Ellen Bruss speaking at RMCAD graduation about a the case for design.

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September 24, 2019


8 min read

The Case for Design: A Graduation Keynote

Good morning to all of the graduates; and their families and friends.

I am honored to be speaking to you today, at a place that I have watched grow into a great institution. My design & marketing firm, EBD, has a long tie with the professors and students of RMCAD, and I am proud of what all of you have built here. Our art and design community has grown tremendously, and RMCAD plays a significant role in helping Denver rise to new levels of achievement in culture.

But today I am here to congratulate you in the place that was the former site of the Consumptive Relief Society. I think there are likely a lot of Consumptive sighs of Relief here today.

Ellen Bruss walking fourth in line to the keynote speech at the RMCAD graduation.
Ellen Bruss wearing a red coat walking with others to the keynote speech at the RMCAD graduation.

Graduating from college is a time when you transfer to a different world. You’re leaving a safe nest of colleagues, friends, teachers, and mentors. You’re leaving a place that has discipline and rigor. Now it’s time for you to maintain that rigor on your own. I know this new horizon may seem intimidating or unachievable, but all of you here have tremendous courage. You had to have courage to commit to a field of study, and the courage to commit to a creative career path. It’s definitely not the most straightforward path, but if your heart and soul owns this path, then you know it is right.

Close up of Ellen Bruss delivering the keynote speech at the RMCAD graduation.
Ellen Bruss standing at a podium on stage delivering the keynote speech at the RMCAD graduation.

I grew up in a small town of 7,500 people in Wisconsin. My interests when I was young ran the gamut–I sewed clothing, painted, designed jewelry, made pottery, I did Native American beading, knitting, embroidery and macrame. I changed my handwriting repeatedly and presented it to my family. And, I was the graphic designer for our family parties and invitations. I was also good at math. At 16, when asked what I wanted to be for the rest of my life, I announced that I was going to be a Graphic Designer. It seemed more fun than math, and I knew it was for me. It took courage to announce that decision, which I didn’t realize until that moment that I had. The horrified stares from my parents, guidance counselors and all the adults around me gave me my first taste of the lack of popularity of a creative career. Thankfully, I say facetiously, I was in a male-dominated family, so no one was that concerned about my career prospects. But I was concerned about it, and I knew this was a path that I could be successful and happy in for a long time. I knew it could be a career, not just a job. Having that faith took courage. I am sure all of you have had the same conversation, and maybe some of you found support for it. Perhaps a lot of you didn’t.

At 16, I announced that I was going to be a Graphic Designer. It seemed more fun than math, and I knew it was for me.

I marched forward, pursuing a BFA with an emphasis in Graphic Design at Michigan State University. The department head was a former New Yorker Magazine designer, a student of the Bauhaus movement, and a believer in the process of design.

Close up of a RMCAD student with red nail polish holding their diploma.

I graduated from college and moved to Colorado in the height of one of Denver’s legendary bust economies. I found jobs in retail merchandising and at a print shop. Eventually, I got lucky and was offered a job working for Feyline which was owned by Barry Fey, the premier music promoter in Denver and the midwest.

Alongside this, I worked freelance for agencies large and small. None of this was easy–the music business was was extremely stressful, fast-paced, with loud, volatile promoters running the show. People always ask me if I was there when Chuck & Barry threw chairs out the window. The design and advertising agencies weren’t all that different. Each one of them had strong personalities running the show. They all had different ways of doing things. And it’s a tough, demanding, deadline-oriented business. But the process of working hard and fast under pressure taught me confidence. Not much phases me at work today.

A crowd of graduates and attendees outside under a white RMCAD tent.

Through this network, I picked up MCA Concerts out of LA, and Janus Mutual Funds as clients, and started my own agency. I have grown my business for 28 years now, and days can be fun and they can be a challenge, but all of it has made me grow personally and professionally. Having my own firm has taught me to have even more courage. I have to have it to change with the times, stay relevant, and face difficulties head-on. I have to wake up every day with hope, optimism, drive and determination. As a result, I have a rewarding career life; and amazing colleagues and clients.

As creatives, we take our culture, politics, religion, places, and families and weave them into our work to help explain concepts to viewers. We are not merely artists or designers, we are thinkers and communicators. We are able to seamlessly translate an idea, a mood–something completely nebulous to others– into a concrete piece of communication; whether this is a website, a video game, a clothing line, or a piece of sculpture. All art and design is about communication and observation. We see things differently. Our job is to take that power and use it to help explain ideas and concepts to the world. Andy Warhol said “My fascination with letting images repeat and repeat – or in film’s case “run on” – manifests my belief that we spend much of our lives seeing without observing.”

