Hosted By:

Paul Soulellis

Artist, Creative Director

Feb 5


John Cage at Bank Street, New York, 1977. Photographer Rhoda Nathans, courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

“I gave up making choices. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.” (John Cage)

2012 marks the centennial of the birth of John Cage, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and a headliner in the first Glass House Country Happening (1967) with The Velvet Underground and Merce Cunningham.

For 50 years, Cage developed an approach to music, art and design involving "chance operations"—a shift in the creative process from taste and judgement to highly disciplined questioning. Cage's removal of his judgement from decision-making brings up critical questions about the role of the ego in creativity, suggesting that a more open acknowledgement of ambiguity and uncertainty—even failure—in design might be valuable.

Is ego a critical component of success in today's design world? Is design humility possible?


Caren Litherland

graphic designer

Caren gave the final word

The way I see it, design is humility. And clients are the chance.

Sunday, February 19 at 7:21pm

I know that this discussion may very well evolve into a dialogue between the ego-favoring and the humility-favoring, but I think think there’s a place for both of these aspects within each designer’s personal creative development – in that respect there’s a sub-analysis of the proper degree or proportion. Also the relevance of either ego or humility may shift on a case-by-case designer/client or designer/project basis?

Sunday, February 5 at 8:15pm

How can we dissociate the EGO from the self? How could we remove the self form the Art/Design, from the creative process? Wouldn’t we loose the magic signature of the creator? The language of “Art” is universal but as well open to billions of interpretations, of each and every one of us and they all seem valid to me. Having said are we talking about the art/product or the creator, when you are referring to “design humility”?

Monday, February 6 at 10:12am


    Paul Soulellis

    Artist, Creative Director

    One goal for this discussion might be to try to define design humility, or talk about several possible meanings. I have ideas, but I’d love to hear from others. I’m curious — does “design humility” resonate as a concept? What does it mean to you?

    Yvonne, you’ve quickly brought up a point that I hoped we would get to in this discussion: what this means in relation to art vs. design. I think this is where it gets sticky.

    We can easily conjure up images of design “masters” who provide all-encompassing solutions — think Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier. A more contemporary example might be Massimo Vignelli — we turn to these designers for their certainty. They provide us with complete, seamless systems for problem-solving. Manifestos and answers, if you will. This has been the prevailing model in architecture and design and it continues on today.

    Cage’s approach was different. No preconceived ideas about what works and what doesn’t — he set about asking questions from his work. And he was committed to what it gave back. I believe this requires a strong, healthy ego, one that can stand back and accept a non-central role.

    But Cage worked in the realm of art. So one question I am struggling with myself is this: what can designers learn from Cage? Is there a way to “step aside” and ask questions of the work, in design? Or does the problem-solving nature of design prohibit this? What about open-source?

    Monday, February 6 at 11:14am


    Matthew Carbone

    Architectural Photographer

    # Is ego a critical component of success in today’s design world? Is design humility possible?

    As was stated early on, if we are defining ‘ego’ as ‘one’s self’ I don’t think it’s entirely possible to remove that from the creative process.

    Cage, while he claimed to have given up making choices, he did so only after making a defining choice to systematically change his entire process of creation.

    While in doing so Cage went against the grain and trusted that a system of “chance operations” could in fact create meaningful and interesting works of art, design, and music. Yes, Cage accepted chance and a perhaps greater level of inconsistency in perceived quality of his works. I don’t see how he removed his ego from that macro-scale choice.

    I would state that he made a brilliant decision, to create an entire body of work that contrasts most other works of his contemporaries. Ego driven or not, as a result, he and his works have achieved longevity and a place of prominence.

    From a different perspective, the creation of art and design are fundamentally different and thus the impact of one’s ego is varied.

    Michael Bierut once said, “Clients are the difference between art and design.” (Creative Mornings 1/15/10)

    I believe that to be true.

    Clients have problems that need solving. Clients expect them to be solved with the quality and consistency, based on one’s past work. Clients work with specifically with you to solve their problems and meet their interests. That isn’t the place for “chance operations” or informed random output.

    Paul, you brought up the idea of design humility.

    Steve Jobs, paraphrasing Paul Rand, when asked if he would provide design options for the NExT brand, Rand said, “No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution, if you want options go talk to other people…” (1993 Interview with Jobs)

    I think that’s both an example of great ego and also great humility. Rand’s ego told him that there was one solution worth focusing on, but his humility said it’s ok if the client doesn’t use his solution or if they seek a different one.

    Take Peter Eisenman’s House III. Shifting a cube within a cube until the geometrically perfect moment. Resulting in a column through the master bedroom bed. There is no design humility there. Should we accept and applaud the result due because it derives from chance operation?

    Design is inherently about making choices. Not only everything that goes into the work, but also everything you choose to omit. Design is more than just how something looks but also how it functions. This includes taste, artistry, and decision making.

    We shouldn’t seek to completely tear this apart, more so strive that the whole be greater than just a collection of parts.

