Mom, Michael Bierut and Advice on Criticism

Mom and me in August 1976. Yes, that's me with the crazy curls.

Mom and me in August 1976. Yes, that's me with the crazy curls.

I was about to graduate from college and was at home telling my Mom about my decision to be a designer. For most of my college career, my major had been journalism or public relations. But near the end of my college career, I fell in love with design and changed my major. Mom was normally the most supportive person in the world, but that day, she was skeptical. "Bob, you don't exactly handle criticism well."

I thought about Mom when I read Michael Bierut's essay Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport on Design Observer earlier this week. (If you have not read the essay, do yourself a favor and read it now.)

Michael Bierut came to speak at an AIGA South Carolina event several years back. I remember him talking honestly about the challenges of pitching work to clients. It was the first time I could remember a "rock star" designer expressing that sometimes, you are limited by a client.

It resonated with me. As designers, I think we often fall into the trap of thinking that our solution is perfect and flawless and that the client should just trust us. But it doesn't always happen that way, even for famous designers.

Michael talks in his essay about how Pentagram spent over two years on redesigning UPS. And they never could convince them that their solution was the right one. Several years later, Futurebrand won the redesign, but their solution was widely criticized.

His point in telling the story is that he understood Futurebrand's challenges with the UPS redesign. But I took something else from it: No matter how large and well-respected you and your firm are, you still have to convince a client that your solution is right for them. Sometimes, you will fail.

I have students and friends that absolutely explode with frustration when their work is criticized. Or when clients ask for significant changes. But this is part of the job and part of the environment that we live in today. This is part of the career we have chosen. We have to deal with the criticism as constructively as possible and move on.

Futurebrand released a redesign of American Airlines last week, replacing the iconic Massimo Vignelli mark. Personally, I love the redesign. (And I love the original.) Commentary from designers seems to be split and there are many who are harshly criticizing it. Even Massimo Vignelli. It doesn't matter who you are, you can't please everyone.

My mom was very astute to realize that if I was going to be successful as a designer, I needed to understand that criticism is part of the job. I've worked really hard to deal with criticism in a positive way and to encourage others to do the same.

My oldest daughter is very creative and interested in design or art as a career when she grows up. I've thought about what advice I'll give her about criticism if that's the route she takes. I've settled on this:

You are a designer.
Criticism is part of the job. Accept it.
You will not always win. That's okay.
If there's a better solution, find it.
Stay focused. Keep creating.
Love what you do.