The oldest designer in the room

What do I say to a group of groovy young professionals half my age?

Topics: Imprint, Design,

The oldest designer in the room (Credit: Jeff Rogers)
This article originally appeared on Imprint.

ImprintLast fall, I was invited to give a lunchtime lecture at Hyperakt, a groovy design firm in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Much to my surprise, I don’t get terribly nervous before large groups. Maybe it’s because the lights are out and I’m speaking into the darkness, unable to focus on my audience’s sleepy eyelids. But give me a group that I actually have to make eye contact with and I simply lose my words. The Hyperakt space was about the right size to send me into a psychic tailspin.

I arrived typically early and sat on a bench a few buildings over from Hyperakt, peering nervously at the office’s exterior (a cool storefront). A few young designers were busy hauling plastic-covered food platters, which I assumed were for my lunchtime soiree. I suddenly found myself gasping for breath and leaned back on the bench to suck in some crisp October air. I was probably twice as old as those kids; what on earth was I so anxious about? I was twice as old as those kids; that’s what I was so anxious about.

The oldest-person-in-the-room thing is happening to me more and more these days, and I am not amused. Part of me still wants to consider myself a peer to these young designers, but in reality — gasp — I’m now their parents’ contemporary. Nick at Nite is not ironic TV viewing for me; it’s iconic. I actually remember when TV shows were “brought to you in living color.” I am getting old. Ye olde.

The Hyperakt studio was warm, yet professional, and felt like someplace you’d be happy to come to every morning. The designers were polite, friendly and appreciative; but again, I was keenly aware of the vast age difference between us. Two old friends arrived; people I hadn’t seen since I went into “Eat, Pray, Love” mode about a year ago. Several former students popped up, too. The small space had filled, and I was mildly relieved, since part of me assumed that most who’d RSVP’d would have had last-minute projects that couldn’t wait. But there would be only a few feet between me and all those eyeballs.

I’d reached out to my therapist while I sat outside a half hour before with a sappy and mildly desperate email about never working again. As I was about to start my talk, I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket. I peeked down, and saw that she was returning my call. That small connection — even though I was unable to pick up — grounded me again. I took a deep breath and began.

I am a naturally shy person, with a speaking voice that makes people lean forward to understand what has been termed “mumbling.” Somehow, I manage to summon a different, alternate persona when I’m speaking in public; a Gail who is articulate and even occasionally funny. I am able to muster a confidence that eludes me in the rest of my life, and about a year ago, oozed into my professional sphere as well.

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The frighteningly youthful designers seated only a few feet in front of me looked eager to soak up some old fogey wisdom. The lights were not turned down, and I was told that I should expect to be interrupted with questions since it was an informal, intimate chat. I feigned shock and recoiled to a corner, noting that I wasn’t used to that many strangers looking at me.

I have decided that any talks I do right now have to touch on my current struggle (shaky confidence syndrome). It just wouldn’t be honest otherwise, and I am more than certain that many of my concerns are standard issue for designers my age; money, falling behind in technology, dying alone — all that fun stuff. But I realize I’ve become more of an extreme case than even I am willing to tolerate. I can hear myself whining with every keystroke even now and it makes me cringe.

I worried that perhaps I was a bit too revealing in my little Brooklyn moment, but the feedback was surprisingly positive, and people were smiling. Those young designers I feared approached me with helpful suggestions and encouragement, like they were rooting for me to succeed. They ended up having more words of wisdom for me than I did for them. I basked in their warmth, and was ready to set up shop in Carroll Gardens at the next available desk, or perhaps more appropriately, sign adoption papers.

Any wrongly perceived grooviness dissolved into accessibility and compassion, and I left thanking the Hyperakt-ers as sincerely as they were thanking me. And I noticed their good manners, too, like any old lady would.

Illustrations by the always-stylish Jeff Rogers

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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