Back to school for inspired guidance

Sometimes it's salutary to go back to school. At least that's what it felt like - in the best possible way - in Wellington last Friday.

We were at the Michael Fowler Centre for the graduation ceremony of Massey University's Wellington campus College of Creative Arts.

The speaker was Mark Pennington, a New Zealand industrial designer, and Fulbright scholar, who has enjoyed an illustrious career in New Zealand and abroad, winning many top awards for his design work as well as for consultancy in many of the leading design companies in the United Kingdom, Holland and the United States.

He was speaking to an audience of graduands across a range of design and creative disciplines: fashion, textile, industrial, graphics, digital media, advertising, and it was inspiring to eavesdrop, for Mr Pennington's message to the young, emerging from their years of study and into a new and rapidly changing world, had equal relevance for the rest of us.

For it seems, just now, that pessimism has become newly fashionable. It is the new black. In a country clutching at vessels the half-empty brigade in on the ascendant and the half-full on the run.

The global meltdown, the recession, the way the world is changing, the economy, the housing market, the sea of debt . . . woe, woe, woe! A wet blanket of introspective negativity seems to have settled over the nation.

So it was refreshing to hear Mr Pennington telling the graduating students - still too young to have absorbed the "adult" zeitgeist - that the seismic disturbances affecting the world's economic culture, and much else, represented a challenge and an opportunity.

The country, and indeed the world, needed creative thinkers as it sought to reinvent itself. It needed their energy, their positivity, their vision and their ability to confront problems old and new with fresh energy and insight.

And his prescription - based on his own years of experience - for the best results in life and in work rested on five essential factors.

The first he said was self-belief. And when you look at the work and ideas produced by the assembled graduands - documented in catalogues and seen in exhibitions - they evidently have it in spades.

It has yet to be knocked out of them; yet to be dampened down by that wet blanket. When they look at the glass it is still very much half-full. And there is little of the apparent "cringe" that belittles self-belief and drains self-confidence.

It wasn't until he travelled and went to work with some of the big names in world design that Mr Pennington himself began to gain the confidence that insisted, he, we, our designers, are or could be just as good as anyone else.

Our thinkers, and other creatives, too. Shuck off the legacy of the tall poppy, ignore the knockers and the blockers, the pooh-poohers and the can't-be-dones. Believe in yourself, he advised.

Aim for the impossible goal, stretch yourselves, and don't settle for less, was another of his messages - underlined later in the Chancellor's vote of thanks by the line, "Do not strive for mediocrity - there is too much competition!"

We need our thinkers, our creative people not to be constrained by what many are conditioned to imagine as the limits of the possible.

He also said that integrity was essential; that straight talking, straight dealing and plain old-fashioned honesty delivered its own rewards.

He spoke of the virtues and values of teamwork. One person might come up with an idea, but it usually required a team to bring it to fruition - or, more appositely, that several brains focused on a problem, or an issue, are likely to arrive at durable solutions much sooner than one person alone.

And last but not least his message was to have fun.

Fun, of course, is the antithesis of misery. You can't think your way out of a paper bag when your thought patterns and emotional responses are bogged down in a mucus of self-doubt and negativity.

Fun is the perfect antidote. It brings the sun into the psychic gloom.

Mr Pennington's address was brief, concise, and plain. There was no high-blown oratory, just a few heartfelt, lived-in words of advice for the young designers assembled before him.

I did not take notes, and my impressionistic account doubtless embellishes and takes liberties. But I think I have captured the gist of it.

In these troubled, gloomy times, and in this sometimes depressive southern city, its essence seemed worth passing on.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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