Talking of Design

Don’t be critical of criticism

20/06/09 • OPINION

I’m currently looking through a number of my old sketchbooks and portfolio pieces from my time at art college, and also from my time studying for my Graphic Arts degree at university.

The process of going through this stuff really sent my mind wandering back in time to some of the experiences and wisdom that I gained during my time studying. There are a number of useful things that I learnt back then that I still apply to my professi0nal practice today. One area that stands out is in regard to criticism.

I wanna tell you a little story …

Art college was a big and brilliant eye opener for me: first time out of the school environment of not having to go through hoops”, wear a stupid uniform, go to different rooms when the box in the corner beeped at me etc.

At school, I was timetabled for my A‑level to do about 6 hours of art” and about the same of design” a week. The rest of the time was taken up sitting in what looked like an airport waiting room doing nowt; or in a room full of feeble computers and being told to be quiet every 4 minutes by a kind of sinister nun in normal clothes.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a good laugh in school 6th form, but the National Curricula” (which sounds like an infectious throat virus) is not a good model for an aspiring artist. Indeed, I could draw, but, looking back, I was about as much an artist” as Nick Griffin is an intelligent human being”.

At art college, it was a chance to do nothing but art all day every day, wear my own clothes, mix with like minded people, and be honest and real” with the tutors without having to say Sir” or Miss” after every other word — or get told to tuck my shirt in, or told off for having paint on my trousers. FFS.

The tutors were all practicing artists. Passionate about what they did. Plus, if you didn’t want to be there, or were just there with no real desire, you were asked to leave. The only hoops you had to go through were if you were doing a performance art piece that involved jumping through hoops” (perhaps dressed as Jesus juggling human kidneys, to depict the human fragility of religion and also it’s rigid path). Yeah. OK. Anyway, my point is that no one was expected to be there to make up the numbers”.

The work was hard. You’d often do 8 hours of life drawing in a day, and then be asked to go home and work till 4 in the morning on work totally different and outside of your normal comfort zone. It was like I was training to be a ninja, but where the word ninja” is replaced by artist”. It was emotional.

And so. The criticism. The feedback. Oh my …

This was something I had never experienced before.

At school it was all: That drawing of a banana looks like a banana so, therefore, you get a B+. Well done! Now go outside and play with your chums.”

But here is some feedback I got at collage that I will never forget:

I worked hard for 2 days on a piece of life drawing work. Ensuring I explained everything I saw — getting the proportions, line-weight, sense of space, light, texture — as best I could. It was tiring and difficult, but I was pleased with my work and effort …

And then. And then. The tutor came over. He came over. And …

… he put a big cross through the entire piece in red paint!

But why? Was it wrong? Was it rubbish? Did he hate me? Was he jealous? Had his wife run off with his sister the night before?

I was fuming. I was upset. What a wanker! I wanted to have a proper tantrum style, clumsy, uncontrolled, ugly fist fight with him — you know, the kind of fight where you end up vomiting and crying after. How dare he! I’d spent ages on that work, and it was good. It was something I could show people and they would say you’re really good at drawing”.

It was a pivotal point. I even thought about quitting the course at that moment.

But then …

… after the storm inside had settled, and after the tutor in question explained things, I understood and respected what he had done. I was a big step closer to learning some important truths about being an artist / designer:

  • Do not get too precious with your work — doing so will hold you back
  • However good’ you think your work is, it can always be better
  • If you’ve created a piece of work once, you can do it again, and even better than before
  • Your work belongs as much to those who view it, as it does to you (well, not in an intellectual property” way or course)
  • In the professional world, your work will face rejection and scrutiny all the time — get used to it!

Of course, this wasn’t the only time I got that kind of feedback. I would often fall back into the safety of producing work I knew how to produce, especially at the start of the course. The tutors didn’t want to see that. They wanted to see what happened if I mixed things up a bit.

It was often the case that I would get more credit for producing work that, perhaps, wasn’t really that successful or resolved, but that pushed my practice in different directions. Mistakes” and an evident struggle” were greeted by the tutors as success” and progress”. Whereas work with the same style and approach as I’d always produced, was greeted with:

We know you can draw, we know you can do this kind of thing — we knew when you had your interview to get on this course. We want to see what happens when you test yourself. When you don’t rely on technique. When you put aside decoration and explore a concept and idea. When you make mistakes, try new media, speed up, slow down, destroy, create …”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but these are the things that stuck in my head like green clay on an upside-down mannequin’s leg” (the work of an artist I know). Core things I still reference today.

OK, as I am today — a commercial designer — I can’t go and glue some stale swiss roll to a map of Belgium and say I know it doesn’t really work, but at least I’m exploring new concepts — can I get paid now?” when a client asks for a logo design. You’d lose more clients than you’d gain.

So I guess another reason the tutors pushed us to try things, is that they knew it would be our only possible chance to really be artistically creative and expressive, on a level just not possible in the commercial world — especially those of us on our way to becoming designers rather than pure fine artists.

It was our chance to learn about ourselves as creatives without the constraints that deadlines, budgets, brand guidelines, function etc. bring. It is true that when you bring business considerations’ into the ring, things do tend to bottleneck — and for good, logical reasons. But I’m going to get into that now.

My point is that art college is a chance to be creative in its most raw, untethered form. We weren’t artists and designers at that point. We were learning how to be artists and designers. And learning about criticism, and how to deal with it, was part of that training. See how I got back on point there? ☺

So. How to deal with people saying bad things about your stuff, & ting:

  • Embrace it. It’s a gift.
  • Don’t take it personally.
  • If enough people give the same feedback, take it on-board, regardless of your own opinion at that time.
  • Not all feedback is useful and applicable, but even take nonconstructive comments on the chin. Your work is out there being viewed, giving everyone the right to react and have an opinion. Even if that opinion possibly lacks weight, usefulness, and is ill informed.
  • Use discretion to assess the value of feedback. If it comes from a source with evidence of experience, skills and knowledge relating to the work in question, it is often more useful than that from those of lower experience.
  • Sieve out the subjective’ from the objective’. For example, someone saying I don’t like green”, based purely on general personal taste unrelated to the nature of the work and what it is trying to do, is not really feedback.
  • Be a critic of your own work — by stepping outside of any personal attachment that you may have developed for the project.

I could go on and on, but I’m guessing a good few of you have lives, so I’ll close my rambling cake-hole for the time being.

Me, but elsewhere

Stuff like my Blog & Social Media etc …

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