For more than four decades, Terry Irwin, one of this year’s AIGA Medalists, has been a formative figure in design both as a practitioner and educator. A founding partner of the international design firm MetaDesign, Irwin made a major mid-career shift, walking away from a professional life where she worked on big-budget design projects for Apple, Nike, Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard and other global brands to help start a new wave of ecological thinking and sustainability in design.
Irwin is a pioneer of Transition design, an interdisciplinary framework that describes how designers can use their skill sets to address large-scale societal problems like those relating to climate crisis, social inequality, and economic exploitation. As head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, Irwin is educating a new generation of designers on the urgent imperative of using design not merely as a lever for corporate growth, but as a promising instrument for changing our faltering societal systems.
We spoke with Irwin about her career in design, building bridges between the design and sustainability worlds, and about the long view of Transition design.
You really started in graphic design, in the purest sense, even as you did eventually move towards design as a tool for solving broader societal problems.
Terry Irwin: I did; I love typography—I suppose my core expertise was probably information design. That’s what I really love. I’ve worked at ad agencies, but I never got that excited about selling things. At some point after working at Landor Associates for a long time, I just began to see the connection between what we were doing at that lower systems level and what it’s often connected to, which is forwarding a corporation whose ethics and values and practices were connected to some of the biggest wicked problems in the world. I think that kind of revelation for previous generations may have characterized the midlife crisis. It certainly did for me. Encouragingly, I am seeing new generations of students who start asking those questions right at the beginning of their career. And that gives me hope for the planet because if everybody waited until they had a really profound midlife crisis to wake up and connect the dots between what they’re doing at this level of scale, and what it’s connected to at that level of scale, we’re not going to transition to the kind of future we need to transition to.
When you were working at Landor and then MetaDesign were you thinking much about wicked problems? Or did these issues, and their relevance to design, come upon you suddenly?
Irwin: Erik [Spiekermann] (MetaDesign’s founder) has always been an information designer; he will tell you that straight-up. He really likes working on difficult, gnarly problems that involve lots of information, and I do too, as did my former partner Bill Hill. I think of the eventual nine partners in the four offices of MetaDesign, and we all shared that love of information design and helping people navigate around in space.
In the San Francisco office that I co-ran, we had one client that we worked for toward the end of my tenure there that was a dream client in many ways. They just ticked every box: they understood design, they were great to work for, they paid on time. Designers loved the work, they understood photography and understood the marriage of the image and type. After a really big international project was starting, they asked us if we would look at redesigning an aspect of their identity. And at that point I think we had probably 80 people in the office, so you’re going to need to bring $150,000 to $250,000 a year in the door to keep the boat afloat, to pay insurance, to make it a nice place to work. And we found out after we’d begun that project that they wanted us to do it because a whole lot of bad press about their factories in Asia was about to break. So it was the classic: don’t look over there, look over here at this new rebrand, right? And that happens in branding—very often branding is about whitewashing something that’s going on over here.
And we, of course, were really astounded and outraged, and I remember having really deep discussions about that at the company. Should we resign? What should we do? But the reality was, we couldn’t afford to resign it. We had built a machine that needed so much revenue coming through it, it would not accommodate ethics, to put it really bluntly, and that was a real wake up call for me because we just unquestionably kept growing, kept accepting more projects. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have worked for a tobacco company there, and we probably wouldn’t have worked for DuPont, like I had to do when I was at Landor. There was a line. But what that experience taught me was that line was not clear, and it was always moving. I think that was the moment at which I had that epiphany about wicked problems. And I realized practically everything we do, if you really connect the dots, is connected to some sort of wicked problem that ramifies into the social and the environmental spheres—it just does.
That kicked off a pretty intense period of introspection for me. I often say to my students: remember the first time you learn to draw. The teacher is telling you to draw shadows, and you literally can’t see them, And then one day, you see the shadows, and you never don’t see them again.
