Chris Pullman | Essays

What I've Learned

Chris Pullman is the only person who can be said to have won not one but two of the highest possible honors from AIGA. The first was the Corporate Leadership Award, which the company he shaped, Boston public broadcasting network WGBH, won in 1985. The second was the AIGA Medal, which Pullman himself won in 2002.

Chris Pullman was a young teacher at the Yale School of Art when he was recruited by Ivan Chermayeff, who had just redesigned WGBH's logo, to take charge of the station's in-house design department. He joined the company as Vice President for Design in 1973. This past spring, after 35 years, he announced that he was stepping down. At an emotional going-away party on October 28, he talked about his three-and-a-half decades at the station. He has kindly given us permission to publish his remarks here. [The Editors]

The chance invitation to work here at WGBH placed me in an environment that was a perfect fit for my temperament, and for my aspirations as a professional and as just a plain person. 

Once I came here, I recognized, gradually, why it felt so right as a place to work and associate. I’d like to take this opportunity to share ten lessons I learned in the past 35 years.

1. Work on things that matter

If you possibly can, use your skills and your time to make a difference. Long before I came to WGHB, I developed a preference for non-profit projects. In my freelance work and in my years at the office of George Nelson, the projects that interested me most were the ones for non-profit, pro-social clients. Early on, I decided that I wanted to work someplace that made a positive difference for people, and that affected a lot of people, not some boutique studio doing design for other designers.

So when the phone rang and it was Ivan Chermayeff saying that there was an opportunity to work at a TV station in Boston, my first reaction was “definitely not.” This was because my teachers and mentors at Yale had made it clear that the only way to squander a good education faster than going into advertising was to go into television. But I was vaguely curious to see what a TV studio was like, so I decided to just go up and scope the place out. 

After about 20 minutes with the then General Manager, Michael Rice, it became clear to me that what WGBH was up to was very different from what television in general was up to. So I said “yes,” and have found myself for the past 35 years in the ideal environment to do the kind of work I had hoped to do. 

In this first lesson I may be preaching to the choir, but I think it is particularly pertinent for young people who may be at their first way station on a longer professional journey. Given all the ways you could use your skills and your valuable time, pick something that serves the greater good. 

2. Work with people you like and respect
Birds of a feather flock together. That is a natural thing. Most of the people here at WGBH are here (or certainly stay here) because of our mission. Certainly, my long tenure has been largely because of the people in this room with whom I've shared such personal and heart-warming recollections of our time together. Since April, when I first announced my intention to leave WGBH, the private expression of these feelings has been so gratifying, both personally and professionally, that I recently suggested that maybe we should institute the policy of encouraging individuals to make periodic “mock retirement” announcements, with the goal of releasing more regularly the flow of kind remarks for the nourishment of the individual, since we are otherwise so reticent to praise or encourage others in our busy, self-centered daily lives. 

Which leads me to: 

3. Be nice

And be positive. And be respectful of the work of others. Strive to understand each others professional contributions and then respect them (as you would want them to respect you) with your actions and your comments. Remember: we are all applying our own particular skills towards a shared objective. 

4. Have high standards

Don’t settle for “whatever.” The corrosive Dilbert mind-set is depressing and demeaning. Wherever you choose to work, don’t give it a foothold. I prefer the “see you and raise you one” escalation of good ideas, even crazy ideas. High standards is something that has set this place apart. Even in hard times, it is important to keep hold of this core distinction, whatever it costs. 

5. Have a sense of humor

Humor is the grease of communications. Wit not only engages your head, it engages the other guy’s. Be serious, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t lose sight of the potential to use sly humor to make connections and put people at their ease. 

6. Design is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking

I knew this before I came here, but my time here has reinforced this idea. My position, first established in 1973, and unusually high up in the org chart, allowed me (and I should say: expected me) to attend to all aspects of the way this organization expressed itself. My job, and that of scores of designers I have worked with in my area, has been to help define and then express through our work, a consistent, honest and engaging persona for WGBH. (Today’s name for this, by the way, is branding, but it is a process as old as the profession.)