    Wednesday, February 8 at 12:19pm


Brian LaRossa

Artist. Designer.

Ego is defined both as “A person’s self-esteem or self-importance.” and “A conscious thinking subject.” A strong relationship between the definitions doesn’t negate their differences. Further, each definition resonates differently with regards to the customer relationship, the design process, the product of that process, and a the management of a designer’s personal brand.

It is difficult to separate the later definition from the customer relationship in the same way that an artist might; the customer relationship being an essential difference between art and design. Conscious application is a necessary ingredient in assessing, and meeting, a particular client’s needs. This remains true when the Designer self-publishes as the client then becomes the customer. The subconscious does however play an important role in a healthy design process, as it does in an artist’s practice. Relinquishing control brings chance into the equation, placing the artist or designer in space where the end product ceases to be predictable, allowing them to transcend their current ability.

Humility, being the antonym of the first definition, is also essential to both the art practice, the design process, and, particularly for the designer, to building customer relationships. Humility is an important aspect of any healthy relationship and design solutions are only as strong as the relationships they’re built on. In the same breadth, managing and developing a personal brand has never been more crucial. During a time when design schools are producing more candidates than the market can bare, a certain sense of “self-importance” is necessary for survival.

A fascinating question Paul! No doubt this conversation will unfold to cover a lot of ground :)

Monday, February 6 at 11:42am


    Paul Soulellis

    Artist, Creative Director

    Thanks Brian. The idea of self-promotion and posturing is indeed another angle that needs to be discussed here. Managing one’s sense of self-importance can be tricky. Designers are more connected and exposed than ever, so there’s a lot at stake — building public perception, and a trusting audience, without losing authenticity. I see designers struggle with this all the time, unable to find their voice, or using it to intimidate (design arrogance). And everything in-between, of course — a range of possibilities. I’d love to hear about designers who successfully integrate uncertainty and doubt into their practice without sacrificing visibility.

    Monday, February 6 at 1:04pm


    Brian LaRossa

    Artist. Designer.

    I find the reality of confidence to be rather counterintuitive. True strength is revealed when someone has the courage to reveal their uncertainty and doubt. Which is to say that arrogance is not a genuinely strong stance, nor is it communicative. Rather, I find that the same fragile and honest stance that best serves the creative process, also best serves personal relationships, and further best serves a personal brand. An honest personal brand carries more weight than a confident one. Nothing is ever more fascinating than the truth :)

    Monday, February 6 at 1:41pm


Nancy Austin

design historian, artist

This thread begins with a nod to the importance of questions. For me, Cage embodies the creative process as the lifelong selfless practice of one’s craft in an open-ended journey. Questioning performed.

I do not believe this process is confined to the discipline of Art. Indeed, the history of design, implying as it does collaborative work, is as rich a territory to act in — as long as your metric of “success” is clearly defined.

For this reason, Paul, your question “Is ego a critical component of success in today’s design world?” was one I found hard to get past, at first reading. The backbone word is “success”, and the sentence struck me as immersed in the quite different question of if one needs to be an ego/brand to succeed in today’s design world? So, to start, I took away the question of “today”, and read again. “Is ego a critical component of success?” I wondered how the situation of “today” in all its impending uncertainty does or does not affect this question? Even as I read this developing thread today, I wonder what really is being talked about with the word “success”, and how this is a conversation about process, or about achieved recognition, financial reward, and the demands of the marketplace? If the latter, was Cage the calling card to begin with?

I believe we are living at a time of tremendous historical change. I don’t think an emphasis on ego is the way to go. Rather, I ask, how can we engage and collaborate? What are other ways to describe the contribution of the designer — someone practicing something between or beyond ego and humility?

… I like Brian’s comment “Nothing is ever more fascinating than the truth.” Yes, I think Cage was a truth-seeker, and an inspiration as such.

Perhaps someone would like to compare the process and “ego” of Cage vs. Philip Johnson as model or metaphor? What about the image of transparency, and an insistence on one’s aesthetic formal decisions, popular mis/understanding aside?

Monday, February 6 at 2:21pm


    Paul Soulellis

    Artist, Creative Director

    Nancy, great to hear from you! So many new branches to the discussion…thank you. Something I want to highlight: the idea of “practicing between or beyond ego and humility.” I love how you’ve articulated this as a space between.

    I do hope someone takes you up on Cage vs. Johnson — hope we can explore this.

    Monday, February 6 at 2:40pm

As an artist who is frequently a member of a design team working in public places this is a constant balancing act. Jackson Pollock said “For an artist there is no comfortable chair to sit in.” In my studio work I’m most excited and most productive when I am investigating an area of uncertainty, puzzlement or insecurity, following the clues that will hopefully lead me to a new discovery or to an expanded sense of possibilty. This stance is harder to maintain as a design team member or in commission work because the client has invested in the idea that you will produce a work that meets specific design criteria-scope of work and building codes and that won’t produce too much controversy. In these circumstances I think it is even more important to cling to whatever sense of questioning or uncertainty you can salvage. In a public project or commission I think there are two important sets of questions to ask. One set has to do with the deepest nature of the site-the poetics of the place, it’s history and natural history, the kinds of people that use it on a daily place. By questioning all these things often times it’s possible to surprise both yourself and the client with something unexpectedly beautiful. provocative or insightful, something that both fits the place and magnifies its significance to its inhabitants. The second set of questions are internal. If you look deeply enough I think it’s almost always possible to find something in an asignment or commission that resonates with a designer’s personal aesthetic ambitions or concerns. Finding that helps provide a compas point for moving forward. I think knowing where “True North” is for yourself and keeping sight of that, is different than letting your ego interfere with a process that might allow you to grow as an artist—-if you are able to thread that needle.

Monday, February 6 at 2:41pm

It is my understanding that ‘design humility’ is the idea that designers employ their skills and creativity in conjunction with the aesthetics of a particular goal, function or client. All creative decisions derive from the ego but successful designers have an empathic ability to interpret the parameters of the specific problem with enough of the ‘self’ remaining so that their work retains a sense of singularity.

I spent a lot of time thinking about design and its possible relation to the work of John Cage. I don’t think its possible to separate any of this from the ego. I think even John Cage’s efforts to question his personal involvement with the creative process is a function of the self. Asking questions and bifurcating answers is at the very heart of creativity but the outcome of true chance will always involve the absurd. The nature of design exists within fairly limited and excepted set of parameters intended to clearly communicate ideas and function. To employ chance in that calculation would require too many parameters to remain random.

The kind of chance that John Cage sought is a fascinating question in itself. Can one truly create by chance? Is the act of creation in itself a parameter. In designing a chair, a painting or even a symphony there are elements of chance that can be employed but parameters will be set whether intended or not.

Monday, February 6 at 6:58pm

    I’m fascinated by the evolving analysis here of the differentiation between ‘art’ and ‘design’, and how a chance-based formula for creation of or programming the outcome can remain viable in each case, based on pre-existing parameters (or lack thereof) from the get-go. I know this is a parallel topic to the ego/humility discussion, though I tend to think that what’s being identified here as ‘positive’ or healthy aspects of ego – like confidence or a sense of surety in one’s artistic competencies – can definitely help the artist, and perceptive clients, to pursue cleanly a piece or project through chance-based avenues. Or help to limit the inclination to purposely meddle with or tweak it. I doubt Cage could have undertaken the process of his works without the ‘support’ of Ego.

    I know that my above comments do not address how humility may (or should) intersect with this as well; I look forward to more discussion.

    Monday, February 6 at 7:42pm

I have to really consider whether or not I agree that Cage’s mid-to-late period artistic aesthetic of — as I see it — composing creative systems within which choices can be made by performers or determined by the system itself, has any implications about his personal ego, or lack/control thereof. I think he aimed for his music to illustrate the futility of seeking control in art and life, and the blurring of any line distinguishing two. I think he also sought to expose (what he saw as) the antiquated idea of musical style, with a composer’s style amounting to not much more than a composer’s bad habit.

Sure, he aspired for detachment and non-egoic involvement in the creative process, but like any artist, once he completed that process and created a piece of work, he invariably saw that piece as “his,” and if he ever witnessed a piece of his work dismissed or abused by performers or critics, his reaction was anything but objective. Reports abound of Cage’s high musical standards, his outrage at shoddy performances, and his famous impatience with close-minded people.

I guess the question is — is that ego? If a work embodies objectivity, but the composer (whose name is on the score) is unable to fully separate himself from that product — and why would s/he want to but for his/her ego? — isn’t that not the negation of ego, but rather the transference of ego? Is ego a critical component of success in today’s design world? Is design humility possible? Well, I wonder if true humility can lead to success (which might need to be defined also, “success”), just as many ask whether there is such a thing as true altruism. An artist believes in what they do (I would hope, otherwise why should they create?) and conventionally the egoic question is, does the artist believe in his/herself, or the work, and are these things not one and the same? Usually this question is provocative enough, but Cage took it a step further, and truly separated the two. He said, “Actually no. I can create art that is NOT an extension of myself. Listen.”

And yet, isn’t that piece, that design, that process, his invention, and very creative indeed? Hasn’t he still has still created an extension of the self.

Cage’s ideas sound less radical in other contexts. For instance, you can design a shopping mall or a sundress, and though both have pretty clear design intentions, the designer cannot fully control what the people in the mall or sundress will do. He or she has control to a point. Cage, in my opinion, saw a composer’s limitations as very much the same. He designs a piece of music, but stops short of dictating what exactly people should hear…

Tuesday, February 7 at 12:44am

    “How can we dissociate the EGO from the self? How could we remove the self form the Art/Design, from the creative process? Wouldn’t we loose the magic signature of the creator? The language of “Art” is universal but as well open to billions of interpretations, of each and every one of us and they all seem valid to me. Having said are we talking about the art/product or the creator, when you are referring to “design humility”?”
    I have not read all the comments, but this one is very representative of what I believe. There is no disassociation from the ‘self ‘ in anything we do, any kind of expression. The only thing I can understand as ‘humility’ in applied arts is the acknowledgment and true understanding of the needs of others and therefore the functionality of what is being created. But the more functional a designed object, the more acceptance it enjoys and the more the ‘self’ is gratified through this process…

    Tuesday, February 7 at 7:39am

I don’t work with design, but have been developing projects on art and creative processes in the context of their interaction and dialogue with ancient and mostly Eastern traditions. John Cage is one of these artists, considering his connections with Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki, for example.

At first, I think that the notion of “humility” may be misleading, as it seemingly introduces a “moral” concept. Also, the notion of “ego” seemingly covers a broad range of meanings, and it’s not necessarily clear what it means in Cage’s context. As Cage says, “it’s not easy to ask questions”, and the way a question is framed may define much of what we’ll be able to discuss. So the question itself would become more powerful if its assumptions were made more clear

In the context of the projects I coordinate, we’d avoid a judgmental or moral-oriented discussion — two possible ways of interpreting the mentions to “ego” and “humility” in the question.

In very simple terms, I think Cage has raised questions and dealt with certain notions of subjectivity and how they depend on a sense of narrative as a tool for control. How to give up control, be more open and listen to what happens and thus have a broadened notion of a creative self, with broader interactions with what happens and with others.

In the project I coordinate, we’re willing to explore this in the context of Buddhist teachings, which have influenced not only Cage but other artists too — not with the purpose of a sectarian approach, but we think that, given the obvious connections of many of these artists’ ideas with Buddhist teachings, exploring these teachings may help us to better understand the legacy of these artists.

Tuesday, February 7 at 8:50am

    Hmm, for me, I have to admit, your question leads me to more. (And wouldn’t Cage approve of more questions?)
    How does one create an environment where ego is both acknowledged and also relegated to a minor role? I think about this all the time in my teaching. For example, I have an exercise based on Theater Improvisation for collaboration called “Yes, and…” (Basically, you acknowledge your partner’s idea, and then use it to build upon.)

    I think a lot about chance in my work as an artist. (My recent work “Overheard” was heavily influenced by Cage’s quote: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” I try hard to put myself in a place where “chance” can happen. It can be enormously uncomfortable. There is a constant tension between knowing and not knowing. So, my next question is: how can an artist sustain a balance between allowing chance and acting upon the results of chance?

    Tuesday, February 7 at 10:02am


    Paul Soulellis

    Artist, Creative Director

    Wendy, that’s exactly it isn’t it — this “balance between allowing chance and acting upon the results of chance.” I feel as though I’m only just beginning to understand this in my own work. For me, design humility is partly about giving oneself over to this operation and exploring the space of uncertainty — “knowing and not knowing,” as you say. And not being quick to jump into a problem from a place of comfort. Not immediately imposing rules and systems. Definitely one of the most difficult (and fascinating) challenges I’ve encountered in my own creative work.

    Rather than “removing” the self or minimizing it in the work, I suspect anyone engaging in chance operations must have a robust, healthy ego. An ego strong enough to stand back and accept the truth as the process reveals it, without imposing judgement or fear.

    Tuesday, February 7 at 4:50pm

Cage stepped back to reveal the underlying structures of the dispositif music in the european tradition,the way Heidegger stepped back from the edifice of metaphysics.

Bruno Latour steps back from the word design and detects a growth in comprehension and extension of the term.
‘Dasein is design’ is a quote he uses to sum up this change.

Referring to the german thinker Peter Sloterdijk, he traces the idea that modernisms theory of action disappeared in the exact measure where the the awareness of life supports were made more explicit, to Sloterdijks final insight that our existence on this earth is’ a matter of concern’ not a matter of fact.[1]

For Latour a new understanding of design is the way out of our ignorance regarding our dependence on our support system: earth.

His ‘five advantages of the concept of design’ introduce a new theory of action,one that will be better suited to our situation than modernisms
matters of fact.
The first advantage he introduces is HUMILITY……..!

read all here:

[1]Sloterdijk is a fantastically entertaining writer.His text on the appearance of the term environment via the construction of ‘palm houses’ in england [Atmosperic Politics. Latour & Weibl,eds. Making Things Public.2005] is a fine introduction to his work and of course of interest to the glass house conversation.

Tuesday, February 7 at 10:57am


Paul Soulellis

Artist, Creative Director

In a way, the Glass House itself is a kind of “chance operations machine”—a minimal presence that allows boundless nature to do its work. Johnson’s masterpiece (1949) is contemporaneous with Cage’s (4’33″ in 1952). Nancy brought up transparency, and perhaps reflection is relevant here as well. Might someone connect these dots and propose a way to approach Cage vs. Johnson?

