bad.”
ArtCenter provided a broad spectrum of problem-solving courses. In addition to core courses in product design, I studied lettering, illustration, packaging, and exhibit design. I worked hard and did well enough to be awarded a General Motors product design scholarship that funded tuition for five semesters. I graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Professional Arts in Product Design.
Post-graduation, I joined a small team at a design office in Glendale designing an interpretive exhibit for Standard Oil. Through this experience, I realized that I had a knack for communicating stories utilizing available objects, images, typography, and space.
In 1966, I was hired by General Motors in Detroit as a product designer. At the time, the country was very much in the throes of the Vietnam War, utterly consumed by racial, political, and social tension.
After working a year at GM and anticipating being drafted into combat in the jungles of Vietnam, I enlisted in Officer Candidate School and became a Deck Officer in the United States Navy. I was assigned to active duty aboard a 500-foot long amphibious ship, where over the course of 37 months, I was promoted to the rank of full Lieutenant and to positions as Department Head overseeing three divisions, Navigator, and Legal Officer. Performing these duties for which I hadn’t any previous experience, with people representing a very broad cross-section of the U.S. population whom I otherwise never would have gotten to know, I learned the importance of adaptive management, teamwork, and drawing the best from others toward common goals.
Nonetheless with design fire in my belly kindled by ArtCenter that had not been quenched by military service, I was able to take occasional leave from active duty in the Navy to do freelance gigs with a start-up design consultancy named Unimark International in their Detroit and New York City offices.
Upon being honorably discharged in 1969, I hitchhiked from JFK International Airport with my portfolio and a business suit to look for a job. I interviewed at 40 offices from New York to Chicago to Washington, DC. Unimark International/Chicago hired me and I was able to work in an environment that practiced values--emphasizing simplicity and design systems--with which I resonated. Projects included product design, sales exhibits, retail interiors, and signage.
In 1972, the National Park Service offered me a position at their Interpretive Design Center outside of Washington, DC, where I worked subsequently for the next 16 years. The privilege of telling the stories of America’s great parks to visiting families--educating fellow Americans about our country’s history and culture, and the natural world we all inhabit--remains a highlight of my career.
Since then I have run my own consultancy and managed creative teams to interpret stories of public institutions, including the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, White House, Pentagon, National Institutes of Health, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Geological Survey. Receiving professional awards for my designs and illustrations affirmed the quality of my work. Earning a Master’s degree from Harvard improved my writing. Through it all, I have found that working in collaborative teams leverages the best of individuals’ talents toward effective outcomes for the benefit of the public.
BS 65 Product Design ACCD; ALM ’18 Harvard
National Museum Curator, U.S. Geological Survey