You + Your Work

Spencer Nugent
INNOVATION Summer 2020

Vol. 39 No. 2, p. 24

Sophomore year of college, I found myself standing in front of class presenting my concept for a sponsored project. We were designing pedometers for a local company. After I presented my flashy, well-executed, emotive sketches, my professor, Bryan Howell, said, “You can’t fool me with a good sketch.”

I’m not sure if he could tell how upset I was. The anger and frustration at his critique sat with me for a long, long time, and although I was able to eventually shake it and complete the project, I do regret my reaction. 

It has taken me a long time to understand the wisdom in these words (alternately attributed to Warren Buffet and many others), “You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with magic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.” 

When designing and working in any professional environment, it’s important to maintain a healthy relationship between you and your work. In my career, I have mentored young designers as well as had incredible mentors along the way, and as such, I’ve made three observations about healthy and unhealthy ways of relating to your work. 

You and Your Work Are Not the Same 

As a young designer or student, at times there is little separation between you and your work. After pulling an all-nighter and pouring yourself into a project, it can feel personal when you receive feedback. Looking back, I can see where my frustration with my professor's feedback came from. I was so proud of my work that I became myopic to his feedback, which was meant to ensure there was substance to what I was presenting.  

When there is little distinction between you and your work, you tend to be less open and have a heightened sensitivity to critique. In other words, your work is your identity in embryo.  

As a younger designer, I tended to pour myself into every project hoping to find validation from others. Working at Astro Studios right out of college, I found myself swimming in the deep end of design and had to double-time to keep up. I remember pulling long hours and grinding on projects to then have my ideas rejected or overlooked. Rather than be upset, however, I worked even harder. Eventually I found success and respect from my peers for the hustle. 

A lack of experience can lead to a dependency on shallower forms of validation, such as feedback on social media, to prop up your design sense of self. With so much positivity coming from likes, any perceived invalidation can be extremely disorienting. I was there, but after several experiences, I grew up and realized a better way: To truly make the best of these moments, you must lean into the critique and ask, What can I learn? I recently was reminded of this by a friend on LinkedIn who mentioned the moment I won him over. I had posted a design sketch online that wasn’t my best work, and he offered some critique. I decided to take it head-on and redo it.  He certainly appreciated my willingness to listen, learn, and make revisions.  

In a professional setting, I’ve seen how this lack of maturity with regard to your work can come and go. Even as an experienced designer, sometimes, your emotional attachment and investment in an idea can lead to problems. You have to be willing to let go. 

I worked with a younger designer once who, while extremely talented and passionate, would often blow up at the slightest wind of criticism. It took considerable coaching and feedback over time by peers and collaborators to help this designer improve their soft skills. However, the damage was already done; the designer had a reputation for being sensitive. This reputation affected their ability to influence the outcome of projects in the future.  

But Be Wary of Being Too Detached  

At times in my career I have found myself in a funk—unhealthily detached from the work. When this happens, it’s easy to slip into a mindset of “it doesn’t matter” in which you show less concern for the details, experience, and elements that make a design great. 

On one occasion while working for a company, I was assigned to work on a product that needed a small revision and to transition to a different manufacturing supplier. At first I was excited at the possibility of making improvements to the product and even assumed that the visual and interactive design might be different. However, the company decided that despite the supplier change no visible elements were to be modified. My enthusiasm quickly faded, and I slipped into feeling as though my work and contributions didn’t matter.  

Ultimately, I left the company before the launch of the product, but I do wonder how much better the outcome would have been had I remained more engaged and mindful of consumer needs. What if I had fought a bit more for changes that research had shown would be meaningful to the consumer? As designers, if we allow ourselves to slip into a detached mindset, the consumer may suffer and the business may miss opportunities for change and growth through design.  

Be Engaged with a Healthy Separation 

A much healthier approach is to create some separation between you and your work which still being engaged. It’s a careful and tenuous balance. One of my associates, Peter On, an award-winning designer with many years of experience beyond mine, taught me this idea. In order to do this, you have to be willing to let go, be open, and take feedback head-on. 

This is not only healthier personally but actually benefits and creates generous space for customer needs. I have worked in both corporate and consulting settings, and I can definitively say, as many of you likely know, that as designers we can’t do it alone. It takes teams of people moving together to launch a successful product. 

The projects and deliverables we work on as designers should not be about us but rather about the consumer. When we create healthy separation between our work and ourselves, the success of the product takes priority. That success depends on us letting go of the right things and fighting for the right things as well. Those fights should always be rooted in deep empathy for those who will eventually use the products we design and make. 

In addition to creating room for our consumers' needs, we also should be mindful of and make space for the viability of said products for the business. Again, a highly personal and unhealthy attachment to our work tends to lead to myopathy and missed marks. 

Whether you’re a young designer or a seasoned creative leader, when creating products, it’s important to be self-aware and maintain a healthy relationship with your work, your consumers, and your business’s needs. Balancing your emotional attachment to your work with the functional needs of the business and your target consumers' needs creates space for a better outcome. When your work is challenged, ask yourself, What are they trying to say? and What can I learn from this? Stay open to feedback and change, champion consumer needs, and be mindful of the needs of the business—and you will create the best products for your consumers. 

—Spencer Nugent 

Spencer is an emcee for the virtual International Design Conference 2020, Sept. 17-18! Register today.

Urgent Design