This role has led me into a weird soup of assignments: wacko projects like a giant 2 on wheels or a pre-stained dish towel to promote Julia Child's show; important projects like a capital campaign case statement or the first proposal for AMEX; inspiring projects like the informational graphics for Vietnam: a Television History or four different title sequences over the years for Masterpiece Theater; and gnarly projects like how to help frame the long-term strategic goals for this company.

Each of these projects was a puzzle to figure out within the constraints of budgets and time-lines, and with respect for the unique context of a particular problem. Whether it was how to draw a dog with low self-esteem or how to convince a company to underwrite a project, all of it was design to me. Ultimately this led to the biggest project of all: the design and construction of our new headquarters. It was an honor and an incredible 5-year high to work on this project. This was the project that for the first time gave us an opportunity to apply the same high standards we insist on for our programming to the physical environment in which we all work and in which we welcome the public.

The practice of design — dare I call it “intelligent design?" — has helped WGBH achieve a distinction among broadcasters and public media publishers. It is my hope that the next person to hold this responsibility for the foundation will have as much fun and have as expansive a mandate as I have had. 

7. Variety is the spice of life

When I came here in the early 70’ s the trend was toward monolithic design programs governed by a thick and sacred style manual. As I got to understand the business, this strategy seemed to me to make no sense for WGBH. With programming as diverse as The French Chef, NOVA and ZOOM, no one mode of visual expression could logically suite this range of content. It occurred to me that in fact variety itself can be a kind of consistency. But when the visual expressions of a company are always and rightfully different, you have to have some other constant that binds the work together, something that lets individual expressions be different, but makes them recognizable as a family of related materials. The goal in this game is to strive for the smallest number of constants and the largest number of variables. And you have to turn to non-visual sources of consistency. 

So, soon after I got here, I proposed that our design team adopt a set of nonvisual criteria to define “good design” without resorting to the normal formal jargon. If you and your client could answer “yes” to the following questions about a solution, then it probably is a good piece of design:

Is it clear? Can I understand what it is, can I read it, can I sense its purpose?

Is it accessible? Does it engage me, does it invite me in, is it easy and intuitive to use?

Is it appropriate? (to its budget, to the amount of time available to make it, to the language style and level of the audience, to the medium, to the objectives of the project, and to the family of materials it will join, etc.) 

A final measure, and perhaps the key measure in a business where variety is the norm, is quality. “Of the highest quality” does not mean expensive. It means thoughtful and well-executed in its genre. If all these things are present in a project, then it is likely to be successful, from a design point of view, and otherwise. 

8. Institutions have a character, just like people do

In fact, it is impossible to not have an institutional character or image. It is the sum total of a person’s experience of our staff, our physical plant, our programming and services, our communications — everything we say and do. Every person out there experiences a different assortment of these expressions, but they average out to define our institutional character or persona. This character cannot be contrived. If it is contrived it will only fool people for a little while. Like a person you know who says he is one thing but whose daily behavior suggests another. But a person’s character inevitably shifts as they mature. The same thing happens to companies like ours. Over the years I have observed that our own institutional character has shifted as our own self image has shifted. 

In the seventies, we identified ourselves as a local public broadcasting station, and we acted locally. We were known by our channel brand: Channel 2. Our self-image as an upstart local broadcaster willing to make a lot out of a little, encouraged a kind of smart-alecky attitude in our local persona. In the eighties, we identified ourselves as a national producer, creating one-third of all prime-time programming on national public television, as we do to this day. The focus shifted to our national, institutional identity and we became more of a big business. 

In the nineties we identified ourselves as an educational publisher. As media options began to proliferate, we became major publishers of program-related books, we had a catalog and product division, we began to dabble in new media, publishing video-discs and CD’s and producing content for new on-line services like Prodigy. In the 90’s we began to see ourselves as a “content company,” down-playing the “broadcaster” moniker and focusing on our role nationally and internationally as a high quality educational publisher. And now, in this century, we identify ourselves as a major public media producer and distributor, a major driver of public media policy in the future. 

