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How Designers Fail

The idea and act of failing has become a buzzword with the economic downturn, but graphic designers fail every single day, and have been failing successfully through most of the 20th century into our current one.

Headlines appear daily in the news media about one failure or another: the economy, banking, auto industries, education, and morale. But in the article below, you won’t find help for hanging tough in a down economy or keeping your spirit up when clients decide to leave. Instead, this is about how designers fail to meet their personal expectations, job dreams, and long-term goals from their very beginning as students.

During college at the University of Arizona in 1992, I learned with other design freshman that revisions were part of the discipline; if you cried at critique you were a wimp, and the computer was just a finishing tool. Later, as a transfer student at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln in 1994, faculty tried to scare us out of the program: Either the person sitting next to you or you yourself will graduate from this program; only 1 in 3 of you will leave the program and find work as designers. But something has happened since I was a college student in 1992: students just don’t believe these things. They feel design is easy and success is easily earned; they get themselves in trouble when they define success too specifically, revolving it around fame, fortune, or a combination thereof.

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Always Right, Always Best, All the Time
At its root, failure is the opposite of success, but few young designers encounter failure. Worse, they are over-confident because of how adept they are (or think they are) with computer media: parents or former art teachers have patted them on the back for years, praising their performance with Adobe, iWork, or iMovie. These adults lavish the youngster with wowie-zowie amazement creating what I call the Blue Ribbon Craving: an overabundance of shallow praise too often and too early creating a desire for more praise more often.

yell
Illustration by Mark Andresen markandresenillustration.com

Unfortunately and incorrectly, this praise somehow translates into I am good at art or I am good at design, manufacturing the false notion that they are always correct, and so long as they click it up on the computer, it’s good. And they expect the same in school, where the youngster takes the congratulations they have amassed over the years and heads to the classroom with pie-in-the-sky dreams, and a sense of entitlement: I have earned my parents and high school art teachers’ praises; I know the computer; I am ready for college and I will conquer it with a succession of A+ grades. The truth: it’s not like that. When these students do less than grade-A work, tears will flow; when they do grade-C work, they hit a depression so deep that some cannot recover. (Let’s not even talk about grade-F work, which stirs a panic attack beyond anything George Costanza ever experienced.) Rather than learn from the critiques and repeated suggestions to change one thing or another, they leave for another major: All of these changes? My work is bad? Forget it, I’ll go elsewhere. Some will argue that these drop outs play into the natural state of attrition, sorting out the can-do students from the cannot. Does it have to be this way? Why can’t all design students learn to cope with stressful critiques and do-it-over suggestions? Because some of them have been fawned over during years of grammar and high school, and it’s not easy to teach them new tricks.

But that’s what college is for, and students can learn to manage these failures—if the instructor prepares them for the long journey. Unfortunately, few instructors teach students about coping with failure, it’s only the thick-skinned ones that can survive on their own. For the rest, there’s no recovery, no chance for making it. From grammar school through college, I always expected a challenge and knew that rewards were hard-earned. Having endured the disciplined grade school classrooms hosted by Sisters Eileen, Ignatius, Joseph, and Maureen I was prepared for the worst any teacher could throw at me (literally) when entering high school and then college. Not every student endures similar Catholic school rigors, but it helped me appreciate that success required problem solving, overcoming obstacles, and working at something until it’s right (and then working on it some more until you were disgusted or somewhat satisfied, or just plain old out of time).

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Time Compression
When it comes to time, students feel that hard work and somewhat long hours are enough to get grade-A work; nationally, educators are battling this no matter the course of study. But here are the facts: working very diligently for 8, 10, or 20 hours may still result in barely average work; and in some cases, putting in twice that amount of labor for 30 or 40 hours may only get a D or F. Dedicating long hours will not always yield success, but because of a desire for immediacy, expecting results ASAP is the norm. Information travels at the speed of light. Makeovers don’t require long hours at the gym and a disciplined diet—just go under the knife. Houses get built in under an hour (thanks to time compression). Watch abc’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition (hosted by Ty Pennington and his crack squad design team) to witness the home design, construction, wiring, plumbing, decoration, and habitation in under 1 hour (don’t forget the demolition and the flights to Disney World; minus the commercials, it’s about 30-40 minutes to do it all).

mouse
Illustration by Mark Andresen markandresenillustration.com

Designing and building a home is not like graphic design in scope, and therein lies the problem. If audiences see large scale designs happening between 8 and 9 p.m. Central Standard Time on Sundays, they expect (demand!) smaller scale design problems to happen much much faster. I call it the Time Compression Paradox: if a large scale project should happen in one hour; a project 1/10 its size should happen in 1/10 the time. The most prevalent place this happens with design students is software.