Wednesday, February 8 at 9:32am

after reading all the comments this’ll be more of a string of thoughts rather than a single coherent one.. but i think they have to be taken somewhat in tandem… ego/humility.. the proper balance may be why an artist or a work of art is appreciated as great?

per humility.. i think successful designers can easily float into the area of having a manifesto of-sorts.. not that im against manifestos.. but where their form, their individual way of thinking about and accomplishing design, music, painting, architecture becomes more important than all others or THE way; process, aesthetic, what-have-you… so as long as you understand that you are simply adding your voice to the crowd, i think you have humility and probably a healthy ego about your work..

can also be a question of intent.. why are you using green? because the piece asked for green or because prevailing market research shows that most people are buying green.. is your intent to manipulate the crowd into chanting what you want them to say?

some people have mentioned the more practical part of design; client relationship (and i really like the difference between art/design being the client – that’s interesting) but with matters of architecture you also have to consider the contractor, other engineers, non-creative municipal laws and rules, gravity.. music doesn’t have a lot of those considerations.. so design in architecture, ego and humility, become a very complex relationship..

i think success is simply getting your designs into the world and receiving the range of reactions you were anticipating.. whether someone is publishing your ideas on a blog, hiring/paying you for them, whatever.. which leads to another idea to balance against humility/ego – how well can you receive criticism?

Wednesday, February 8 at 10:24am

Paul asked:

> Might someone connect these dots
> [Glass House in '49, 4:33 in '52]
> and propose a way to approach Cage vs. Johnson?

My understanding of these two men and of these two works is that of a rank amateur: I’ve not yet been to New Canaan, and I’ve only read about 4:33. So please forgive what may be merely a statement of the obvious in the pursuit of a way to approach what these works might have in common, which is that both of these works subvert the audience’s ability to perceive surface. Both seem to be using the the implication of surface… the implication of structure… to “say stuff” about the medium and materials of the art, and about the context where the work is being “performed,” and to direct what audiences do directly perceive as part of the work.

Wednesday, February 8 at 11:25am


    Paul Soulellis

    Artist, Creative Director

    Excellent, Dan. I would argue that this is not at all an amateur understanding of these two works. I’m intrigued by this idea of “surface” in music, both in the work itself and in the context of its performance. Interesting note: Cage’s 4’33″ was first performed at the Maverick Theater in Woodstock, NY (built 1916), with large doors that open to an audience that sits partly outside in the woods, and partly covered indoors The Maverick is itself a playful wooden “glass house” of sorts, toying with perception, ambiguous surfaces and structure, etc.

    Wednesday, February 8 at 12:53pm

Thank you for the invitation Paul, it is wonderful to take part in this conversation. For me this is quiet simple, in that I believe one of the keys connected to chance operations as used by Cage is the IChing’s origin in nature. Cage truly cherished his time when he could be immersed in nature as he surrounded their apartment in New York with plants. Maybe then, it is in nature that true design humility exists. When I remove myself and enter into a conversation with the material, whatever form it may be and allow it to reveal itself to me, then the object begins to reveal its truest form of expression and possibility. It is a process of complete awareness and seeing (not looking) while listening visually in silence, that allows room for creation which is greater than anything I could do on my own. When I can keep my mind in this state while working, then for me it becomes ego-less and more of achieving oneness in complete awareness of what is. What is created from this state is truly not of myself, but far greater and many times surprising. Maybe this is one possible path that allows nature to express itself as I become more of a channel than creator. At this point to me design-art-craft are not separate, but become one and the medium chosen for expression is limitless. If that makes any sense at all. What an amazing conversation, again I am so honored to have the chance :) to share my thoughts. Thank you again.

Wednesday, February 8 at 3:57pm

    Coming back around to the role of chance in creativity. When unpredictable things happen in the course of making or designing work those random circumstances can help the artist or designer to overcome the “ego centric predicament” we all face every day-where we only know what we know from our existing perspective. Chance can take us beyond what we think we know.Like Cage we can also build frameworks in which chance is a planned part of the process. Interactive media opens up some really fascinating possibilities for this. Touching back to the role of Buddhism in Cage’s and many other artists’ practices I just now remembered reading-ages ago-”Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” and what a big impression it made on me at the time. The idea that beginners are fully present and open and that we might be able to cultivate that attitude in parallel with all we learn over years of work is fascinating. Maybe that ability to hold ego and humility in tension is what allows some artists to keep growing and getting better into their nineties, while others become caricatures of themselves.

    Wednesday, February 8 at 5:35pm

A few thoughts…

Does “design humility” resonate as a concept?
For me, it does. I remember being the young, fresh-faced graphic designer consumed by design. It was nearly all I cared about and my ideas about it were always right. My ego was stronger than my mind’s ability to reflect on a problem across its full breadth. My certainty of how things should be or look won out over my responsibilities of listening, research, exploration and ultimately the brief. Humility is the thing that grounds us, that provides objectivity, calling us back to the purpose of our work when ego has led us astray.

