What I Didn’t Get to Say to Michelle Obama (But Maybe My Message Still Got Through)

The National Design Award honoree took your statements about design and the U.S. all the way to the White House. Did he get his moment with Michelle?

white house

Tom Dair with Richard Whitehall from Smart Design at the White House.


I attended the 2009 National Design Awards event at the White House this past Friday. If you had seen my previous posting, you would know that I was hoping to get to meet the First Lady and say something profound about the importance of design, with the intent of elevating design awareness at the top level of government.

I want to thank all the folks that responded to the previous posting for all the thoughts and ideas. I decided to go with basically the comment posted by David-Henry Oliver: Ask her to describe something that effects her (a problem) and then work with the design community to deliver a solution that demonstrates the power of design. I felt the message might be a bit too wordy so in addition to delivering it verbally, at the last minute, I decided to hand write it on a small sheet of note paper and staple my card to the note (thanks to Brian Ward). Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Ms. Obama,


Design is a powerful tool for solving problems but it is currently underutilized in addressing the issues we face as a nation and as Americans. Please send me a problem (large or small) and I will work with leaders from the design community to deliver a unique and superior solution. Give it a try!

Respectfully submitted,

For better or for worse it was a three sentence proposal to the First Lady, Michelle Obama.


Guests milling around before the luncheon

Well, the event was really great–almost all of the winners and finalists were there along with many important Obama staffers and selected guests from the public. They arranged the guests at tables to promote new introductions, and within a few minutes, a myriad of design-related conversations began to flow, in between bites of tasty crab cakes. I was seated next to Mark Holbrook, the principal of Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School. He was interested in design education and I think he is a little bit of a designer himself in hearing about some of his recent projects.


Michael Bierut, Pentagram; Lisa Strausfeld, Pentagram, finalist Interaction Design; and Joe Reinstein, Deputy Social Secretary for the White House
(note the robot in the lower left corner!)


Next to Mark sat Joe Reinstein, the Deputy Social Secretary for the White House. Joe mentioned that there were several events going on in the White House that day and one of the keys to successful events was the ability to remain flexible with how each event would be orchestrated. He also mentioned that unfortunately, I was not going to get the chance to meet the First Lady face to face for that two second handshake and my brief opportunity to deliver my message on design.

Michelle Obama entered the room and proceeded to the stage to give her welcome to all the attendees and to address the topic of design. All and all it was a compelling speech and she linked much of the topic back to her life and her family as well as opportunity for improving the education of our children. Here’s the high point, when she said “Great designers also pursue a mission. Great designers design with mankind in mind. Building on the innovations of the past, you help to shape a better future.” After her address, the First Lady turned the podium over to Wayne Clough, the Secretary to the Smithsonian, and he went into detail regarding the awards and winners.


First Lady Michelle Obama passing through the crowd at the 2009
National Design Awards event at the White House


As the gala event was winding to an end and I had still not gotten the chance to deliver my message. I remembered what Joe Reinstein had said about staying flexible, and if I wasn’t going to get a chance to meet Michelle Obama, then I would have to be flexible and do the next best thing. I went back to speak with Joe. He seemed truly interested in design and how it might play into potential problem solving of current issues. I delivered my handwritten note to Joe and explained that the design community is passionate about making the world a better place and that we want a chance to be more involved. “Joe,” I said. “Here is my proposal to Ms Obama. Would you please deliver it for me?” Without a moment’s hesitation he said that he would make sure that the First Lady received the message.

So now I feel like my mission was accomplished in some form or fashion. Let’s see if the White House comes back to us. If they take us up on my proposal, I’ll need a lot of help from everyone out there. Stay tuned and please send me any thoughts you might have on next steps or possible scenarios.

What Should I Tell Michelle Obama About Design?


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Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the
company’s San Francisco office. He directs the firm’s Insights and
Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving
better design through an understanding of user behavior, business
factors, and technology trends.

Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical
devices to children’s toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of
awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.


About the author

Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends


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