The student exclaims, I just cannot make Photoshop do what I want to!
The instructor replies, This is only the fifth week of class,
to which the student retorts, I know, I should’ve mastered it by now!

The truth: it takes years to master Photoshop; in fact, you will never master Photoshop. You may merely understand how to use Photoshop Creative Suite 2 for the work you need to accomplish: touch ups, color correction, etc. Creative Suite 3, 4, and 5 will require more experimentation and learning. With software, and most design tool use, it’s about the marathon, not the sprint—and it’s the same for getting a job.

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Get Me Work, and Then Fame
Because the university has become a vocational training ground, students believe it’s the instructor’s duty to get the student a job. At one senior’s graduating exhibition, a parent approached me and asked, So, now you just have to get my daughter a job. This was not a poke in the tummy joke, nor light-hearted teasing. No, this parent really expected me to connect the student with work instantaneously. Make a call on my cell phone and presto! Having been approached about this before, I had a prepared answer, All of the teachers your daughter had, including me, gave her the tools, knowledge, and motivation to leave school and get work on her own. The parent’s face went from an optimistic-help-her smile to a downward are-you-kidding-me frown. Give a student a job, she works for a day; teach a student to work, she works for life. Oddly, the student realized this, but the parent could not seem to grasp the concept.

crit
Illustration by Mark Andresen markandresenillustration.com

Even more unfortunate, and now more than ever, design has become synonymous with fame. Go to school; learn design; get a degree; get a job; and get famous. This is the American Idol Paradox: as more and more people take pride in looking at themselves or getting looked at by others, less and less of us will actually become famous—fame may even disappear. Paradox aside, design isn’t about fame—it’s about unfame. Client servicing is one of the most unfamous things you can do because it’s their name and their dollar. The entire creative process requires you to be unsuccessful: failed concepts, long hours, repeated attempts, constant revisions, massaging the details, and patience carving your career.

To those students entering school and primed for the workforce, just appreciate the fact that design is all about failure. Every designer I’ve ever met has failed, and failed miserably, and they continue to make a successful career out of failing.

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This essay is based on Jason Tselentis’ lecture How Designers Fail, initially given to the AIGA Birmingham chapter.

Mark Andresen is an illustrator formerly from New Orleans, Louisiana, now living in Atlanta, Georgia. Over 1.5 weeks, he submitted fifteen illustration concepts for this article, of which three are featured above.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 5924 FILED UNDER Design Academics
PUBLISHED ON Mar.17.2009 BY Jason A. Tselentis
WITH 57 COMMENTS
Comments
Bruce’s comment is:

Well said, Mark. Keep up the drumbeat, as I and others will as well.

On Mar.17.2009 at 01:38 PM
Bruce’s comment is:

Sorry, well said Jason.

On Mar.17.2009 at 01:38 PM
Diane Faye Zerr’s comment is:

So true! I am guilty of having this attitude of entitlement when graduating and quickly (and thankfully) learned that I have a lot more to learn. And in all honesty, if there weren't more to learn I would have lost interest. The great thing about being a designer is the opportunity to learn more (about anything), try new things and of course, fail.

On Mar.17.2009 at 02:43 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Interesting parallel phenomenon:

In the New Yorker Magazine online today is an illustration of Michelle Obama...kind of a Banky looking rip off...done by someone named Billi Kid don't know him and I don't wish to disrespect the person, but.......He's got a web site and Flicker account called Billi Kid Brand.. looks like right out of school they've got the students into self-branding marketing. Lord save us.

It reminds me of those 14 year old kids that can play every lick of blues like BB King, but with no understanding of what is the soul of the Blues.

I only use this as an example to mention how there are veteran illustrators like Lou Beach who nearly invented this crazy montage look.

"NEW" wins because "being NOW" is more important than "MESSAGE" to some art directors....

On Mar.17.2009 at 05:46 PM
goncalo gomes’s comment is:

... so, after all, is a global problem! What a relief, and I wondered if only my students here in Portugal thought that way. I agree with your opinion to 100%.

On Mar.17.2009 at 07:12 PM
Sara Chae’s comment is:

I loved this article—it is one I actually read from beginning to finish, as it is very well-written. I am a Graphic Design student and can totally identify with many of the issues you brought forth in your article. I think we can all learn to be humble and realize that working (doing anything) involves helping others and making their lives better. Fame and recognition should not be the motivation, but we are, unfortunately, hard-wired biologically to "stand out," as it were, in order to continue the endless cycle of procreation we call life.

