Fellow Awards 2009 Interview: Leslie Becker
Most folks are familiar with the old proverb, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Well, Leslie Becker (designer, writer, scholar, professor, and recipient of the AIGA SF 2009 Fellow Award) is one giant exception to that rule. This extraordinary California College of the Arts (CCA) design educator has accomplished more in her lifetime, than most people dream of achieving in their entire lives.

Her professional bio is available online.

But if you’re craving to go beyond just the surface, (as Leslie has throughout her remarkable career), then follow interviewer/designer Stephanie Orma as she digs deeper, goes beneath the surface and discovers what it takes to follow your dreams. With a career built on talent, determination, hard work, and driving curiosity, Leslie Becker shares her personal thoughts, experiences, and reflections on her life in design, thus far.

Orma: With such a successful career working on projects ranging from graphic design, interior design, custom furniture, writing and teaching to completing a second degree and a Ph.D., plus running a marathon (at the age of 50 to boot!) what achievement are you most proud of? And why?

Leslie: Although I needed to complete a marathon because “it was there,” I couldn’t imagine going to my grave without having done one. I know this makes no sense, but I come from a competitive family. I might say that having finished my Ph.D. is what I am most proud of, but this is probably because it is the most recent achievement and definitely was a kind of boot camp that lasted for 5.5 years! I am also delighted to receive communications from former students who thank me years after having been in my class for something I imparted to them. Personally, I am most proud of my two sons because I find them to be good people. They have been living their lives according to values that I respect. (I realize that this is immensely self-congratulatory.)

Orma: In terms of your career and all the eclectic projects you’ve worked on over the years, can you pinpoint one or two that really stand out as favorites?

Leslie: I really enjoyed a lighting project that I did many years ago. It was extremely experimental and, though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, was actually based upon the form of a military parafoil kite. Years later, I realized that I had just finished a kite catalog when I began the lighting project. This particular client would look at a rough sketch and enthusiastically encourage me to have it made. I would then go back to the office and deal with the space between fantastical idea and fabrication.

Another significant project was the Wooden Synagogue project. It was a series of print pieces designed to raise funds to rebuild a replica in Berkeley of a wooden synagogue that had been destroyed by the Nazis. Even the discussions around my choice of Fraktur [typeface] were really emotional.

Orma: It’s tough to be a beginner and learn a new discipline. The steps from newbie to mastery are not easy and entail much sweat, angst, and hard work. To take on and accomplish all you have accomplished (and do it well) seriously requires a positive can-do attitude. Can you share more about how you personally approach each new challenge? (i.e. your process, thinking, etc.)

Leslie: I suppose the advice of the medically vetted diet gurus applies here: there is no magic bullet. You can’t do everything well because life is just too short for that. One could be a serialist, however, if one has mastered some thing because the ability to master is a transferable piece of knowledge—not in content—but in terms of what sort of diligence is required for mastery. If you think about having chosen graphic design as a career, everything is on the surface. In other words, much of our [design] work is ephemera and doesn’t require significant research. It is, and then it is gone. We move quickly from one project to another. Perhaps this is a metaphor for impatience. I chose to leave architecture at age 19 because it just took too long.

I am more careful now about identifying a challenge and estimating what it will take to develop a degree of mastery. This process gets easier over time.

Orma: In your own opinion, what’s the key to being involved in so many things and doing them well? In other words, what’s the secret to being great at all of it and not just a so-so dabbler?

Leslie: Focus. When AIGA (perhaps at the New Orleans conference years ago) began to talk about ethics, I started to ask some serious questions about how well informed (as designers) we were on the subject. I emailed Randy Cohen, the ethicist at The New York Times, who writes a weekly column for the Sunday magazine (and also, if I remember correctly, is an Art Center graduate). Randy suggested that I start with editor Peter Singer’s volume on ethics. One summer, I committed to reading one essay per day until I finished the rather long text. At that point, I understood that the “knowledge” that design practitioners have of ethics is probably nothing more than that of the general population: a sense of morality that is the residue of a Judeo-Christian culture. I needed to know more about how we form ethical decisions and learned quickly that I would need to commit considerable time to this.

I hardly consider myself more than a “dabbler” in many of the things I do.

Orma: Let’s go back to the beginning of your career: You worked at a NY design firm, then moved to the Bay Area and started your own practice. Did you have any contacts in SF? How did you go about building your practice? Was it a struggle at first?

