Design is Human
Words: Hank Richardson. Photography courtesy of Portfolio Center

I got punk'd

At a recent university commencement ceremony, Dr. Vaughn Tipton delivered a most amazing benediction: “Bless us with foolishness to do what others claim cannot be done.” Creative education requires such foolishness. I was reminded of this in a most unusual way not so long ago, upon flying back into Atlanta after being out of town for several days.

Whenever I’m in an airport, even on the best of days, chaos is king. This particular day was no different. I got off the plane, hustled to catch the train to baggage, walked the odyssey to find my car, idled in the line to pay for parking, then sat in bumper to bumper traffic back to the city. Of course, I stopped off at Starbucks on the way to the school, so once I got there, I was balancing my venti latte and laptop bag in one hand and trying to unlock the door with the other, all the while thinking of my infinite to-do list.

That was the scenario playing out as I entered my office and was surprised to find it covered in sticky notes. Little yellow squares of paper everywhere—on every surface: the many bookshelves, the walls, my desk and chair, the picture frames, the happy-meal toys I’ve collected forever. I’d been punk’d. Royally.

Hank Richardson

Each note had written on it one of hun- dreds of quotes I’ve repeated to students over the 30 years I’ve taught. Words that have inspired me personally, words I like to share—and do, more often than they’d like. I was shocked by the sight, and then I was impressed—by the thought and planning and downright sneakiness involved in pulling off such a stunt. I wondered, “Who? And why?” And, also, “Was I giving the students enough work?” Apparently, someone had too much spare time.

Once I discovered the identity of the prankster, I was shocked all over again. She was the most reserved, most unassuming person in the school— the last person I’d have ever suspected. What struck me most, though, was this: She had been listening. All those mornings, sitting silently at the table among the class clowns and the hotdogs, a Moleskin notebook open in front of her. I was always worried that she might have fallen asleep or might be feeling overwhelmed. But no, it turns out she was listening, taking it all in, filing the information away, and— evidently—creating her master plan.

Sometimes we get into our little routines, whether we’re educators or designers or artists, and we forget that every time we meet someone or see someone again, and every time we create a design, a website or an app, an ad, or an image–it is an opportunity. We forget that what we say and do matters, that it can influence and inspire. And those opportunities are important, so we should be mindful not to let them simply pass us by.

Someone is paying attention, making notes, perhaps hatching a plan. Always be aware of that. We all have 8,165 hours every year. I try to use my own time by leading through a sense of imagination. It’s up to each of us to find our own significance in the world, to find something to dedicate ourselves to that’s bigger than we are. For me, it’s educating future designers and creative people who will connect experiences and change this world on their terms.

There’s an old saw that reminds us,“You can count the seeds in the apple, but can you count the apples in the seeds?” I love teaching for its capacity to produce endless fruit. For those young designers I teach, their significance could be creative entrepreneurship, having insight and intuition to solve problems. For you, it could be something totally different.
Our days should be a celebration of different inspirations— 365 days a year of paying attention to the extraordinary within the ordinary things in our lives, which are usually the things that drive what we do and who we become. For example, by trade, designers and creative people are makers of things. Unfortunately, we often get into ruts and create these things by rote. We forget to think differently, to think stupid. We stop taking risks and trying to learn. We lose sight of the fact that people are watching and that they’re looking for permission to take risks too.

Make it a goal to create something every day. Make something special, even if it’s just your breakfast. Homemade Banana bread instead of Cornflakes. Tell stories, those little events that equal changes in our lives, and ask others about theirs. Make everything personal. Because if your work becomes an extension of who you are—if your work houses your passion—all those hours and minutes will fly.


When I walked into MY office on that ‘sticky-note’ morning, I was taken aback. I was a little shaken even. That’s what hap- pens when we encounter the unexpected. But I was changed by the experience.

It felt creative and I loved it. And the student who played the trick on me— who took advantage of the opportunity of my absence, who managed to get access to my office and enter my room without getting caught? She surprised herself with her own courage and wit.

Creativity leaves clues and sometimes they look like ‘sticky-notes. Find a way to surprise yourself today.