On Mar.17.2009 at 08:47 PM
John Mindiola III’s comment is:

I've come to grips with the "I may never be famous" idea in the past year. I'm now an instructor at a college. I love it. I love working with the next batch of talented folks. One thing I spend a lot of time on is creating better critical thinking. In my drawing class, it's the eyes, the brain, THEN the hands. If the first two parts aren't working correctly, forget the last part. This is a very sobering article for instructors and students alike. (P.S. If/when I do become famous, that'll be: Peanut M&Ms, Sprite, Chipotle burritos, a VW Rabbit, every JMB poster, ever . . . )

On Mar.18.2009 at 12:24 AM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

This is a very honest and poignant post, thank you. It's time for some self reflection...

On Mar.18.2009 at 02:24 AM
Daniel Neville’s comment is:

Thanks, I really needed to hear that right now.

On Mar.18.2009 at 04:47 AM
centro’s comment is:

We live in an age where people want things instantly and this attitutude carries over into the design studio. I know designers who rely on Sites like Smashing Magazine for their inspiration. I saw someone downloading Illustator colour combos for a job the other day because they have no idea of how colour work and cant be bothered to get a swatch book out and experiment.

On Mar.18.2009 at 08:07 AM
Robynne’s comment is:

The "sense of entitlement" phenomena is really counter productive. I've given a very fair "B+" grade to a student only to have this student write a 5 page letter to the Chair complaining about the awful grade she got. If this had only happened once or twice I wouldn't have noticed, but it has become an all too common "coping method".

Everyday outside my studio I see parents line up one-by-one in SUV's, mini vans and station wagons waiting to pick up their kids after school. This creates major air pollution and dangerous traffic situations. And we have complained to the school many times about the safety issues associated with this daily ritual. (None of the parents would dare think of parking their vehicles and walking over to the school but that is another matter). My point: kids today are coddled. Mom and Dad are overly engaged in their children's lives. Everyone gets a blue ribbon. In my business partner's daughter's school they don't allow anyone to keep score in the basketball games because "no one is a loser".

Students are a mirror of the society we have created.

On Mar.18.2009 at 01:03 PM
Joe Clark’s comment is:

You mean “plumbing” and “1/10 its size,” not plumping and it’s.

On Mar.18.2009 at 01:35 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Note taken, Joe. Thanks.

On Mar.18.2009 at 01:44 PM
Marc’s comment is:

This is a great article. I've been out of school for a few years now and I've definitely had moments of panic, seeing young designers my age zipping by and ending up in magazines and winning loads of prestigious awards. Thankfully, I've come to realize that design is a lot more than that. I'm going to head into an MFA design program this year and if anything, I'm relieved that I'm in a different head space; unconcerned with being "good" and getting a cool job in a hip studio. Bring on the failure!

On Mar.18.2009 at 04:59 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

DAMN KIDS! GET OFF THE LAWN!

On Mar.18.2009 at 05:02 PM
MichaelBurns’s comment is:

Great article. I would agree with the earlier comment that kids are a mirror of the society that we've created. However, I would add that not all of the issues that evolve with children stem from their parents. We have for decades now created an "entitlement society" which is not only cultivated through parents, but by media and the government (reads: public ed and social welfare agencies). The most readily apparent example on the part of media comes from television advertising, where women in particular are depicted as near perfect and "entitled" to the product or service being sold to them. I would also add that this type of approach sends a message that "what's on the outside is more important that what's on the inside." In other words, doing the work of becoming a proficient designer comes secondary to looking and acting like one, and "knowing" all the software, which seems demonstrated by the cultivation of many inbred agency environments with tons of mediocre talent. The emphasis on doing the homework and those inner attributes has to be stressed more than anything else, if we're ever going to get beyond this point. Thanks again for the insights.

On Mar.18.2009 at 06:53 PM
Jeremy Tuber’s comment is:

Spot on Jason,
I've found that designers equate Photoshop mastery with the ability to be successful as a freelancer - completely different world. I've seen freakishly talented designers go "belly up" because they thought all they had to do to get and keep clients was to show them an impressive portfolio.

In speaking at the Art Institute of Phoenix, I had a student ask me, "I am determined to be a freelancer but I hate sales, what do you think I should do?"

"Learn to farm", I replied (jokingly).

The truth is, the most gifted creative minds, Photoshop experts or Michelangelo prodigies don't often make the most money or become the most successful. And fame and fortune is something as you pointed out, is not going to come easily or quickly.

