4 Unlikely Pieces of Advice

I’m happy to share with you all that today I completed my undergraduate degree! On that note, I wanted to take some time to reflect on a few of my experiences and share some of the unlikely advice I have to offer that extends well beyond being a student and is applicable to anyone regardless of where you are in your career.

Here they are plainly:

  1. Never Argue
  2. Don’t Do What They Tell You To
  3. Break The Rules / Follow The Rules
  4. Speak Slowly & Don’t Fill The Silence

Here they are in detail:

1. Never Argue

Many design professionals will suggest that you need to be able to defend, justify, and argue your work—I disagree (I’ve even written a post about this). This past year I really began to experiment with the idea of never arguing or defending my work. In the class room or even when talking to a client, our immediate response to criticism/suggestions/etc. which go against out gut is to express a knee-jerk, defensive reaction.

Last winter I was taking a higher level typography class with 8 or 9 other students, of which a few dropped within the first week. This class largely varied from the norm of typography and instead we were encouraged to rip type apart, think of glyphs individually, and take on a more abstract and conceptual approach to our use of typography. Needless to say, I enjoyed how unconventional the class was, but it was entirely outside of my comfort zone and I struggled the entire time.

Never have I taken a class and had a professor tell me my work was amateur or bad—this was the first time, and honestly, hearing that excited me because I knew the class would be challenging. Other students, however, didn’t share the same excitement. Instead they felt frustrated and annoyed during every critique and senselessly argued and defended their work. In turn, many of them became so caught up in their defense that they failed to truly reflect on their work and follow a natural progression. Instead they found themselves bouncing back and forth in the process in an attempt to please the professor, and in doing so, did the opposite.

In my active decision to never argue, I took a different approach of bringing more out of my professor. Rather than hoping on the defense, I chose to ask questions, pose rhetorical suggestions, get them excited, ask more questions, and continue to get them more excited about where the project could head even if the starting point was pretty horrendous or already pretty great. The point is that many people fold into their work which becomes and endless loop of stagnation. In doing the inverse, you inherently create opportunity for additional experimentation. From my experience, the more I argue or defend, the less I’m trusted. Then surprisingly the opposite has been true, the less I argue and the more I show my decisions, the more I’m trusted.

If you haven’t already, I suggest you read my post on saying less, and I strongly encourage you to experiment with arguing less. It’s very rare that you ever need to body slam anyone, learn how to court them first.

2. Don’t Do What They Tell You To

This is almost an extension of the previous word of advice. The easiest trap I see students fall into is doing exactly what their professor suggests. This seems like the right thing to do, but rarely is it actually.

Yes, try what your professor suggests, but that suggestion should serve as a catalyst for further investigation and experimentation. A professor’s suggestion is great, but from my experience, there’s always opportunity to dig deeper, and it’s usually extremely obvious that you’re simply doing what they told you to do. Professors, and clients aren’t interested in solving the problems for you, and so doing what they tell you to do is often a sign of laziness than it is of attentiveness.

Furthermore, learn to have confidence in yourself, your concepts, and your gut. There have been countless times that I’ve landed on a solution that my professor simply didn’t agree with and I’ve had to overcome the challenge of not telling them why I should pursue something, but instead having to show them.

None of this is to suggest not to listen to your professors, classmates or clients, however, this is to suggest that no criticism, suggestion or advice is absolute.

3a. Break The Rules

Firstly, there are no rules. They will tell you that there are rules, but they’re lying. Unless they voice very specific reasoning, think of the rules as open-ended or even optional. But if you’re going to break the rules, shatter them because just barely breaking the rules appears as a mistake and not a conscious decision.

Take my final portfolio class for example: It was suggested that our printed portfolio be 11″ x 14″ meaning it’d open up to be 28 inches. Completely repulsed by these dimensions, I set out to develop a smaller portfolio that was 8.5″ x 11″ which we were urged against doing. Today everyone presented their 11″ x 14″ portfolios and mine was the only smaller one, however, it was one of the most well received because of it’s book-like quality which is exactly why I did it. The rules are often the default; not necessarily the best or most appropriate.

Professors and clients learn to respect and admire those that are able to not only take their own liberties but can also execute those decisions because it showcases a sense of initiative and highlights your intuitive ability.

3b. Follow the Rules

In direct opposition to the previous note, learn to recognize which rules actually matter and how to follow directions. Competency is typically assumed, easily lost, and difficult to regain.

4. Speak Slowly & Don’t Fill The Silence

Students are notorious for talking and this is a result of nervousness or frustration but is rarely derivative from a calm confidence. Just as gases fill the container they’re in, students and amateur designs tend to do the same—they fill the silence.

Slow down. Pause between thoughts. Think. Allow your words to carry their own weight.

By filling the silence and talking beyond measure, you’re smothering not only your work but those that are viewing it. My poetry professor once said, “the most important part of the poem is the silence which follows it.” In a similar sense, the most important part of your work isn’t what you have to say about it, but rather, what doesn’t need to be said about it.