Rand’s ego told him that there was one solution worth focusing on
I fully agree with Matthew’s point on Rand above. I will add, however, that Rand had not just ego, but much knowledge and experience to back it up. His ego was founded because his solution was good. But ego itself needs no such foundation. Maybe “conviction” is a more appropriate word. It speaks more to the reasons behind a solution and less to the person behind the solution.

The problem with ego is that it is voracious and greedy. Left unchecked it has the potential to be all-consuming. This has the potential to be the undoing of a good creation at the hand of the creator. From my perspective, design is all about keeping things “in check.” Grids, margins, briefs — all design serves a purpose and must abide by the rules of its particular calling.

Still, ego does seem to me to have its worth in design. A lingering question for me is whether or not ego is the thing that keeps driving us to create more. Is a quality end product enough to propel us on through an entire career? Do we continually evolve and push our work of our own objective volition, or is it more likely that praise and accolades is what keeps us motivated above all? I think of people like Charles Eames or Louis I. Kahn, amongst other designers, who’s egos are well documented, but who’s work’s worth is indisputable.

Lastly, and back to how Cage’s paradigm might impact the design community, I believe it is wise to remember that at the root of both design and art lie the same, unifying principles. Artists and designers are stewards of a language beyond that of mere words, even as we, respectively, use it toward different ends. In exonerating his ego from his process, Cage seems simply to open himself up to the dialog between two forms — the medium (malleable and subservient) and the creator (capable and accountable for the former’s destiny).

Maybe the ego is the thing that propels our creation. And maybe ego — in cahoots with conviction — is what allows us to stand behind our work and ultimately sell it. But I do believe that the restriction of the ego is necessary at moments for the sake of the design itself. In the end humility also allows us to call an end to the working process — to finish, ship, then move on.

Friday, February 10 at 12:29pm


Chukwuma Agubokwu

Student, University of Maryland, College PArk

Wow, I almost feel, for once, at an advantage to contend with a Glass House Conversation as a student.

From my perspective, where learning is the definitive focus of “success”, and not monetary gain or a bolstering of brand, this question speaks to another directly related one: at what point do we as creatives (artists AND designers) show the “person behind the curtain”? When everyone is in the same room, with a singular goal and the same tools, our entire process is laid bare to each other. On the opposite end, you have the professional creative who toils almost in secret until the very final point of “completion” of the work. They then show what they’ve been working on, with confidence that the largest phases of experimentation and inquiry are behind them. I don’t think “humility” or openness to chance in this sense is unique to either field, but again a question of the creator’s comfort with exposing their practice and process.

All creative work has both an exploratory phase as well as an ego-driven phase in which the many possibilities are effectively pared down to the most viable one(s). It is, however, arguable that certain modes of practice lend themselves to specific balances between public knowledge of the questioning/exploration phase or and the ego-driven ‘curation’ of the results of this phase.

In terms of my personal practice as one who’s made a transition from a student of engineering, to industrial design, to sculpture and finally (or should I say, “most recently”?) performance art; I have chosen to gradually pull the curtain back further and further, combining the lab with the symposia, the studio with the gallery, the private creation space with the public exhibition space.

An ideal place to end my comment is a quote from jazz musician Jason Moran concerning his own practice that has been very influential to me:

“So I wanted to put those together to see if they worked. I wanted the audience to contemplate whether that connection worked. I really use the stage as a testing ground. Most people work at home and bring in the result. Fuck that. Let’s cut to the chase. I want to test it in front of people who have their notions of what a song is or isn’t. It’s a matter of working.”

Saturday, February 11 at 4:25am


    Paul Soulellis

    Artist, Creative Director

    Thanks for your comment Chukwuma. You bring up an interesting point about exposure. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently — how designers, especially, tend to hide the creative practice and process. We’re trained to show completed projects and to build a portfolio that values the finished — even “re-creating” process sketches to represent it after the fact. This is ego-strengthening work — the power to curate one’s story.

    We all need to do this in one way or another (to represent ourselves, construct identity, gather confidence, gain new work), but I wonder if the practice of design humility could be introduced with a more exposed process, especially for those of us not in an academic environment (where off-line critique is more normal). Risky client issues aside, I’d like to think that releasing elements of one’s design process from behind closed doors for real-time review and critique might be one way to achieve a more balanced sense of the creative self. I think of Nancy’s comment earlier about working in the space *between* ego and humility, and your Jason Moran quote: “it’s a matter of working.”

    Could an online environment — say, a blog — become a fully-visible design studio where a problem is explored in (almost) full view?

    Saturday, February 11 at 10:57am


    Chukwuma Agubokwu

    Student, University of Maryland, College PArk

    I think that’s the potential beauty of creative professionals blogging: being able to reveal a bit of their process to those interested in what it takes to get to that finished product.