Nice post.
jeremy
beingastarvingartistsucks.com

On Mar.18.2009 at 07:28 PM
swidinst’s comment is:

Awesome post.

Reminds me of a classmate in design school years ago who, amongst a group of densely layered, "post-modern" compositions, pinned up a simply executed piece of typography that read "Assume Failure." It freaked everybody out, even the professor. I have a copy of it hanging in my studio now and see it everyday.

On Mar.18.2009 at 09:55 PM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Excellent Jason.

Also add to the fact that schools and colleges are skewing grades upward. Rankings that rely on grades and student loans hinging on a student maintaining a 3 point average has meant that students grades are greatly inflated. Where my fellow students had latitude to fail and then get up and learn to succeed, many students never realize that they are not up to par because they never receive a harsh critique or a low grade. The highest GPA in my entire class was barely a 3.

The prevailing attitude back then was "There is NO perfection." You can imagine how shocked I was a few years ago, when one of my freelancers told me he had graduated with a 4 point average.

Many of my fellow undergrad students who were "A" students in my class, left the business within a couple of years because they couldn't cope with the word "no." The genius illustrator is a tattoo artist. The "worst" designer in the class became a hot-shot creative director in LA at a world renowned ad agency.

After a lifetime in the business, I have returned to grad school. It is interesting to watch some of the students who come straight from undergrad, expecting the world to revolve around them.

This is the UK, baby. You are expected to show up as an adult. You are also expected to think. Not just run to Illustrator or Photoshop to solve your problem.

This program has three grades: pass, fail, or pass with distinction. If you attempt something interesting, and fail, yet have learned something, you may pass with distinction.

On Mar.19.2009 at 05:29 AM
Zinni’s comment is:

Best article I have read in a long time. It always astounds me how some people think a degree = job... I love the response to the parent.

On Mar.19.2009 at 10:55 AM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

I think about that parent's statement every morning I walk into the classroom because they wholeheartedly believed that was the final step in the educational process: me securing work for their daughter.

As for grades, students rely on scholarships so much, that many of them contest grades by saying I could lose my scholarship and my parents can't afford to pay tuition. If the grades are so important, do better the next time, and follow some of my instructions for improving. I have seen economic issues become so central to grades and other evaluations; these are desperate pleas that strike me as misplaced.

On Mar.19.2009 at 12:12 PM
Adam’s comment is:

Those of you interested in this blue ribbon phenomenon and its effects should check out the book Mindset by Carol Dweck.

On Mar.19.2009 at 12:17 PM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

I was thinking the same thing about this phenomenon being global (national? western?) and how it's not limited to design students. My wife teaches math at the university level and this attitude of entitlement and fast-track success is the norm...

On Mar.19.2009 at 05:57 PM
earl’s comment is:

I'm what this site would call a "design enthusiast" although I imagine many people have less kind terms for it. I've been studying design for two years and am seriously considering going to school for it.

This article was very timely for me. I'm a person with a deep love of design and designers. Yet, I have a self-acknowledged weak spine and feel I just don't have the balls to weather foundation year.

Perhaps I should go into business, where I can run my own marketing department and allow my designer to do whatever the hell they think is best and just bask in the glow of beautiful, fitting design.

Those who cannot do may perhaps aid?

On Mar.19.2009 at 10:15 PM
Tim’s comment is:

This article brings up issues that have - at times - frustrated me through Uni. I don't understand the relevancy of giving out graded marks within such a subjective discipline. One that becomes even more subjective in the University framework. Every project I have received a good mark has been something I was disappointed with and anything that I created that I have been really proud of was rewarded with a C or C+. As confusing as this was, I became to discredit the relevancy of any mark. I assumed this must be the same attitude my design school had - Having to give out marks to comply with what a University it 'suppose to be'. this attitude is fine enough with me.

Until...

My school is a four year degree, the four year being compulsory honors year. This was all good, but from next year they are changing the format so that the four year can be the completion of the Bachelor degree or a more theory based year in which you complete your Bachelor with honors... Only now there is a string attached . You need a b (or something along those lines) average to attempt the honors year. A bit strange for a discipline than is based on failure and subjectivity. It also ruins my optimistic assumption that the school could see the irrelevant nature of graded marks. Gutted.

On Mar.19.2009 at 11:13 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I agree that grades in art school are more of a distraction than anything. My worst grades in design courses came from the best teachers demanding the best work out of me. My best grades in design courses came out of lazy professors who didn't demand more than lazy work out of me.

On Mar.20.2009 at 02:05 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Re: failure, ease, highlights, glamor: I offer you this, from one of the greatest basketball players alive.