Each of these shifts in self-perception required a shift in expression for our work, ideally without changing the underlying DNA of the place. We are now approaching the end of this decade. What will our self-perception be in 2010? How will we express it? How can we respond to these natural and gradual shifts while still maintaining our core character, a character that people, both locally and nationally, know, respect, and willingly support? 

9. We’re all in the “understanding business” 

This term was first coined by the architect Richard Saul Wurman to define the design profession but it strikes me that, no matter what we call ourselves, what we all do here is ultimately about helping people understand the world and their own life. This is the idea that our mission statement reflects, and is at the heart of our institutional character. And it is what has attracted me to this work all this time. 

10. You are what you eat

We are all the result of a lifetime of experiences, some good, some not so good. My 32 years of experiences before I came here prepared me to be useful to a place like this. My 35 years here have enriched me and allowed me to grow in ways I never would have imagined. Now I’m going to see how that diet has prepared me for my next life. I will miss you all. Bye.

Posted in: Business, Education , Media

Comments [27]

Mr. Pullman,

Bravo & good luck!

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran

Well said. I have to say, everything I see from WGBH is beautiful. I sure with other PBS stations had clones of you.

Good luck in whatever you're doing next.

i'm actually going to use this as my sole parenting guide (i have a 2-year old daughter). i have just enough room to tattoo these 10 wisdoms on my left inner forearm in, say 18 pt hoefler text, center justified. this will be my permanent life crib-sheet.
thanks from me and my future nobel prize winner.
Gong Szeto

Good Luck in your ventures,
Thank you for a great read, very useful!
Aaron Irizarry

When I read an article like this, I am further convicted that there is no other pursuit more gratifying and fulfilling than design, into which I can pour my talents. Thank you so much for such a great treatise on design Mr. Pullman


I worked for WGBH's design department as a college intern in the summer of 1978, and I would say that in many ways I learned as much during those three months as I did in five years of design school. Chris's guidelines for determining whether something is good design — is it clear? is it accessible? is it appropriate — are just as relevant for me 30 years later. Thanks, Chris.
Michael Bierut

Dear Chris

These are the same things you've been saying for decades - and they're still wonderful and inspiring - thanks for all the great design and all your help over the years.
david comberg

Years ago when I did a majority of work in television, I would introduce myself as a broadcast designer living in Boston.... I cannot tell you how many times folks would immediately reply "Oh, you must be working for Chris Pullman..."

Sad to say, I never had that opportunity.

Best wishes to you, Chris

Joanne Kaliontzis

I remember my teacher, Ken Hine, told me stories of man named Chris who in his eyes was changing the paradigm of design and communication at WGBH. I have printed Chris' criteria for good design on our wall at Saatchi NY.
Take care Chris.

Chris DeLorenzo

Thanks for sharing this reflections. You were a wonderful teacher and it was always refreshing to participate in a critique with such transparent (and well-designed) criteria. They wisely and effectively omit a whole lot of unproductive conversation and revision. I still find it amazing how much the work of design is all about #1 despite all the technology/information/source material at our disposal. #1 is really hard! Take pride in doing #1 well!

Last Spring, I was lucky enough to meet Chris Pullman and be given a tour of WGBH's new headquarters. The space is almost as inspirational as Mr. Pullman himself and it definitely meets all of his requirements for good design. Seeing Chris's work at WGBH really expanded my idea of what designers can be and how we can impact organizations in major ways. As a student in NC State's College of Design, I am constantly trying to define what design is and what my role in design can be. Chris's seventh lesson is something that is constantly reinforced in my classes but it was nice to see the theory in action at WGBH. I was most impressed with the use of environmental typography at WGBH. It allowed immediate understanding for any visitors, inspiration for employees and allowed the public to interact with the company. The design of the spaces had obvious impacts on the work habits of those at WGBH and enhanced the experience of visitors. Windows were even labeled from the outside so that the public can understand and engage with what WGBH does without even entering the building. The solution is simple and seems obvious. It is certainly elegant. Thank you for the experience and the inspirational words.
Rachael Huston

Thank you, Chris, for the advice...
Sareena Sernsukskul

a role model and such a classy guy.
Elizabeth Resnick

"birds of a feather" ? tsktsktsk: defacto segregation;-)

Some people are like beacons of intelligent and tasteful design. Chris is one of them but there is a generation or two of designers who have learned from him.
Thank You.
p.s. Anyone have a copy of that Morning Pro Musica Poster (early bird gets the worm)?
Laura Chessin

wow, this was a compelling post. cheers, chris

I saw this live, at his WGBH going away party. Definitely inspirational and compelling.

