My advice to students & graduates

The Principal of my old High School asked me to address the entire school on its annual graduation day.

I’ve presented in front of Prime Ministers, Powerful Sheikhs & Billionaires, but the idea of trying to keep 1000 teenage boys interested was actually quite intimidating. Anyway, it seemed to go down well, and here is the talk:

“Well the last time I was on this stage it was 1999, literally the last century. It was the final assembly and I was the guitar player in the school band. Instead of playing the school song as the principal walked down, we played Darth Vader’s Imperial March. Everyone went completely silent, waiting for the Sith Lord to reprimand us. Luckily however, our principal was really cool, and it went down well. In fact, most of my memories here at Sydney Tech are really good ones.

For about the last ten years or more I’ve been running a design studio, working on projects for a really interesting mix of people all over the planet. I have a cool team around me and each day brings a variety of creative challenges. We help people and companies develop their ideas into brands, which involves lots of thinking, brainstorming and graphic design for things like apps and social media campaigns. It’s worth noting that in 1999, there were really no such things as apps or social media. So if you add 15 years from now, I can hardly imagine what kinds of cool stuff you guys could be working on.

I consider myself really fortunate to be in this position, so let me take you back on the journey of where it all started. My art teacher in years 11 & 12 was Mrs Wright who was able to inspire and guide our class to produce some really great work. In her classes I developed an appreciation for the great masters, classics and contemporary work, many of which I still love today.

Amazingly, the art department had the foresight to see potential in digital art and they invested in an Blue G3 Mac with an A2 printer – which was almost unheard of back then. I loved this computer, and I remember long hours getting to grips with Photoshop while having the freedom to experiment with tools and techniques that would serve me well for years, into university and into my professional design career. There were no YouTube tutorials to follow, there was no YouTube, it was just explore and try stuff out. I did enjoy and still enjoy the interplay of technology and visual art and the creative potential it unlocks.

And while I’ve created digital artworks that now hang in fancy galleries and collections, the very first series I did was created right here in the art barn with Mrs Wright. I noticed earlier today that my series is still actually hanging on these walls in the Principals office after all these years. So I’m very grateful to her and all the creative teachers at tech who gave students like me our foundations, but also the freedom to explore and learn ourselves. But it’s definitely time to change that artwork in the Principals office!

My other favourite subject was called Design & Technology. My teacher in Years 11 & 12 was Mr Riley and also he also gave our class opportunities to think about innovation and broad aspects of design. Of course I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but those subjects also laid great foundations and taught us fundamentals that are timeless in Design. Learning about project briefs, research, developing concepts and the importance of impressive presentation really kickstarted an interest in professional design. Taking a brief and trying to solve that problem creatively, and trying to produce something that benefitted people in the world directly, it just seemed so much more fun and exciting to me than anything else, especially algebra and physics.

If you think about it, every man-made thing around you is just an idea that someone has acted upon, involving some aspect of design at some point. That chair you’re sitting on, the shoes you’re wearing, the icons on your devices, the graphic interface on your favourite games. Even if you aren’t interested in becoming a designer, having a basic understanding for design thinking and critiquing visual elements in your everyday life will help you a lot, whatever you end up doing. We’re surrounded by advertising and marketing, with over 5000 messages per day, 25,000 new products launched at us each year and 40,000 brands in an average supermarket. If you can understand how and why that works, you can unlock some very powerful tools to use for yourself and your own ideas.

My Year 12 HSC design project was called ‘Gizmonet’ – which was a system and website I’d created to help younger kids learn how to use the Internet, with a little character called Gizmo. It wasn’t like now when toddlers just pick up iPads and go, lots of people still didn’t understand the Internet back then. In fact, in one of the lessons, I introduced kids to using Google which came out just the year before. If only I’d taught them (or myself) how to invest in Google shares, we’d all be millionaires now. Anyway the project went well – I came first in the State, won a $2000 government prize for it, which I promptly then gave back to the government in university fees when enrolling in UTS Design school.

I also learned a lot from Business Studies in those buildings just over there, and understanding the basic mechanics of companies and small business gave me the confidence to try it out. I charged $20 for my first ever professional design project in year 11 to a classmate, for his Magic the Gathering tournament poster. I’m certain the design was really terrible so I’m willing to offer the guy a refund any time. But the classes in Business Studies really paid off when I started my first company a couple of years after school and found myself having to learn really quickly how to run a company. So don’t discount all those little things that might seem useless now, you just never know when it all comes in handy later.

So always be ready to embrace life and take the opportunities it presents you to do awesome things. Find ways to be creative and don’t feel the need to squeeze through the one crowded door like everyone else, there is probably another way around if you look for it. Be grateful to your teachers because what they share today might be just the thing that helps you later.

Thank you, and good luck.”

What great advice would you give to students?