On Mar.20.2009 at 04:25 PM
John Mindiola III’s comment is:

Tim, I must disagree with you on the subjectivity of design. There a a number of principles and practices to which design should adhere. It irks me when folks think that their design/art can't or shouldn't be graded, because "what's beautiful to me may not be beautiful to you." I constantly tell my students to wow me, to impress me, to think differently, to consider everything, etc. Honestly, can we really say that design is subjective? Instructors know when they see something great, and when they see crap. Effort isn't always directly related to success.

On Mar.21.2009 at 12:38 AM
Josh’s comment is:

I need to get my flippin' masters so I can teach. The teaching articles always rile me up. Great insight by the way Jason. You always post with force when you come round.

Just like the advice given, educators should not be afraid to fail as well. Many do often...You definitely hit the nail on the head with the 'teaching them to work' comment.

In many ways I feel school should be equal parts boot camp and summer camp with tire swings and food fights. Fundamentals need to be drilled hard into each student. Not in a confrontational way, but give them a challenge of using Helvetica only on a weeks worth of exercises in layout. Make them spend a three hour class session drawing various objects in abstract forms as the basis of identity. The results should be subjective and be critiqued and further used as a learning tool.

In between this each teacher should be engaging the students individually to gage their interest, while serving up relevant content, that doesn't necessarily start with Lascaux cave paintings, but maybe with UC's BrandNew blog.

I was watching PBS today and they had a profile of a local teacher who just seemed to be hands on with every student while teaching science. It seemed as though she made learning easy for students, as though it were fun and engaging. Oddly, when you get to university, all of of a sudden the student is a burden, which impedes the real or imagined life of a teacher.

This seems a sharp drop off. Coddling is bending to the will of the student, teaching is setting expectations and helping the student follow through with them. I don't disagree that entitlement is a 'disease' in our society, but one easily rectified by expecting as much as one gives to a student.

I've failed many a times. And failure breeds character, but if you're not in a functional learning environment, the likelihood that you're going to fail is higher. So in that I also stress upon the educators to also not be afraid to fail, but hopefully with guns blazin'.

On Mar.21.2009 at 05:00 AM
anoymous’s comment is:

Jason,
This was a very timely post for me. I am currently dealing with a former student that has filed a suit with (I believe) the National Board of Education for discrimination because he was unhappy with his grades in several classes. Hence the anonymous post.

As I reviewed his work and my records, I am embarrassed to say that the grade he received was already inflated. I'm not sure exactly what the next step in the process is, but I have no intension of backing down. If anything, I plan propose his D grade be lowered to an F.

I'll keep you posted. Stop the Grade inflation!

On Mar.21.2009 at 02:40 PM
anoymous’s comment is:

Oh- how funny.

Look at the typo in my name. Maybe I was so annoyed, I couldn't spell anonymous.

On Mar.21.2009 at 02:46 PM
Josh’s comment is:

As i'm in the middle of reading Art & Fear by Bayles and Orland, I found the quote that got me interested in reading it in the first place.

A summation of the quote was a ceramics teacher divided his class in two. Students worked for their grade in two ways. Quantity and Quality. Long story short the Quantity people ended up having the best work.

Though its one example, I think its serves my argument and Jason's at the same time. Teach them to work and work them hard, learn from failure and eventually they will get good work. Sadly, though art courses seem to be graded like math courses most places and i think its partly the common system that fails students as mastery of Photoshop as we all know...does not make you a designer.

On Mar.22.2009 at 01:00 AM
Abe’s comment is:

I don't if it's because I'm sitting here on a Sunday just home from the church gathering but this has truth all over it. I'm not sure if its wittingly or unwittingly but there is many parallels with the Gospel in this article. This was humbling, challenging and encouraging to me.

Thank you.

On Mar.22.2009 at 06:36 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

I just finished a brand-new, experimental class designed with the twin goals of helping students transition into professional practice, and helping newer designers find creative processes to help meet the time constraints of professional practice.

Developed by Seattle designer David Sherwin, it's called 80 Works for Designers and it does emphasize quantity, along with collaboration and rapid brainstorming.

One of the most important things I'm taking away from it is the crucial importance of creating a creative space where failure is OK, so one can move beyond it to find a workable solution. A good process and healthy detachment can yield great results.

To echo your sports analogy, even the best hitters in baseball fail to hit on 70% of their at-bats. The great ones use an at-bat to work the count, tire the pitcher, and see his best stuff. They will usually see results on the next trip to the plate or help another batter on the team solve the pitcher (design problem).

