Eddie Opara Delivers Commencement Address at Parsons The New School for Design

Commentary — May 23, 2024

The Pentagram partner shared an inspirational message with the 2024 graduating classes in Communication Design.

Pentagram’s Eddie Opara was recently invited to address the 2024 graduates of the AAS, BFA and MPS classes in Communication Design at Parsons The New School for Design in a ceremony presented at Marble Collegiate Church in New York on May 16. Introduced by Lucille Tenazas, the Henry Wolf Professor of Communication Design in the School of Art, Media and Technology, Eddie spoke about following the thread of design throughout one’s life. We share the text of his speech as a message of inspiration for all design students.

Thank you, Lucille. Thank you to the dean, the professors, the lecturers, and the Parsons administration. Thank you to the parents who are here today. And thank you, students. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Why? Because normally, a commencement speaker may have said you are stepping into the unknown. 

Let's pause for a moment and contemplate what you have achieved. Let's pause for a moment and gather our thoughts through a frenetic world that aspires to push and pull, create, build, and say things faster and faster under the guise of progress.

Let us pause for a moment, knowing that we belong to a world that is going through seismic changes, ecologically, technologically, virologically, and psychologically. Many prior eras can attest to seismic changes, but not like this. Since the beginning of your time here, you have overcome many obstacles to find your way forward. Your odyssey to this point has been tumultuous. You have to deal with more than a few crises up to the end. You have had to handle a great deal since you walked through these doors at Parsons. You have already ventured into the unknown and come out the other side intact. Here you are today. 

As a new graduate, you are afflicted by a sense of relief, wonder, excitement, anxiety, curiosity, and adventure.

You've probably wondered for a while whether you feel this way. I can assure you that you do!

As a child, you probably played with a ball of string. Personally, I used to tie the thread around my mother's living room and kitchen furnishings, improvising with it as I made up the narratives.

I saw myself like a ball of string, that skein all twirled up into a somewhat complex interlaced form, waiting to be unraveled.

I believe everyone here has been in this state, that you have been that ball ready to be unfurled. Now, take the tip of the beginning thread of the ball and follow me.

Through the ages, across many countries and times, there has been a saying, a quote, a proverb, a myth, and a theme that has an uncanny relationship between them. The French call it le fil rouge, in Chinese Yīnyuán hóngxiàn (Yin Juan Hong Jian), and in Japanese unmei no akai ito. In English, it is called the Red Thread

This Chinese proverb expounds that despite time, place, or circumstance, those who are destined to meet are connected by an invisible red thread. The thread will never break, no matter how much it is pulled or knotted. In Japanese, it appears in the legend of an elderly man who inhabits the moon and emerges every night, seeking out kindred spirits on Earth to reunite them, individuals with valuable lessons to exchange. The red thread guides them along their way, intertwining the red thread with theirs.

From a Western perspective, it comes from the Greek myth of Theseus, the King of Athens, who, on one of his heroic journeys, embarked on a quest to kill the half-man, half-beast Minotaur within his Labyrinth lair. Hope arrived in the form of Princess Ariadne, who gave Theseus a red thread to tie around his waist so that he and his compatriots could navigate through the labyrinth pathways to safety and into Ariadne's arms.

A thread has the initial perception of being delicate. But a thread can be stronger than steel.

What do these proverbs, legends, and myths have in common? I will get to that momentarily. 

Many moons ago, as a young man, I ventured over the waters to this land to start my Master's; I had just graduated as an undergrad and felt the same feeling you do today. I had a professor during my Master's, a designer of high acclaim and esteem, whom I liked and admired and still admire today, tell me during a design critique that my work was enigmatic. 

As a student, you sometimes curl up and internalize; I didn't fully understand. At first, his words seemed to trouble me. What I was creating made no sense; I was a failure, I was too complex, and the notion of my work being enigmatic was heavy around my neck.  

Over time, as I matured, I applied this to who I was as a person, as a badge of honor, enigmatic Eddie. I started to really connect with design. I started to define my language and the frequency with which I would communicate. I wanted to interconnect with others who had similar ideals, to provide more conviction in what I was achieving, and continually reviewing whether I'm reinforcing my path. 

Why am I mentioning it to you, and what does it have to do with a thread? The thread, like the Chinese proverb, links together those fated to encounter each other, defying time, location, and situation. The thread may become strained or knotted, but it will never break. You have a relationship with design, a marriage of sorts. For others here, this is like renewing their vows. You are intertwined with design; you are design, and design is you. Use the thread to overcome all barriers and all challenges to find your way through. It is part of your narrative; at times, you will waiver, it will waiver, but that bond will never break.  

You started making that connection whilst here through the friends that you made. But that doesn't stop that thread from continuing to create even more valuable connections, not just to show that you have, but to become an excellent steward to the design community, to push it forward, and to seek better perspectives.

As new graduates, some may find you tricky, a conundrum, a quandary, not part of the status quo. Maybe because you hold the thread to future thought, creativity, design language, a language that will flourish, but make sure you do it at your own pace. 

Whether red, gold, or putrid green, we should put aside the color; a thread beholds the same virtue. That design is your calling. You may, at times, have people, clients, critics, and social media bullies say things that will hurt and hinder your progress, but you must stay on the path. Allow yourself to be guided by the work you are conceiving and creating. Open your hearts and minds. Devise a new way of seeing, communicating, thinking, and being. Our society needs you to be an orchestrator and a conductor for today and tomorrow. Not to stand on the sidelines or behind the curtain, but to be our society's strategists, thinkers, makers, and molders.  

Let us pause again for a moment.

I will leave you with this poem by the American poet William Stafford. 

There's a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn't change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it, you can't get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die: and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.

You don't ever let go of the thread.

Let's have one more pause. 

Do you remember the professor who called me an enigma? Well, he hired me to work for him.

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