Viola and Design

I graduated from college in communication design about two months ago. Everyday I saw how design students do not understand how to take criticism. Even more, they don’t know how to give criticism. Criticism is the corner-stone of what we do in design. I want to pose a personal example of how I learned how to take (and how to give) good criticism.

I started my college career as a viola performance major. It was pretty much the only thing I knew how to do. I played a wooden instrument with a long stick made of horse hair in front of the best our school had to offer, five days a week. That was intimidating as hell. I might play a sour note, but they always made sure that I understood it was never a reflection of me as a person, but purely a mistake which could be refined through practicing that particular note. Unskilled designers don’t know how to do this. Unskilled designers fear criticism.

Throughout high school, I payed a woman $45 to critique me for two hours each sunday. This was, by far, the best education I‘ve received in my life. Everything I’ve accomplished—professionally and personally, is because of the lessons I took with her. I learned mistakes didn’t define me as a person. It was an example of growth.

When someone tells you your design is bad, never take it personally. You aren’t your design. Your design is a product of your knowledge, and you don’t know everything (in fact, you don’t know anything). Do the best you can, practice, and learn from mistakes. Mistakes are good. Mistakes are great. They are a documented journey of knowledge. And always ask why it was bad.

When someone says “that isn’t good” or the popular “that looks like shit”, don’t take it personally. Instead, ask them why it looks like shit. Engage them. You’re putting them on the spot and challenging their critiquing abilities—you’re also about to receive valuable feedback. People are afraid to give feedback because they’re unsure of how you might react. Show them that you’re willing to hear them out and they will be comfortable telling you what they think. As a result, they learn how to give criticism and you obtain valuable feedback and can improve your work. Win win.

Find people who are good at critiquing and keep those people around. Trust those people. To design alone means to grow your creativity within a vacuum. They are far more important than photoshop or sublime text. What you create doesn’t define you, but how you approach it and your willingness to challenge yourself through the advice of others does. Show people your works in progress. Tell them you’re unsure.

If there’s anything I want to stress, it’s that people have been where you want to be. Whenever I recited a line for my viola teacher, she would play back the same line and my heart would always race. She motivated me by showing me the skill was obtainable.

She taught me through criticism.