I think your American Idol Paradox reference equates to a lot of designers hitting for the fences and getting discouraged with respectable base hits.

Thanks,

On Mar.23.2009 at 03:53 AM
Roger Ruiz’s comment is:

Thank you.

On Mar.24.2009 at 01:27 PM
Golden’s comment is:

Great article. This should be handed out on the first day of art school. I always thought that if one day I get good enough to do a lecture, the first thing I would talk about is failure. We talk about great designers in class, but rarely the failures and burdens they had to overcome, which makes success feel more attainable than perhaps it really is. A partner at a very successful firm once told me that he couldn't attract a client for his first two years. Things like that bring reality home.

PS - Funny that you mention Jordan. This is my favorite video to watch after a bad crit.


On Mar.24.2009 at 01:58 PM
Chanh’s comment is:

I love how you introduce these ideas to us the first year you were at UNCC. Not sure where I would be right now if I didn't except failure as a part of the design process. Nowadays, I like to call failures revisions. It's easier on the ear.

How I love it when people use the amount of time that was spent on a project to justify a bad design choice.

I miss school.

On Mar.24.2009 at 04:40 PM
Natalia Ilyin’s comment is:

Hi Jason. Your ideas here are really thought-provoking.

I'm with you on the idea of failure being crucial to success.

Your point about failure hits home, because it highlights the essentially false tale that we have believed for a long time now: that failure can be driven out of the picture. That given the right expensive toys and the right labels, our lives will be happy, that we will avoid pain, that we can control our experiences and careers and live free of worry and confusion.

But I have a quibble with your belief that students today are different from by-gone eras.

I am not sure that today's students expect everything handed to them, nor am I sure that they don't know how to work, nor deal with failure, nor that they expect instant success.

People have been saying that about people younger than themselves since cave painting days. ( If you find yourself telling about how, when you were a student, you walked thirty miles to school in snow you will need to reexamine your motivations. )

You well know I am not Our Lady of Beatitude to students that don't work in my class or who try to alter their grades. So I am not a softie on this score. But I don't think we can blame people for responding to the stimuli we ourselves have provided them.

I'm thinking that "students today" (use crochety voice) grew up in a long, long stock market rally. They grew up in softer times. Since we seem to be in the land of sweeping generalizations, I will go on to say that they may believe--because we have taught them to believe-- that the world works in ways different from the ways it actually works. And now they will learn, as we have all learned, as F. Scott Fitzgerald and his friends learned, that the market doesn't go up all the time, that jobs do not come automatically, that hard work does not always result in a good grade, in fame, or in fact, in success of any kind.

Maybe your motivation for this piece comes from your fear for your students? Are you fearful that they will not succeed because their education has been too soft on them? Have they not gotten the training they need to deal with these times? What training is that exactly? Perhaps it is a training not of the hand in Photoshop, but of something else.
I'd like to know what you'd say that education is. I think we could use more of it.

On Mar.25.2009 at 12:07 AM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

I cannot point to one thing in this short space to define design education, let alone education at large. But one of the things I've tried getting at in the classroom (and Chanh addressed this), is that failure is okay. It's part of the learning process, and it's part of the business process when you leave school. (Moreover, revisions are a natural extent of what we do, but that's another topic altogether.)

On Mar.25.2009 at 07:09 AM
mom to an artist’s comment is:

Great article. I have 2 points to present, after reading your article, Jason. Point #1: all artists seek perfection: designers, dancers, singers, painters, etc. And, even when you achieve the most excellent results, in your soul, you think it is a failure. It is who the artist is.
Point #2: All students revolt against poor grades. I taught medical students, for years, and heard the same whining when I didn't pass them. And the clinical classes I taught were pass or fail!
Jason, you seem to have much wisdom when dealing with parents and students--BRAVO.

On Mar.25.2009 at 11:44 AM
Natalia Ilyin’s comment is:

I am supposed to be doing something else but thoughts inspired by your article keep me entangled.

Oh, no. I am not asking you to redefine education or design education! There's a quagmire! Just define for me that ineffable something that will help students cope with failure. Because really, Jason, it may be part of the process, it may be something that they have to get used to, that we all get used to. But is failure really OK? Really just slap-on-the-back hunky dory?

Part of the process, yes. Call it revisions-- I love that. But what I am asking you to lead us toward is this: how can a teacher make failure--which is, in its essence, a proving deficient or lacking, a showing of fault of weakness, a nonperformance of what is expected-- how can a teacher make that acceptable? How do we we guide the student into resilience?
You have a ton of experience. What do you do?

