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Remembering Sylvia Harris

It is with the deepest sadness that I write this post to tell you that Sylvia Harris, dear friend and esteemed member of the design community, passed away peacefully on Sunday, July 24th, 2011. She was surrounded by more than 20 family and friends who flew in from all over the country to be at her side, and is survived by her sister, Juliette Harris, her husband Gary Singer, and their beautiful daughter, Thai.


If you've strolled through the Central Park Zoo in New York, participated in the 2000 U.S. census or selected an iconic stamp at the post office, then you've benefited from the work of design strategist Sylvia Harris. Throughout her vibrant 25-year career she has partnered with high-profile clients—in business, nonprofit and government—to yield rewarding projects and a life's work dedicated to removing barriers by ensuring that public information systems are accessible to everyone.
After graduating with a BFA in communication arts and design from Virginia Commonwealth University, in her hometown of Richmond, Harris set off for Boston. The move was initially motivated by romance, but her experiences there ultimately sparked her passion for design. Despite an undergraduate focus on film and photography, Harris was hired as a designer at WGBH, Boston's public television station. “I learned how to make visual things,” says Harris of parlaying one skill set into another, “and if you know how to make things, you can make one thing or the next thing.” Harris, who has an easy-going, approachable manner, is humble about the considerable talent and drive that enabled her to adapt so readily to her new profession.
On her first big break:
My firm got a series of contracts with Citibank to work on the design of the first ATM. I learned everything I know about user testing, product design and strategic planning from that experience. It was like going to graduate school in usability and I made contacts that have lasted to this day.










She had some basic design skills, but it was her WGBH boss, designer Chris Pullman, whom Harris credits with not only giving her a chance but for also recognizing her potential. “He showed interest in my career, in me, and he gave me advice.” The admiration was mutual, she recalls. “I liked what he was doing… working not for the private sector but in this other whole world of design for the public good. It made a big impression.” Pullman, who was in his early thirties, stood out in a professional landscape populated by older men. Harris notes, “There were few women, no people of color, few people close to me in age—there was not much to choose from for a mentor in the late 1970s.” Pullman's early influence helped inform her career path, and later her choice of graduate school, Yale.


More here.


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