In mid-July Sylvia Harris walked through my upstate garden, a jungle of plants and vegetables that sits adjacent to the old Catskills farmhouse that is my weekend home. As always, she was curious and enthusiastic, questioning the effort it takes to make this garden happen each year and delighting in the result. Dressed all in white, she floated along the pathways that twist and turn though the rampant black-eyed susans, the towering holly hocks, and the abundant lilies. As I sit inside the farmhouse trying to capture the life and work of my dear friend Sylvia Harris who died suddenly in Washington, DC on July 24, I recall images of her that help paint a picture of the remarkable woman who is gone all too soon. The Sylvia Harris I first met in New Haven in the late 1970’s seemed very much the same woman who strolled in my garden just two weeks ago.
Sylvia grew up in Richmond, Virginia in the 1950’s and 60’s, a time, she recently told me, when blacks had to dress up to go shopping in the white-owned downtown department stores. She experienced desegregation when Richmond’s white and black populations finally could study together in common high schools, and she remembered her mother shouting out the car window at Ku Klux Klansmen demonstrating in the street. The Sylvia Harris that I knew was a true product of that era. She had a fierce desire to do the right thing that combined beguilingly with a graceful, youthful, easy charm. As a designer she was always both student and teacher, the true child of her two parents, her father a renowned woman’s sports coach, “Tricky Tom” Harris, while her mother was an artist and art teacher. Sylvia was always learning new things, and once she had mastered them, she wanted to share the experience with the rest of the world.
My first images of Sylvia come from the fall of 1978 when we both came to the Yale School of Art as graduate students in graphic design. In those years the department was housed in the old Zeta Psi fraternity house at 212 York Street in New Haven where seminars with graphic design chair Alvin Eisenman were conducted at the large white table. Sylvia was a vivid questioning presence at those tableside conversations about design and typography where we learned the ideas and tools of our trade.
Together with classmate Juanita Dugdale, we honed our skills at Two Twelve Associates, the design firm we co-founded right after Yale and ran together for about fifteen years. Early on, Sylvia developed an interest in interactive media and the user-centered design process that came with that exploration, while Juanita was creating maps and publications, and I was creating wayfinding systems. We saw public information design as the focus of our multi-disciplinary design practice and believed in the notion of good design for the common good. We weren’t involved in selling things but rather in helping to create access to the tools and places of pubic life. Sylvia and the Citibank ATM design team created a remarkable user interface for the bank’s cash machines that, for the first time, addressed customers with a personal human voice—“How may I help you?” In the era before mass email and the internet, Sylvia and her colleagues created a new human-centric paradigm of interaction with a computer system.
In the mid 1990s we went our separate ways, and Sylvia created her own consulting firm, Sylvia Harris, LLC. With that as her platform, she built her remarkable reputation as a woman of substance in the design community. At the same time, she taught at Yale where she had previously studied, she joined the board of AIGA, and she sat on the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee. She was a frequent public speaker at design conferences and industry gatherings. Her last engagement was for the SEGD Conference in Montreal in early June. She was part of a panel about the use of new media and technologies in wayfinding. I asked her to speak to the conference about why we use these tools and to help bring the focus back to people. She gave an amazing presentation that captured her primary message—that just as architects and planners should remember that they are creating places for real people, we communications designers are creating useful tools for those same real people, and we must never forget that. She humbly spoke of both her successes and failures and suggested that we could all learn a lot from our mistakes.
The message that Sylvia Harris presented at SEGD was the story of the last iteration of her firm. She had just recently renamed her practice Citizen Research and Design. For the past decade she has acted a consultant to institutions, architects and designers, helping to shape strategies and the design programs that resulted from those ideas. With Citizen R&D she wanted to more directly seek public input to the design process with research and testing. In the past years she has been working with the design teams creating wayfinding systems for large academic medical centers. It has been her mission to ensure that these system will be fully accessible to the patients and visitors for whom they are being created. Recently Sylvia helped found the Public Policy Lab, a non-profit organization committed to the more effective delivery of public services to the American people.
Until the very end of her life, Sylvia worked tirelessly to help organizations transform themselves and to work with architects and designers to adopt the tools of modern life to promote a better human experience. Sylvia was a Buddhist, and we can imagine that her spirit will live on in the passion of her colleagues and students and friends who embrace her zest for life and her belief that good design can transform peoples’ lives. I’ll think of her most when I am sitting weeding in my country garden that we explored together and in design committee meetings where I want to debate the merits of the different ideas on the table, when her sparkling chatter was always challenging, encouraging and enlightening.