On Mar.25.2009 at 03:49 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

What do you do? I see I failure as a natural state of affairs, I expect it, and am not alarmed by it.

This is a deep issue for design education and design educators, Natalia. As an instructor, I have assured students that failure is okay, and shown them how to learn from failure. When they see the silver lining, they begin to appreciate things. However, I have also seen that some people can cope with failure better than others. It's almost instinct for them. But, I believe that coping could be taught, and this essay is the first step in revealing that 'lesson plan.'

One analogy to use with failure: you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. But instead, I use muscles when explaining the failure, growth model. When you exercise muscles, you are pushing and pulling them to failure, literally. They tear. They break down. Pushing them more, consistently, and in new directions, will build them up. Making them stronger. Muscle memory is another metaphor I use. But pushing them too far results in serious tears, even injury. The same can be said of people, designers, I suppose.

On Mar.25.2009 at 04:57 PM
Natalia ’s comment is:

Thank you for these ideas, Jason.
I love the muscle analogy.
Do you know that Leo Burnett quote?
"To swear off making mistakes is very easy.
All you have to do is swear off having ideas."
Bravo on this article.

On Mar.25.2009 at 05:51 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Thank you for pushing the discussion in new directions.

On Mar.26.2009 at 07:07 AM
Pesky’s comment is:

Timidity in design is a lost opportunity to make grand mistakes.

On Mar.27.2009 at 12:11 AM
Cam Bortz’s comment is:

Want to bring art and design students back to earth in a hurry? Give them a big blank sheet of paper, a number 5 Mack gray-squirrel quill and a can of One-Shot, and tell them a passing grade requires a legible rendition of their own name. The ones who pass are those who don't quit in frustration after twenty minutes.

On Mar.27.2009 at 09:00 AM
Mike T.’s comment is:

Interesting article, but you're off the mark where the parental input is concerned. Good parents *will* praise their children -- it's called "encouragement".

Rather than parents, I would look at childhood education, where kids get coddled by powerless public schools and are protected from failure by administrators that need to keep their graduation rates high, by angry parents who blame the school when their kid fails, and by a liberal, "progressive" attitude in education that equates nurturing with pampering. Kids need to have the experience of failure, and we're robbing them of that necessary part of growing up.

Success requires determination, and that has to be learned through adverse circumstances. The schools do everything they can to prevent that. I place the blame for that squarely on the progressives. Once again stupid things are done by people who "know", and once again our children are the innocent victims.

Sorry for the rant, but you yourself pointed out that students are coming into higher education with an attitude of entitlement, and it needs to be pointed out that it's a systemic problem in the public schools.

On Mar.27.2009 at 01:10 PM
jeff’s comment is:

whats up with the illustrator in this article totally ripping off yoshitomo nara? seems pretty lammmme to me. oh yeah, this one too.

On Mar.27.2009 at 02:56 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

jeff, this is news to me. I'm not familiar with Nara's work.

On Mar.27.2009 at 05:46 PM
Alamar’s comment is:

In the Metafilter thread discussing this article, someone complained that beginning lawyers and surgeons do not have enough respect for perfection and want to be praised for their effort, as an example of how young people are over-praised and do not work seriously enough. In medicine, and sometimes in law, perfection is a goal worth the extra effort.

In all fields, approximately 20% of effort will produce 80% of the results. The last 20% of the results, reaching near perfection, would take the extra 80% of the effort. Doctors should stress about doing things perfectly.
Advertising monkeys should not. If your web page design or sneaker ad (or worse yet, your cigarette ad or beer ad where the better you do, the worse you do for society) is not perfect, nobody is going to die. Relax. The world will be just fine with the slacker teens creating the designs.

On Mar.27.2009 at 09:45 PM
Semi-anonymous’s comment is:

I hear these kinds of sentiments a lot, and there are some thoroughly dismissive responses to it on metafilter right now, some of which I also hear a lot. I think both sides have some valid points, and I've pretty much given up arguing lately, so I'm not going to offer my own opinion per se.

What I can say is that I feel a lot of the things in this article apply to me personally, and I'm scared there might not really be a way I can fix it. I'm an engineer, not an artist, but a lot of these ideas carry over.

I grew up with the understanding that I was brilliant and had an exciting future ahead of me. Since childhood, I've always had difficulty dealing with not being praised for something. I've always been lazy, and because of that, I haven't accomplished anything significant in my life, and I dislike and fear challenge. I can't deal with failure, and I can't deal with stress. I perform well only when not under pressure. Increasingly, I find that my natural talents are not terribly useful given my lack of drive.

