Last night I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Pullman at Design Madison’s first event of the season, held in historic Studio A of Wisconsin Public Television’s building. The scene was perfect for the lecture since Chris spent most of his career working at one of the leaders in public broadcasting, WGBH in Boston.
About Design Madison
Design Madison lives to amplify the impact that design has on our society. They strive to bring together Madison’s brightest creative thinkers. Each season, they invite the industry’s best to speak at their community events. I have been a member since 2013 and really enjoy hearing first-hand about other designers experiences.
About Chris Pullman
Guest speaker Chris Pullman served for 35 years as vice president of design for WGBH, a major supplier of programs and web content for PBS, and a wonderful place to be a designer. Chris and his staff were responsible for the visual personality of WGBH, as expressed through its on-air titles, credits and animation, classroom materials and interactive media.
About the Lecture
Chris spoke about his career timeline and structured his lecture into three main parts: 1) How it happened 2) What was it like and 3) What he learned. Chris attended Princeton University for his undergraduate studies and while writing his thesis, he discovered an interest in graphic design. This led him to graduate study at Yale, where he would also teach, eventually owning a studio in New Haven, working for an agency in Manhattan, and finally to his career at WGBH. Since Chris spent the majority of his time with WGBH, most of his lecture focused on the growth of this company, however many of the projects before his tenure at WGBH led to his success.
Why Designers are Problem Solvers
Chris explained that the difference between designers and artists are the problems they solve. Designers live and strive to solve their clients’ problems. The solutions they develop are focused on the fundamentals of balance, proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast and space. On the other hand, artists, like painters, are motivated to create things to solve their own problems. Even if they are not aware what the problem is at the time.
Throughout the lecture, Chris shared with us some of his “favorite” projects, as they fit into his career experiences. As I listened, it was clear that these projects were also some of the most successful as far as impact on their intended audience. A couple key examples I remember are:
- Bicyclist’s Guide to Manhattan – Never attempted before, this was quite a feat in information design for the late 1960s. This map guide featured suggested bicycle tours of Manhattan. It was important that the instructions be accurate and easy for bicyclists to understand on route.
- Social Security application form (SSA-1) – Chris explained that language is an integral part of design. What can your audience read? See? Understand? The original form was confusing for the target audience completing it. The main issues with the document were that it contained wording that could be considered aggressive and very small type. Chris’ solution to this problem was to re-design the form so that it contained one simple question per box, content that was easily understood by everyone at the audience’s reading level, and an overall organized layout. The two compared side-by-side look nothing alike!
- The “Deuce” – WGBH was also called Channel 2 in the Boston area. Chris was tasked with increasing public brand awareness and developed a running tally of campaigns to personify the “Deuce” character. They created an entire series of “dressed up” twos to be used for almost every holiday and event. And even designed a 2-mobile (in the shape of a huge number two) that drove around town spreading good cheer! Seeing the car made people smile and connected the brand to the community.
- New WGBH building design – Near the end of his career, Chris ultimately took on his biggest project of all, managing the design and construction of the new WGBH building. The steep goals to overcome were creating a new space while maintaining the mission and culture of the organization. The new headquarters featured a public space for events, a 200-seat theater screening room, and for the first time, a recording studio. For Chris, this project provided the opportunity to apply the same high standards insisted on in their programming, to the physical environment in which they worked and welcomed the public.
10 Things Learned
Thirty-five years is a long time to commit to one organization. And with all that time, came a truckload of knowledge and industry insight. Chris described the different phases that WGBH went through during his time and explained the differences in corporate culture and environment as the organization grew from a “local broadcaster” with a design team of six, to a “national producer,” to an “educational publisher,” to finally a “public media content and distribution company” with over 50 dedicated designers.
In the third part of his lecture, Chris shared with us the ten things he learned (or at least confirmed) at WGBH. These thoughts are great nuggets of wisdom for every designer (and person) to work toward in their careers.
- Work on things that matter.
- Work with people you like and respect.
- Be nice.
- Have high standards.
- Have a sense of humor.
- Design is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.
- Variety is the spice of life.
- Institutions have a character, just like people do.
- We’re all in the “understanding business.”
- You are what you eat.
Well done Chris. Your design journey is inspiring. Now, enjoy your time painting!