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Q&A with SVA’s Mark Randall, 2017 AIGA Medalist

The popularity and potential of socially-minded design—paramount to which is the idea that radical changes in everything from healthcare to education to gender inequality can be brought about through creative, rigorous design practices—is well-established now at SVA and in the greater design world. But such prevalence and progress do not come out of nowhere; much is in large part due to the longtime work of faculty member Mark Randall, a recipient of this year’s American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal and Corporate Leadership Award.

Randall, an ardent, lifelong environmentalist, saw the capacity for social change through design before it was quite a thing, and began by rallying and asking questions of his own creative community as to how they could be more impactful. At work as a graphic designer since the late ‘80s, Randall co-founded Worldstudio in 1995, known for its big name clients, like Adobe and the Met Opera, as well as its scholarship support of minority artists and those whose work includes a social agenda. With Steven Heller, co-chair MFA Design Department, Randall created SVA’s Impact! Design for Social Change in 2010, an annual summer program that shows participants how to develop and implement their own socially-minded projects; this year’s session, still led by Randall, is currently accepting applications.

Every year, AIGA honors a handful of top designers for their role as acclaimed practitioners and leaders. The medal—the most distinguished in the field—recognizes Randall’s overall social commitment and his “singular dedication to diversity in design, and his tenacity in funding minority and economically disadvantaged design students.” I spoke with him about the award and his impressive career.

What initially sparked your interest in design? Was the social impact aspect something you consciously thought about back then?

I went to college to study music; I played the French Horn and I had this vague idea that I wanted to be a music teacher. After a year, I realized that while I enjoyed music I did not want it to be my career. I had no idea about what to do so I would flip thru the course catalog and take electives that looked interesting to me ranging from forestry to museum studies to anthropology. Eventually I took a class called “Intro to Design”; the teacher was very encouraging and as it turned out the school had a rigorous and highly regarded design program.

I trace my interest in social issues to two things: Star Trek and hikes my family would take in the mountains of Washington State. I was a big science fiction fan and along with the cool spaceships and aliens I loved how Star Trek was a metaphor for the issues of the day. The first interracial kiss on network TV was between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura. Family camping excursions gave me an appreciation of the natural world and underscored our need to be good stewards of the earth.

What have you seen change in the design field, over time or as of late?

Within the last eight to 10 years there has been a concentrated surge of interest in how design can tackle tough social issues. Schools across the country are embedding it into their curriculum more than ever. Creative professionals are developing ways to engage with corporations and non-profit organizations to execute socially-minded work. The next step is to understand the impact that design has on social issues, to be able to articulate how it can best be leveraged to maximize impact. My hope that in the long run we will develop sustainable ways in which to work with a range of organizations towards the common goal of making the world a better place. It’s an exciting time as the definition of what design can be is expanding.

What does this recognition from the AIGA mean to you?

When we started Worldstudio in the mid-‘90s it was out of a desire to mix the daily activities of a creative studio with a social mission. Back then, we were often referred to as those “do-gooders” over at Worldstudio—it always felt slightly dismissive. We never did any of our work for recognition, it was always with a sense of purpose and our desire to want to give back in some way. It was difficult, financially challenging and at times discouraging. After all these years the work we have done has garnered some attention and to receive the AIGA Medal, the industry’s highest honor, is something I never would have imagined.

Is there a project or area that you haven’t worked in before but would like to in the future? Either a dream venture or a new challenge?

As offbeat as this may sound, someday I’d love to have an ice cream business—or a bakery. I’d like to bring all of my creative and entrepreneurial skills to bear on developing a business that leverages the power of design while incorporating a social mission in an innovative way.

Do you have any advice for aspiring design students?

Everyone always says to follow your passion. Passion grows over time. To find it you have to explore and follow your interests. I thought my passion was music, which was not the case. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I started exploring. Serendipity with purpose is how I like to think of it. You know you want something but you don’t know what it is—you have to go hunting for it. Cultivating curiosity in the world will give you the tools to explore; waiting around for something to happen won’t.

Randall and the other awardees will be formally fêted April 21 at the 2017 AIGA Awards Gala. He joins the ranks of past medalists and fellow SVA faculty members Paolo Antonelli, Ken Carbone, Ivan Chermayeff, Stephen Doyle, Louise Fili, Tom Geismar, Milton Glaser, Cheryl Heller, Steven Heller, Paul Rand, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister, as well as SVA’s late founder and Chairman, Silas H. Rhodes.

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