Leslie: I had no contacts in SF. In New York in the early 1970s, the only San Francisco firm that was on the radar was Landor. I had an interview there and when they looked at my work they said (paraphrasing), “Oh, you’re really a designer. You should call Harry Murphy.” I went to see Harry (who was working on the original Gap stores, the San Francisco Museum, etc.) and he hired me but said I wouldn’t start for three months. That was probably one of the best times in my life because I knew that I had a job waiting for me, but could explore the Bay Area.

I worked for Harry for a little over a year (much of that time pregnant with my first son). I made a business card for myself and would keep my eyes open for work. One of the first clients I had was the kite company in Ghirardelli Square. I was walking around during lunch and saw a crude sign. When I went into the store to suggest to the owner that he needed a sign, he admitted that the Ghirardelli Association was after him to get a “real” sign. That was the beginning. If there is one thing that young designers must know, it is that working double time for a while is not uncommon. You keep your day job and the time surrounding it becomes filled with meetings and design work until you can survive on your own. There was definitely a time in which I had little sleep. However, it is important to work for a good firm at the beginning so you are exposed to people committed to high quality design, you get a sense of how to run things, and you learn who are the fine suppliers.

Orma: At Copper Union, you studied design and architecture, but when you started your design practice you also offered copywriting. Where did you learn these skills? Did you teach yourself?

Leslie: I studied architecture for two years and design for three. I never wrote much of anything for my clients at the beginning. The writing came much later—in the 1980s. When I decided that I wanted to write more, I realized that the only way to become a better writer was to travel through its center. For one year, every morning, I wrote for about an hour. Sometimes the essays were personal. Other times they were observations regarding design, culture, or whatever else I awakened with. I would arise at 6 am every day and told my husband not to speak to me until I wrote. There is no way around writing. There is only writing.

Orma: Many designers find it quite challenging making the transition designing for the 2-dimensional to the 3-dimensional arena. But you’ve successfully (and beautifully) made this shift designing graphics, furniture, lighting and interiors. Did you learn these skills when you were studying architecture at Copper Union?

Leslie: I spent much of my time in architecture drawing details at full scale and making things in the shops at Cooper Union. I am convinced that this was the source of my interest in materials and furniture. I am very interested in 4D now—especially films. It is one of the areas in which I look forward to “dabbling.” The technology makes it so easy and I am curious to see what I would bring to a film. I assume it will take time to overcome sentimentality, but that wouldn’t prevent me from pursuing it. It might be a good way to bring my interests in image and writing together.

Orma: How important do you think it is for designers to know how to write/communicate through the written word?

Leslie: I don’t assume that it is central/essential to every designer. I tend to resist generalizations that include “ought.” In an ideal world, it would be nice for designers to master the written and spoken word. However, not everyone is interested in verbal communications. I am greatly appreciative of someone who is not a great verbal communicator but can lift me ten feet off the ground with some exquisite building, artifact, or image. For me, the distribution of different aptitudes is the source of dynamism within communities even though the exchanges may be challenging.

Orma: According to one source, “Leslie expects students not only to design their projects, but also to develop content and generate the copy and images.” I think this is excellent! Do you still require this? From a personal standpoint, when I was in design school taking a typography/book design class, the instructor just had us take the text from any random book (that was within our concept) and plop it into the layout. I found it incredibly challenging to design layouts that had no real relation to the copy; a burden rather than a time-saver. Can you speak more on this subject of having students create their own content?

Leslie: There is a significant difference between how students actually accesses typography today in comparison with when I was in school. We used dummy type because of economic constraints that no longer apply. The current student might feel overwhelmed with research, content development, and design of a project, but the experience of initiating and developing a project fully is a much more profound educational experience. It helps to initiate multiple critical voices—of the idea, the content, and the appearance.

Orma: How (if any) has writing informed your own creative work?

Leslie: I don’t know if it has. I have learned to be a bit more careful about researching which is certainly a part of the creative process.

Orma: It’s so incredibly impressive that you went back to school. What inspired this decision? How (if any) has being a student again influenced and informed your teaching method/style/approach?

Leslie: I needed to investigate ethics in a profoundly rigorous way. Because I have a sense of duty, I knew that if I placed myself in a situation in which I had expectations placed upon me, I would work to fulfill them. I knew myself well enough to know that I would not have carved out the time to explore the subject rigorously on my own. (I would have watched TV.) Also, there is no substitution for being in a graduate school with a bunch of really smart people. It’s fantastic!

