2021 SEGD Fellow: Sylvia Harris

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On Day 1 of the 2021 SEGD Conference Experience Philadelphia, Sylvia Harris (1953-2011) joined the ranks of SEGD Fellows alongside notable experiential graphic designers including Ed Schlossberg, Paula Scher, Jane Davis Doggett, Massimo Vignelli, Robert Venturi and Sue Gould, just to name a few. Sylvia is the first posthumous Fellow recognized by SEGD. Read on to learn more about her incredible life and career.

The SEGD Fellow Committee convened in April 2021 to review nominations for the 2021 SEGD Fellow. From those nominated, the committee chose Sylvia Harris (1953-2011). In recommending Sylvia for confirmation, committee member Michael Reed stated, “Although this honor will be posthumous, the committee felt that Sylvia Harris’ accomplishments and contributions to the practice and advancement of environmental graphic design exemplify SEGD’s ideals.”

Sylvia Harris was a remarkable advocate of good design for real people—a Citizen Designer—recognized for her commitment to improving the civic experience through design. Sylvia was also a design innovator of great energy, passion, and intelligence who generously gave back to the design community.

SEGD first recognized Sylvia’s contributions in 2012 with the establishment of the Sylvia Harris Award honoring her legacy by “supporting other vanguards dedicated to public design.” (This year’s award went to “Seat at the Table” designed by Katie Lee and Lynn Kiang of Dome  Collective.)

After graduating from Yale in 1980, Sylvia co-founded Two Twelve Associates with classmates Juanita Dugdale and David Gibson. While building their new design practice, Sylvia honed the skills and interests that would ultimately propel her career. Her groundbreaking work in digital consumer banking systems for Citibank set an early standard for human-centered automated customer service.

At Sylvia Harris LLC, which she established in 1994, Sylvia shifted her focus to design planning and strategy and guided some of the nation’s largest hospitals, universities and civic agencies through systems planning, policy development and innovation management. 

As creative director for Census 2000, Sylvia was tasked with encouraging more Americans—including those who had been previously underrepresented—to participate in the Census. Her last venture, Citizen Research & Design, helped public sector organizations better communicate with the people they serve. Unfortunately, Sylvia’s new endeavor was cut short by her sudden and untimely death in July 2011.

In addition to her practice, Sylvia taught and mentored a generation of new designers at the Yale School of Art, Cooper Union and Purchase College. 

As a designer and as a person, Sylvia Harris always wanted to do the right thing, the smart thing, and the thing that would make the biggest difference to the most people. She was a model citizen and a model designer—a Citizen Designer.

Accepting on behalf of Sylvia at the SEGD Conference Experience Philadelphia was her husband, Gary Singer.