When you did end up leaving MetaDesign for Schumacher college, what was the response from your peers in design? What was the response to the 2002 AIGA Conference on sustainability that you organized?
Irwin: Mixed. I remember a very old colleague of mine from San Francisco was the president of AIGA at the time, and there were several very notable figures within the AIGA elders now, who were on the board. And they were just livid. They thought it was bullshit. I walked up on a group of them on the first day, and they didn’t know I was behind them and they were like, “Have we already been through this green shit? Why are we wasting our time with this?” I had some really hostile remarks directed at me…. But on the flipside of the coin, I had so many people at that conference come up to me and just say, “This is the best conference I’ve ever been to, it’s blowing my mind.”
Of my colleagues, there was a very strong, supportive group and then there was a cadre of people that just saw it as heresy. Who saw it as, “Well, you weren’t a very good designer anyway so don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And then there were some I think, that were just confused, and many to this day, who just think “Terry Irwin is not even in design anymore.” It hurt a lot at that moment, but now—eh, it’s ok. I think the boundaries of design have blurred so much in the last 20 years.
I don’t think that is about AIGA or design; it’s about the pendulum—having swung so far towards specialism and siloization and fragmentation of knowledge—that it’s naturally swinging back. And it brings up all kinds of fears about the loss of identity or the loss of relevancy, particularly. And I think that is going on in the AIGA right now. Those who are kicking and screaming the loudest about that are people in my generation, and once we’re gone, people of your generation are going to come over, and I think you’re going to be much less boundary-oriented in all kinds of ways. As the white elite leadership dies, all kinds of issues around this kind of thing will go away. But I think right now, it’s hard for fringe dwellers like me to find a space within professional organizations like the AIGA.
It’s great to hear that so many people are eager to engage with Transition design today, being that it is a critical approach to design discourse and theory and it is very much about questioning established ideas and mindsets about how design and industry should work. What do you see the future of Transition design looking like?
We looked around many years ago and said, “You know what, these problems took a really long time to get wicked, and they’re gonna take a really long time to solve.” And yet all of these existing frameworks and methodologies are kind of predicated upon normal project timelines embedded within the dominant economic paradigm, which say, time is money, bring your expertise from other problems to this, do it as fast and profitably as you possibly can and then done and dusted, on to the next one. That’s the antithesis of what is going to be required to solve a complex, wicked problem. You have to stay with it over dozens of decades or longer. So what we first said was, these problems have to be framed within radically large spatio-temporal contexts that include the past: understanding how that problem became wicked over dozens of decades, and how it’s manifesting in the present and who it’s affecting. But why do we ever come up with solutions before we have envisioned what we think those solutions are going to help us transition toward? So the problem context should include the past, the present, and the future.
But the other thing is, outside consultants—like any of us disciplinary experts—are never going to be the ones that will stay with that system. We aren’t going to be the ones to stay with it over that long haul. The people in the system need to be the ones to create the continuity. So our job should be helping to create the conditions for that to happen by bringing resources expertise, and helping to mediate problematic stakeholder relations. Because with any wicked problem, some stakeholders are very adversely affected by it, others could give a fig whether it gets solved or not, and some have a stake in making sure it doesn’t get solved. The National Rifle Association is a huge stakeholder group that never wants to see that problem solved. The Republican Party is increasingly becoming a stakeholder group that does not want to see that problem solved.
So what we can bring is helping to map those uneven power relations, and then work within the system to help develop actors who will stay with it, but also leverage the knowledge from within the system to address the problem. We can’t be the doctor anymore that says, “Shut up, I’m going to ask you questions you’re going to answer and then I’m going to prescribe something for you because I’m all knowing.” Designers act like that—we always do. When you flip that equation, it means that you’re running a relay race in a way, and you’re going to hand the baton off to somebody else, but the thread of continuity has to remain within the system itself.
Read the medalist essay on Terry Irwin here.