    One of my earliest creative influences, designer Benny Gold uses their blog in this manner. He literally lays out large swaths of sketches that lead to his finished designs in photographs and then discusses why certain elements and ideas survived or didn’t survive that process.

    I never understood what really went into a successful and appealing design before seeing his blog as a high school student. I started realizing all the humble trial-and-error, as well as truly intellectual effort, that goes into good design after being exposed to his blog.

    Some examples:

    Monday, February 13 at 3:05pm


    Brad Feinknopf

    Architectural Photographer

    I find this dialogue extremely interesting and overtly complex as it is all about balance. We tend to look at things as points along a continuum when actually those points fall in a field, as if Ego + Humility must equal 100%. The question ultimately finds itself along the realm of Risk. When you Risk, you must have the level of Ego to take that Risk and the Humility to accept failure if that Risk does not produce Success. No artist, designer, architect, etc. is exempt from failure but it is the willingness to accept the “Risk” of landing at a point outside of the prescripted continuum, and it is there where the excitement and interest exist.

    Early in my career, I met with photographer Duane Michals who reviewed my portfolio. He said, “You don’t make enough mistakes” and this was definitely not meant as a compliment. Duane wished to help me understand that there is great beauty that comes from the mistake, in that which is not expected and in opening oneself up to “chance”.

    I, too, battle with this, especially in the commercial world. How does one open oneself to the potential of chance and, risk the inability to perform for one’s client, if one’s client is not oneself? Not many clients will accept, “Well, this time it didn’t work out, maybe next time”. Therein lies the challenge.

    Wednesday, February 15 at 10:29am

    I’m really intrigued by Paul’s earlier query about whether it’s possible to practice “integrating uncertainty and doubt without sacrificing visibility;” as well as Nancy’s “between or beyond ego and humility” and how it might resonate as a strategy for a design/art practice.

    As an architect transitioning to a practice in the arts, and as someone who finds it very intimidating to expose one’s work, the possibility of finding this edge –and practicing through it, perhaps actively developing it as part of the practice –to be an encouraging and exciting opening.

    In lieu of going back to school to access the kind of community and feedback critical to developing a body of work, this in-between space (exposure/solitude, ego/chance, process/outcome, authenticity/market) suggests rich territory to be mined and hints at a new set of parameters that might inform new ways of practice.

    Clearly a certain level of defining, closing, editing, is necessary to protect one’s creative process as well as fulfilling client expectations and production requirements. However, could ‘releasing elements of one’s design process from behind closed doors for real-time review and critique’ act in a way not only to open one’s creative self, but also to play a critical role in developing new expectations, new outcomes, and cultivate a new audience?

    I can imagine the intelligent, strategic, but also perhaps creative mis-use of online media as being one part of opening this space,(such as open-source engagement, blogs etc. encouraging feedback, collaboration, cross-disciplinary participation). Could this more expanded way of working develop to shape reception and response, creating value and desirability in the market for this more exposed and open-ended process?

    Wednesday, February 15 at 1:19pm

    Separately, in response to Paul’s and Dan’s thread about surface in architecture as related to the original question, see Kengo Kuma’s house addition in New Canaan:

    Kuma promotes an anti-monumental “dissolved” architecture, dependent on context. His is a successful practice (in the sense of quantity of built projects, critical acclaim, discerning client base), which also suggests the importance of writing (he’s published a number of books and articles on the subject), as a critical part of shaping a practice more concerned with an ephemeral expression in building.

    Wednesday, February 15 at 1:21pm

    It would be extremely difficult for me to add substantively to the very rich and complex discussions going on here, except for this; as a reader, I’m suddenly made wonderfully aware of the fact that digesting and participating in the conversation is (even now with current projects) making me pause or step back a bit, and evaluate how the two aspects of ego and humility might be effectively and consciously adjusted – and therein lies an entire discussion unto itself about conscious recognition or lack thereof – as tools or facilitators, adjusted as appropriate (according to me) for the creative assignment at hand.

    Shortly put: I’m reading and simultaneously it’s transforming me real-time. A fascinating effect indeed.

    Saturday, February 18 at 11:15pm

I have given so much thought to these conversations and will walk away with so much. What is so interesting to me, is that if we were all sitting together physically around a table in a glass house, I would listen and remain silent. By being part of a conversation in an online environment, I have shared my thoughts.

I think Brad drew attention to an important point about working with the client in the commercial world, in that how can you use chance with the risk of not meeting the client’s needs. Does the client want to be a part in the process from the beginning, knowing that chance will be part of it and see where it leads? Can this process to bring greater success in meeting the client’s needs? Can the client be offered some sort of guarantee?

Is the path for design humility to exist in “following the question” or “focusing on the object”? Which comes first? Cage is correct in that learning to ask the right or true question is not easy. By following the question and staying in the center of the process with non-attachment to the results, then greater risks are taken and mistakes made, which leads ultimately to growth. So is success really about achieving “the object” or “growth”? And where does growth lead?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to leave this conversation and put action into the questions? Come back together at a later date for a conversation on experience.

