Design Masochism and the Five Stages of Anguish

A Special Hell for Designers LIke me, part 14


Early on I remember choking back tears when my designs made first contact with outside eyes. The feedback stung. Don't get me wrong, the criticism was all valid. In those days my designs mostly sucked, they were unworthy of the pride I naively attached to them. I had yet to cultivate the leathery skin of a design professional. Every word holding a hint of negativity was a dart that penetrated my tender puerile flesh. I wondered if I had chosen the wrong career.

They don't tell you the wicked bargain you are striking when you choose design as your major in college. It seems like a rational way to meld your artistic passions with a respectable salary. Little do you know that becoming a designer is going to involve driving a spike into your passion vein and pumping out your care juice so it can be bottled and distributed to people who are apathetic to your creative obsession.

Yes, your decision to become a designer is an RSVP with masochism. You volunteered to pour yourself into the work, to transform your innards into pixels and pin them in front of strangers. In turn, they gawk at your guts, dismiss your expertise, and reject your solutions. You might think that with enough experience the process becomes painless. It doesn't.

Whether you are a newbie intern or gristly veteran we all go through the same gauntlet, five stages of excruciation triggered at the moment when our work makes contact with oppoisng opinions. You might complete the cycle in an instant or you might drudge through these stages slowly over the course of a project. We all go through it, every time, and it always looks like this:

1. Surprise At first the feedback will surprise you. No matter how much research you do, how many edge cases you plan for, regardless of how well you know your audience, the feedback will catch you off guard. Maybe they loved your concept, perhaps they hate it, but inevitably there will be new information that you didn't expect. This new information is going to change your design, forcing you back to the drawing board.

2. Denial The second stage will be denial. That nugget that you learned, you will want to deny it. It is an uncomfortable intrusion on your reality, something that forces you to question what you believe. The urge to fight back, to defend your work will be nearly irresistible. Many designer/client relationships are divorced at this contentious moment, unable to reconcile the opposing views of reality.

3. Anger If you survive the denial stage you pass into the anger phase. How could they not realize your brilliance? How dare they question your authority. How could they forget that you are the design expert, not them? Then you get mad at yourself, frustrated that you weren't prepared to defend your work, angry that you failed to persuade your audience to see your point of view.

4. Depression In stage four you start to doubt yourself. What if they are right? Maybe you aren't as brilliant as you thought. Maybe your designs weren't as good as they seemed. Maybe you aren't up to the task. Has your work ever been good? Why does this keep happening to you?

5. Acceptance If you can crawl out of the depression stage you will emerge with a new humility. You start to acknowledge the validity of the feedback and you accept it. Maybe you still disagree but you understand the opposing perspectives and you use this knowledge to find new ways to solve the challenge. Congratulations, you have completed the cycle. The pain has been transformed into fuel and your creative juice can flow once again.

With the five stages of anguish behind you it is time to get back to work. You stick the needle back in the vein and let the magic inside you bleed into your work once again. After all, the only reason your work has ever been good is because of the slices of yourself that you shred into your work. You care enough to expose yourself to the pain.

Or alternatively…

There is a way to bypass this cycle. I don't recommend it. It involves shutting down the place where that pain comes from. To stop the pain you could grab a wrench and descend to the basement of your soul until you find the faucet where your care juice comes from. Crank that lever hard and close the valve completely. This will isolate your pain receptors so that you can maintain a design career without the discomfort of the anguish cycle.

Too many designers do this. I am sure you have seen it:

You see it in the robotic freelancers pumping out whatever gunk their clients request.

You can see it in the aloof postures of prima donnas who eye roll through their design assignments disengaged and daydreaming about a mythical place where their brilliance will one day be applauded.

You see it in the slick presentations of agency designers who apply the same glossy sparkle to every shallow presentation they put in front of their clients.

You see it in the battle-worn creative director, too tired to fight for the designs of his employees.

You see it in the dribbblers who can stun you with beautiful fictions but are incapable of shipping functional final products.

All these designers have changed their creative process to eliminate their personal attachment to their work. They disconnected from the pain. They stopped caring about what is important.

I would like to believe that most of us resist those shortcuts. We choose to engage with the anguish, we welcome it because we know that the pain is where quality comes from. Yes, we are masochists, drawn to the pain again and again because we know that our work improves with each batch of our being we ship. Bring on the pain.


Thanks for reading. If you have criticism of this story tweet at me with feedback. I am eager to let the darts of your words poke into the tender flesh of my care muscle. I'll be back next Saturday with another story of pain and discomfort so consider following me because you don't want to miss it. Stay creative.


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