I also believe that one of the most important attributes of being an educator is not to lose sight of what it feels like not to know. For me, being a student on a fairly regular basis (my M.A. in the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley in the 1990s and my recent Ph.D.) has become my way of remembering the not knowing. It has also helped me to rid myself of the embarrassment of asking questions even when I think the answers may be obvious to everyone else. I have no educational shame and I think this is an important lesson for anyone who teaches. The only way to learn is to admit/submit to not knowing.

Orma: Did your recent Ph.D. in the architecture department at U.C. Berkeley focus on the technical or the theoretical? In other words, can we expect to see a Leslie Becker Building any time soon?

Leslie: My Ph.D. is in the area of theory and methods. I don’t think I have any buildings in me. Architecture has a long and scholarly history in the area of methods and theory, and it is a useful one for many areas of design.

Orma: You have definitely contributed to enhancing the education of the designer. What (if anything) do you feel is still lacking / could be improved in design education?

Leslie: It is difficult to generalize about “design education.” Every institution has its own pedagogy and pedagogical history. However, I am concerned that design education is veering away from the visceral delight attached to the artifact as a response to the pedagogical panic surrounding design and business/ design and innovation. I know that I have an actual physical response to exquisitely designed objects (books, chairs, buildings, etc.) and I am quite disinterested in (and perhaps even repelled by) over-used and under-thought words like “green” and “innovation” that pepper marketing literature. How can we find our own voices if we constantly borrow the voices of others? I still think that what is distinctive about design is the ability to craft an idea and artifact that absolutely takes your breath away.

Design education needs to refocus on passion and how the passion is manifest in a responsible way. We need to ask what it means to be educated as a designer. Successes will follow.

Orma: What career other than ones you have already tackled, would you like to attempt?

Leslie: I just want to write more. I always wanted to be a commercial pilot, but my eyes weren’t good enough. Ironic, isn’t it, that I became a designer?

Orma: Your career and achievements are an inspiration to all of us. Who/what has been your personal inspiration?

Leslie: I suppose my reflections on my mother’s rather short and probably less-than-satisfying life has inspired me to take educated risks. She was very smart and at times I feel that I am living the life she not only would have wanted for me, but that she would have wanted for herself. My father’s comment, early on, that “girls don’t need to be educated” no doubt has been a motivator (if not a specific inspiration). I had an elbows-akimbo “oh-yeah, I’ll show you” relationship with my Dad. I guess I showed him!

Orma: Who has been your professional inspiration?

Leslie: One of my professors at Cooper Union, Hannes Beckmann, who taught me 2-D was an extraordinary influence. He was thoughtful, elegant, patient, and demanding. He taught me that high expectations are a form of flattery and, more importantly, that people are more important than things.

You all know Michael Vanderbyl’s work— an extraordinary designer across many disciplines. He is also an inspiration as a colleague—loyal and supportive. When my house and office burned in the Oakland Hills fire, Michael called immediately and offered me space in his office. But he is an exquisitely gifted teacher who lives the lessons I learned at Cooper about high expectations being a gift to students.

Orma: Looking back at your long and successful career, how would you answer this question: If I knew then what I know, I would…

Leslie: …live my life the way I have lived it. I really have no regrets for anything that has been within my control. It is useless to wish for anything that is outside of one’s own control.

If you concentrate on what you can do, there is an unimaginable fullness to life. It is also good to accept what is knowable at any stage of one’s life. I suppose that what I really would have liked to know earlier is to have had the wisdom to distinguish between what was within my control and what wasn’t.

Orma: What’s next for Leslie Becker?

Leslie: A new grandchild! More focus on writing (specifically a text on design and ethics followed by a text on the forgotten design/West Coast). I have half-seriously challenged my kids to train for a base-camp climb of Everest, but they reject the idea and think I’m crazy. I wouldn’t do it alone—Tengboche Monastery would be a nice stop— but I have no takers in the family. I am thinking about my next decade birthday and what the goal will be. I leave these thoughts at the periphery of my consciousness but never wholly abandon them. I like the idea of dramatically marking decade birthdays with major commitments (alternating physical/cerebral). I am not sure from where this voice derives, but it seems to be getting more difficult to tame as I get older.

Orma: And finally, what career advice do you have for new design graduates just beginning their careers?

Leslie: Trust your gut. Decide what is important to you and make time for it. Situate your decisions. Daydream, but avoid excessive aimlessness: it leads to regret. Keep learning. Don’t listen to old folks like me.


Stephanie Orma is a San Francisco copywriter, graphic designer, and illustrator. She’s principal and creative director of Orma Design, as well as the clever greeting card company She’s SO Creative. She writes on graphic design, branding, and creativity for the SF Examiner.