I happened across a quote this morning by Buckminster Fuller where he asked these questions, “If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do … How would I be? What would I do?”

Sunday, February 19 at 11:21am

    Paradoxical as that may sound I feel you need a substantial ego in order to attempt genuine “design humility”. I agree that asking questions is a lot harder than relying on the safety of the “problem solving” aspect of design. So I suppose my thoughts on this are that ego is surely an essential component in the succesful design process in as much as it allows the designer/artist to go out on a limb and dare ask open ended questions. And deal with the outcome

    Sunday, February 19 at 2:58pm


Callie Neylan

Design Professor / Interaction Designer

Toward the first part of the question, I interpret it through the lens of ego being a product of success. No, it is not a necessary product, but unfortunately, it is often the case. However, there is good ego and there is bad ego.

Yes, I think design humility is not only possible, but in the field of interaction design, it’s required. In order to design experiences for others, the designer has to set aside his or her perceptions, mental models, stereotypes – and yes, ego – in order to create truly human-centered designs. In terms of Cage’s “chance operations”, I think that every time a product team releases a prototype or beta version, they are engaging in chance operations that are the unpredictable behaviors of users.

Generally speaking, inflated egos, I think, are really a sign of closeted humility. Or shall we say, insecurity. How much more successful is a person – designer or otherwise – who can be respected and esteemed by his or her peers, lauded and publicly praised, and still be down-to-earth, approachable, and humble, as opposed to one equally successful by objective measures but arrogant, brash, and elitist?

This is a very thought-provoking question that touches on so many things and is subject to so many interpretations. I love that you posed it.

Sunday, February 19 at 5:39pm


Paul Soulellis

Artist, Creative Director

I’m looking back at this rich thread and thankful so many people took the time to participate. The conversation touched upon exposure, tension, awareness and surface, among many other ideas, and we conjured up Bruno Latour, Kahn, Eisenman and Kengo Kuma. The two-week duration was luxurious — enough time for ideas to simmer, develop and branch, and ample space to focus. Much of my own engagement online is confined to short bursts of 140 characters or less, so the longer format has been especially refreshing.

Several commenters mentioned something about “removing the ego,” or a lack of ego or dissociation of the self from the creative process. I went back to the opening statement to see if I had suggested this in my choice of words, and unfortunately there is a hint of that in “Cage’s removal of judgement from his decision-making…” Just to clarify: the ego cannot be removed from any process, creative or otherwise. It’s central to the self and mediates between all aspects of the psyche and the external world. In fact, my own interest lies in what’s possible when the ego is very much present — strong, resilient and healthy — and flexible enough to allow decision-making to flow in from the external world (nature, chance operations, etc.). Instead of imposing judgement or personal taste from within, creativity might open up to something new — wider, larger views of beauty.

Thanks to the Philip Johnson Glass House folks for celebrating John Cage’s 100th with this provocative discussion, and for allowing me to host. I remain fascinated by Cage’s way of working. We’re still learning. I tried to explore this and my own definition of “design humility” in a forthcoming article, to be published this spring in the third issue of The Manual ( Please look for it and let’s continue the discussion!

Sunday, February 19 at 6:58pm


Caren Litherland

graphic designer

Caren gave the Final Word

What a rich set of questions and ensuing meditations. Each time I have embarked on a response, someone new has chimed in, prompting me to reassess my entire line of thinking. And now, just under the wire, I’ll throw some disjointed fragments into the mix.

I was happy to see Matthew (Carbone) introduce Bierut’s characterization of clients as the distinction between art and design. In the perennial discussion of whether or not design is art, my response has long been that it is not, and that the difference between the two can be located in the presence (or absence) of a brief.

Further along in the discussion, Caprice Hamlin-Krout asks about the role of clients in chance operations, which reminded me of something Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Uncertainty, he said (I’m paraphrasing, from memory), can be paralyzing; guessing is unacceptable when the stakes are high. With clients, the stakes are always high.

Zipping back to Carbone for a second, I would echo his view that Cage didn’t really give up making choices; rather, he made the choice to make a different kind of choice. The only way I can imagine this sort of “non-choosing choice” work within a relationship with clients is if, as Hamlin-Krout suggests, they embrace this way of working equally and are in on it from the outset. In this sort of scenario, both designer and client would agree from the beginning to cede control.

But, now that I think of it, isn’t that what happens anyway? The answer depends, I suppose, on one’s definition of design. If one views design (as I do) as a service profession, then humility and chance are built into the process. Client services are a ceaseless negotiation of “control.” Who really has control in a design project, after all? The client has money, which is one form of control. The designer, presumably, has knowledge and experience (another form of control). Neither client nor designer has complete control, and what ultimately ships is in a sense a souvenir of the conversation between the two. The design represents an agreement.

The way I see it, design is humility. And clients are the chance.

Sunday, February 19 at 7:21pm


Selected list of words appearing in this and other conversations.