An open letter to newbie designers

4 min read
Jennifer Aldrich
  •  Feb 17, 2016
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You know how design articles tell you that design critiques are great, and that you should appreciate them because they make you a better designer? And that you shouldn’t take feedback personally, because people are critiquing your design, not you?

What people fail to mention is that early in your career, all of those pieces of advice are a load of BS.

Are they all true? Sure. But getting started in the industry, you feel a need to prove yourself.

Emotional reactions to your first design critiques don’t make you a ‘bad’ designer.Twitter Logo The trick is in how you handle those emotions. If you storm out of the critique and slam the door, or curse out your coworkers and call them idiots because they don’t agree with you, then there’s a problem.

If you hold it together in the room but feel like you showed someone your newborn child when you presented your design, and then you feel like someone ripped that child’s arms off and beat you with them by the time the critique ends, know that you’re not alone.

“Emotional reactions to your first design critiques don’t make you a ‘bad’ designer.”

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Every designer on Earth walked out of their first rough design critique ready to jump out a fifth-story window and/or curl up in the fetal position under a desk. Of course you’ll take it personally when people shred your designs—especially in the beginning. You’re a human being full of passion who has invested time and love and energy into your projects.

Over time you’ll realize that the feedback really does help you grow as a designer. Your frustration will begin to fade to make room for collaboration, because you’ll discover that collaboration is what makes good designs great.Twitter Logo

But in the early stages of your career, don’t feel like a mutant when you come out of a design critique feeling crushed or furious. Every designer has experienced those feelings—even the designers who preach against them.

My advice? Embrace those feelings. Let yourself wallow in them for a while. Don’t beat them down because the bloggers told you to. Experience them fully, then let them go.

“Every designer walked out of their first rough design critique ready to jump out the window.”

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In the future, the time you spend wallowing shortens. You start to realize that people aren’t trying to crush your spirit—they’re trying to make your designs better. They aren’t trying to “win” to make you “lose” when it comes to design changes. They’re trying to help you grow.

Most of them are, anyway. Occasionally you run into a person who’s just a complete moron and enjoys trying to make people feel small. My advice? People can’t make you feel small unless you let them. So don’t.Twitter Logo

If you run into a nest of morons, exit stage left—life is too short to put up with that ridiculousness. There are tons of design teams out there that are made up of passionate designers who want to see you grow, as opposed to groups of people with low self-esteem on a mission to crush the spirits of all the other humans they come into contact with. (Thankfully I’ve never run into this situation, but I’ve known many designers who have.)

Confession time: my first major design critique was awful.

I’d been tasked with designing a new product from scratch. It was my first time as design lead on a project. I talked to stakeholders, reviewed the user research, tested ideas, spent ages sketching, and then finally mocked up some lo-fi wireframes to present to my team.

At the beginning of the presentation, I was feeling good. Then the feedback started to roll in.

“Collaboration is what makes good designs great.”

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I started taking notes on the feedback. Then I started feeling like I needed to defend my design. I explained why I’d made some of the decisions I had. Some of them were met with approval, many of them were met with resistance, and I was overruled by the group on tons of points.

At the end of the session, the team told me I’d done a great job, but after I left the room I was ready to light my laptop on fire.

I talked to my manager/mentor afterward, and said, “Man. I don’t know if I’m cut out for this. I love design, but that design critique was terrible. Maybe I’m too stubborn for this career—I felt like a failure at life when I got out of there, and I was really angry.”

She responded, “Every designer gets upset after their first major design critique. You love what you made, and you’ve poured your passion into it. It’s tough to hear people shred your work, but it gets easier with time.Twitter Logo I promise.”

She didn’t dismiss my feelings. She didn’t tell me that I should appreciate the experience instead of being upset by it. She didn’t tell me to stop taking it so personally. She let me wallow in it for a while.

I got over it, and she was right. The next time, it really was easier to take.

So, newbie designer: don’t throw in the towel just yet. The first couple of years in the design field are brutal, but things get better with time. Everyone else in the industry has felt the things you’re feeling now at some point in their careers, so just keep moving forward.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard