Designer Paradox: Emotion vs. Stoicism

Today's visual designer experiences an interesting, common paradox when producing his or her best work: How do you balance the necessary emotional investment when creating with the required stoicism when receiving negative feedback?

An example: We recently landed a big branding project for a new product that a very reputable, rainbow-colored company was releasing. The first phase of our scope was to create a powerful visual identity that hit all the key strokes and objectives. The brand needed to feel simple and modern while still communicating just enough life, vibrance and optimism. As with many branding projects, you don't always get the perfect creative direction to set your foundation forward. The stakeholders in this instance weren't really focused on the emotional tonality of the brand, (they were a team of engineers) so it was up to us to define this foundational voice and personality.

We spent about a week digging deep into the rough demographic of the product, researching competitors (who all had visual identities that were dated, and sterile), internally defining what we thought the 'tone' of the brand should be. The next two weeks were dedicated to head-down, in-the-weeds, logo explorations. It was all I was thinking about— every hour, every night. Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that I'd sketch out while laying in bed next to my girlfriend. I'd meet with Ray, my co-designer, and we'd discuss different revelations and concepts. Our hearts were 100% in the work, and like many awesome projects, it fully consumed me.

Then we presented the first round of logo explorations. Simply put, things did not go well. The concepts and tonality weren't coming through. We were criticized heavily for most of our options feeling too simplistic & generic. We were even being indirectly accused of not really 'trying' or pushing the boundaries, which particularly struck a chord, as Onyx has always banked on hard-work and progressive thinking. Our assumptions about our audience, particularly their disinterest in conceptual brand thinking, were incorrect.

It was a huge blow to what we had worked weeks on creating. I remember being at lunch, staring at my boring sandwich, feeling the pit in my stomach grow. As a partner at the shop, I found myself in an frustrating predicament in the moment: I had to mask all of my feelings of internal strife in front of the rest of the team & the project stakeholders, appearing cordial and receptive, although the work itself was driven by pure emotion. Most designers will experience this often in their careers. Feedback comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it's enough to make you question your self-worth and ability as a designer.

After that initial meeting, I was forced to face the problem head on. Dealing with negative feedback was never easy for me. Now that I was a business owner and at a higher level in my career that I had ever been, the stakes were even higher to remain strong in the face of heavy criticism. As I scanned my brain for experiences and learning, I was able to get through this moment and went back to the drawing board for round 2. This time, I was going to forget my ignorant assumptions. I was going to re-read every word of feedback. I went through a lot of my old work from the last few years to see how much I had grown. These things would allow me to hit the rest button.

The second round was some of our hardest & best work to date. This is work that I am still extremely proud of, and ultimately, work that resulted in a final brand mark, additional style guide, and an very happy client. They even had a hard time choosing between options and commented that it almost looked "too good" when compared to the progress of the product.

I learned a lot through this experience, and many more like it. Here are my tips on how to balance emotion and stoicism as related to design:


You are not your work.

When your work is being critiqued and judged, it's important to remember that any comments being made is most often about the creative that is being shown, and not your personal character. It's tough to separate your self-worth from your work when you are an emotional designer or work in a creative industry. But it's worth remembering that most clients don't want to react negatively or put you down (unless you're dealing with a nasty person). Their input is most often to ensure the creation of the best product or brand for their needs. In the start-up world, it's especially important because your clients are often the owners, and have gone great lengths and taken huge risks to build something they care about. It's a beautiful narrative that is worth respecting. By creating a buffer between yourself and your work after you have executed, you will be able to easily take feedback through an objective lens. 

 

Get clear answers.

Initial rounds of creative serve an important purpose that go beyond project deliverables. First passes are a chance to stimulate initial conversation, bring up crucial questions that weren't answered previously, and help set the context for an entire project. In order to capitalize on the power of a first round, it's important that you 100% understand the feedback that is provided. If you aren't sure about what someone is saying, ask them to clarify. You should walk away from these conversations with clear, actionable steps. Remain positive and upbeat through this process— you want to portray that you are on the same 'side of the fence' as the rest of the team and that you all share the same goal: to make something awesome.

 

Don't be arrogant, but don't be a pushover.

It's crucial to be aware of your own missteps, or misguided creative decisions. A person that cannot acknowledge their mistakes with grace and clarity are unpleasant to work with and provide a displeasing aura of arrogance. The other side of this coin is being overly apologetic and falling into the puppy dog role. Ideally, part of the reason someone has chosen to work with you is because you invest a lot of time in developing your creative taste and design sensibility. Don't forget that at the end of the day, you are being approached for your expertise. That being said, to assume there is no value in feedback from others is unrealistic and ignorant. I like to follow a foundation for certain responses to feedback. 

Explain your reasoning -->  Acknowledge your mistake -->  Offer an actionable solution.

Branding Example: "This exploration was specifically targeting a younger, artistic demographic and drew inspiration from hip-hop culture. I totally understand now that this brand is more sophisticated and needs to be a bit more accessible. I think we can position ourselves further away from our original assumptions and focus on creating a more mainstream aesthetic."

Product Design Example: "We positioned this call-to-action as the highest priority on the screen, which is why it is so prominent. Now that I understand that this is actually secondary to the other content, we can make sure we make the visual hierarchy reflect that."

 

Re-frame failure.

You've heard this 100 times, but it's easy to forget: failure is part of success. If you are able to learn from a mistake or failure, then there was significant value in that experience. Don't aim to fail, but if you do, learn, grow, and move on. Any successful person will tell you that they've failed over and over. I love basketball, when I forget this lesson, I like to watch this video by my boy MJ: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA7G7AV-LT8

 

If you can't beat 'em, try harder.

Turn your emotional response into an advantage. Fill yourself with the drive to go beyond your capabilities. Look back at the last round and really think about the feedback that was provided. Acknowledge your mistakes and missteps, and take it up a notch. Be smarter, more grounded, and knock it out. Get inspired and know that you will overcome anything.