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You Are Not Your Work

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Michael Janda explains that in order to succeed in the design industry, it is imperative that you remember that you are not merely the sum of your work. If you interpret design critique as a character critique, you are setting yourself up in a defensive position that will impede your ability to improve your design skills and adapt to different creative environments.

Graphic designers can be a sensitive lot. Or perhaps it is artists in general who have thin skin. Either way, there is something about right-brained people that reads like a prescription drug bottle: “Caution: Do not mix with sleeplessness, constructive criticism, subpar coffee, or well-meaning advice.” In order to succeed in the design industry, however, it is imperative that you remember that you are not merely the sum of your work. If you interpret design critique as a character critique, you are setting yourself up in a defensive position that will impede your ability to improve your design skills and adapt to different creative environments.

Some time ago I walked past one of our designer’s desks and glanced at the design she was working on. It was pretty rough and headed down the wrong path. I knew this designer was a little sensitive, so I tried to choose my words carefully. “So, you’re getting started on X project? Be sure to review the example designs the client sent over that illustrate what they are hoping to achieve.” That was all I said. I walked away, confident that I had handled the exchange tastefully. Later that day, a few of my employees who sat near her told me that after I left she went into the restroom and sobbed. She didn’t just “cry,” she “sobbed.”

I wish that she had taken what I meant as a gentle nudge in a better direction as a good thing rather than a bad thing. If I did not know without a doubt that she was a skilled and capable designer, I would not have hired her in the first place!

In order to grow in your design skills, you have to hunger for critique and advice from wherever you can get it. Feedback is critical when it comes to being able to push your design to higher levels. If a colleague were to say to you, “Why don’t you try reducing the size of the logo a little bit,” you shouldn’t interpret it as them saying to you, “You call yourself a designer? You suck, you’re ugly, you smell like the back of a 747, and your momma wears combat boots!” You have to realize that your work does not define you as a person and find it inside yourself to say, “Thank you. That is a great suggestion. I’ll give it a try and see how it looks.” Then you must work to truly feel grateful that your design is being pushed and that your colleague felt comfortable enough with you to be able to offer caring, professional advice to help you look better in the long run.

Give the feedback you receive a try; if the new work looks better, keep it. If it doesn’t, then go back to what you had. One of the keys to growing in your skills is to learn not only to welcome feedback but to desire it from anyone who will give it to you. The greatest designers surround themselves with people whom they trust both as individuals and as creative advisors.

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