Your options are limitless—but you have to show up and you have to work hard. It doesn’t happen overnight.

You are graduating at an amazing time in the world of art and design. The barriers of discipline are being ripped down. Multi-disciplinary practices are becoming common. Architects are designing chairs. Graphic designers are doing interiors. And painters are making clothing. More and more we are considered design thinkers and problem solvers, across all platforms.

My life has always involved art and creativity. I have always been drawn to museums, galleries, and creative people. I continually immerse myself in fashion, art, design, architecture and the messages and connections between the disciplines. I find influence in nature, travel and food. A doggie pickup sign in Italy means something different to me than it does to others. I am never not studying creativity, color, balance, and form. Or critiquing the typefaces on a menu. And I’ve been fortunate in my life to be able to apply my creativity to many different disciplines.

I honed my sense of interior design and was able to guide the direction of the interiors at the Hotel Born. I also oversaw the curation of the hotel’s art collection, and our library. And, I did what I was trained to do–the Branding and Graphic Design of the hotel.

I’ve been involved with creativity by volunteering with cultural institutions. I serve on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, working to build their current building, fundraising, event planning, and with my business, doing their design.

I collect art as a hobby. Artists, galleries and museums are a passion of mine.

I tell you about my path because I have forged a life of creativity, not just a career of creativity. My path is an example of a creative path.

Ellen Bruss and others seated on the lawn under a tent at the RMCAD graduation.

It has taken time to weave all of this together, and passion to make it work. Our culture supports the idea of overnight success. But all success is hard work, dedication, and commitment—it is a journey. That journey is bumpy, fun, exciting, depressing, overwhelming, amazing, and rewarding. The journey is what makes you, and it helps you grow. Kylie Jenner didn’t create a billion-dollar cosmetics company overnight. Her parents, siblings, and she herself worked extremely hard and publicly over years and years to build a name for themselves. When Kylie was 10 years old, she was on a reality TV show. During her teenage years, she was also involved in clothing and cosmetic lines, and modeling. I know what you are thinking—that these things were handed to her. Or that you can’t believe I am bringing up a Kardashian. But it’s a good example. Yes, the opportunities were there. But she had to actually show up, and do the work. Every day of her life, every evening, she has to show up. Woody Allen said “80% of life is showing up” and it’s true. Your options are limitless–but you have to show up and you have to work hard. It doesn’t happen overnight.

You can be whoever you want to be, and do whatever you want to do. For me, this means to not overthink it, or talk myself out of it.

All of you are following your dreams. Designing a dress, painting a painting, creating a logo—these are things people dream about being able to do. It’s magic really—creativity is something not everyone has. You are taking a risk following a creative path, and are hopeful and idealistic that that risk will pay off. That takes courage. And courage is what will make you successful. I’ve seen many people fail in their careers, and many people prosper. The people who succeed aren’t necessarily the smartest or the best. They are the people who keep learning, growing, trying. They have talent and drive. If they need a new skill, they learn it. If they need to get better at something, they do it. They are not afraid of putting themselves out there. And they are honest with themselves. If you’re challenging yourself, there will be failures, mistakes, and humble pie. But that’s how you will learn, and grow, and realize your potential.

RMCAD student shaking hands and receiving her diploma on stage at graduation.

You can be whoever you want to be, and do whatever you want to do. For me, this means to not overthink it. To not talk myself out of it. And to not go through one by one all of the places I can fail. An old friend of mine used to say “if it ain’t scary, it ain’t good” –and he was right, the best things in life are scary. But they are also the times where you make the most progress and learn and grow the fastest. They are the times that take courage.

I stand here today knowing that in picking the creative path, all of you have courage. You love what you do. Not everyone around you understands what you do. But you are pursuing it nonetheless. You know in your heart that it is the right path. So be true to yourself and work hard–all things are possible for those who believe that they can do it. Remember that the path is long and winding and will be full of a lot of adventures, and ups and downs. Have the courage to open yourself up to the journey.

The people who succeed aren’t necessarily the smartest or the best. They are the people who keep learning, growing, trying.

Nelson Mandela said “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

So on this graduation day, I ask each of you to acknowledge the courage that it took you to get here. And I ask you to say to yourself “how I am going to reach my true self and potential?” Then say it out loud. Dare to be different and dare to make an impact. And then reach for the stars, which are there for the dreamers.

Thank you and Congratulations!