WGBH is already lesser without him.

Chris, your motion class caused me innumerable all-nighters! Kidding aside, your wit, work ethic, and straight-forward critique are a constant inspiration. When you were showing us WGBH pieces we had the pleasure of watching your notoriously even-handed facade break into childlike amusement while explaining just how seriously dangerous it is to launch a spinning guitar into the air and blast it apart with so-called "controlled" explosives. Best wishes.

Hola Uncle Chris,

Was so pleased to read your post here -- can't wait to see what flows from your brushes when you're beholden to nothing. Come hang with the Wheels this xmas! I'm working on a secret project I want to show you.
kate wheeler

Chris: I always think of you as the Clint Eastwood of Graphic Design: tall, cool, collected, and creative. You were my teacher at Yale in '94 and I still remember the calm and inspiring way you worked with us. Clarity, concision, and brevity. Your teaching, and the visual resources you shared with us, changed my view of design, type, music and motion. Thank you! And thanks for sharing your ten lessons. Priceless. All best to you, Lucy Hitchcock.
Lucinda Hitchcock

Chris, I want to thank you so much for bringing me into your GBH design family as a freelancer so long ago. The projects have always challenged, inspired and defined me as an artist. Your personal art always blew me away, you could have been an illustrator. The very best in your next projects.
Mark S. Fisher

Chris, you are an unforgettable teacher; your comments remind me how influential you have been in my practice. First, the part of Yale's program that grew from this methodology is its greatest strength and has left the deepest impression upon me. Second, your approach opened the space for a web standards movement dedicated to increasing the accessibility of valuable content, so apparently we've been eating 1, 2, 4, 6, and 9. The more I'm able to work in the mode that you and Jessica have defined, the more likely I am to give it 35 years. Thank you.

As a graphic design student at the Museum School in Boston, you're impact and influence on the design community was widely felt. Two of your designers, Paul Souza and Doug Scott, taught at the SMFA. They brought such energy and passion for their design work at PBS into the classroom!

Later when I became the Art Director of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour for 10 years, you gave me such sound advice and 'set the bar' for my work at PBS, and later for my teaching.

Chris, you are always the gentleman, inspiring integrity, and with a towering sense of compassion, that all could feel when coming into contact with your calming presence.

Enjoy your second life! You will be missed for those of us still in our first lives!

Cathe Ishino

Dear Chris,

I rembering hearing you speak on two ocassions at the Swain School of Design "Design Forum" Series in the late 70's and early 80's. I believe this forum was the brainchild of your friend, the late Tom Corey. You made a profound impact on me and the way I approach my work, which has stuck with me throughout my career.

I have also followed WGBH over the years, and feel truely blessed for it's existence.

Thanks for making a difference,
David Ferreira

Was so pleased to read your post here -- can't wait to see what flows from your brushes when you're beholden to nothing. Come hang with the Wheels this xmas! I'm working on a secret project I want to show you.


Dear Chris

I was so pleased to read about your articles by web.
I remenbered about you and Paul Souza in WGBH.
It is my dear memory which we made many animation images for "Nucrea Age" with your staff.
I made my lot of nuisance to you, but At that time, It was a hard age to make animation images by computer.
I do not forget your kindness. and taste of a home made jam that your wife gave me.
Chris, you realy a gentleman. and you have good talents.
All best to you and your beatiful wife.

Masahiko Toyoshima
Masahiko Toyoshima

Lessons for us all. Well stated. Thank you.
Douglas May

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