The thing is, I can't find a way out. Any time I need to do something difficult, I need to find some kind of positive motivation to get me to do it, something I can keep looking forward to. Being accustomed to being "better", I can't see "accomplishing what is just minimally expected of everyone" as an appealing enough goal to get myself to work really hard. What's worse, when there is a possibility of a crushing failure even if I do work to the point of making myself sick, I can't seem to talk myself into doing it at all. And being terrified of failing never makes me more productive. It seems to paralyze me, ironically.

A lot of people (especially engineers) like money, and use their paycheck to motivate themselves, but I've never managed to be as greedy as a good capitalist is supposed to be. I can't even come up with a way to spend all of my income. I can't use praise as much of a motivator because its value has been so diluted throughout my life experience.

I was literally begged by some professors to stay in graduate school, but I gave up, in part because of unfortunate family problems, but in part because I just couldn't stand the workload and the stress and the recurring violent stomach illness that came with it. I didn't feel like I had anything to look forward to beyond a horribly difficult and heavily loaded job like my professors had (I felt so sorry for them and never wanted to be in their position). So I quit and got an easy and well-paying government job. My talent is not going to productive use. I'm probably wasting my life (and have been told so in those words by a seriously annoyed former professor I ran into accidentally), but I'm too lazy to do anything about it.

Really, I know that I'm a pretty bad, useless person, and I'll never believe otherwise, even when people tell me I'm not to try to cheer me up (this happens after I semi-consciously manipulate them into doing so). But I can't see any way, emotionally, that I can trick or harangue myself into being the kind of person I wish I were. In fact, I can't even convince myself it's possible to change at this point, or that I'd necessarily be any happier if I did.

On Mar.27.2009 at 10:53 PM
Michael Bierut’s comment is:

Interesting discussion by a largely non-design audience is underway following a link to this article over on Metafilter.

On Mar.28.2009 at 08:21 AM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

Aw, late to the party. Hopefully everyone's not too drunk to listen to one more opinion.

I remember once saying that if I ever taught a design course in college, I'd have the class do a whole project, comp it up, have it ready for critique, and on the day it was due we'd have a big bonfire and start all over from scratch, just to practice failure. Man, if I'd have had a class like that in college, it might have saved me a couple of years of ignorance. I'd have probably hated the teacher though.

You're right, Jason, I fell prey to the same machine you're outlining here. I got to college expecting the same gratification and easy workload I'd experienced in high school. I was the art guy, you know? My art teacher loved me. The other kids in school knew to come to me for t-shirts, or murals, or what-have-you. College was supposed to be cakewalk. So, you throw a few C's and D's and F's at a kid like that and there's bound to be a meltdown. I started to believe that it wasn't me, it was the system. Teachers played favorites, that had to be it. That turned to apathy real quick. Why try in a class that was set up for my failure? Just get a passing grade and move on.

It wasn't until after school that I realized just how much I didn't know, and how much of that knowledge had been presented to me during my time at school. I was just too caught up to see. I still have to play catch up to people younger than me. Better that you fail a kid and explain why than pass him and let him continue thinking he's just misunderstood.

On Mar.28.2009 at 11:09 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Funny, in a bizarre way, that someone should accuse me of ripping off another artist. I'd never seen that work before. Now I have from the links provided. Does it look all that similar? The baby cheeks maybe? Are the crescents Asian eyes? I don't know. But it's unfounded. Thanks for introducing me to someone's work I hadn't seen.

You might note that I DID steal the Pepsi logo.

On Mar.29.2009 at 01:32 PM
Jason Puckett’s comment is:

lots of good points here, especially the paradoxes, and I agree with Robynne's comments above. As a young parent, I fear coddling my child as well. And as a designer, I always look forward to failure because I know that something better is along the way. Really great conversation here.

On Mar.29.2009 at 11:10 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks, Michael, for pointing out the Metafiler article. It is an Interesting conversation happening over there.

On Mar.30.2009 at 12:17 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

One thing to add to all of this, besides the comments above, I have received direct emails from practicing designers on both coasts and in middle-America. Many of them have admitted to the above failures themselves: wanting to win the client on the first try, wanting work to be quick and easy, or wanting fame. There's nothing inherently wrong with those issues, and I say Cheers to those who have corrected themselves. To those who have not, you can probably continue to be a good student, make a good living, or make yourself famous (depending on which one you really want).

And that's what this brief essay does not get at: intention. The larger AIGA lecture covered the intention topic briefly, but this isn't the place to go off the rails.

On Mar.30.2009 at 03:36 PM