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 query : How do I handle an increasing lack of faith in my design abilities? Do any of you seasoned design professionals have any advice for a young graphic design student/novice? Especially with respects


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Do any of you seasoned design professionals have any advice for a young graphic design student/novice?

Especially with respects to improving upon knowledge and picking yourself up post-critique. Particularly if you are a person who takes criticism very personally.

I do understand that as a design student, it can be an advantage to be 'thick skinned'.

What advice would you give in order for me to pick myself up?

I have started to realise (realistically) that I am not particularly very talented at design. Despite dedicating the last 4 years towards educating myself, spending lots of money and learning the industry.

Any advice??

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I think everyone goes through this period of self doubt. If you don't, I think you might have other problems like arrogance or illusions of grandeur. I don't think I really "Got It" until the end of design school, I was there 4 years as well.

You might want to to try and figure out where you are going wrong. Some possibilities are, bad conceptual skills, poor execution with sloppy design/illustration or mat boards, poor communication or presentation to convey your concept. If you can narrow down any of these, try to figure out why. Is it time management, lack of resources, burned out? Then work on fixing that problem. You could be in a class with a bunch of jerks. You also might find easier ways to do certain tasks. For me, designing with a grid and Typography for page layout and publication design was a lifesaver. Here is a great Typography book that helped me if interested:Elements of Typographic Style.

I learned a long time ago in a critique a good concept or idea can go a long way. I knew people that would walk into class with something that looked like it took 30 min to make and would B.S. for an hour to explain how it solved all aspects of the project. I'm not saying this is good or bad, it's just that concept/communication was that persons strength.

You will have to get used to rejection/people wanting to change what you've done. This is the nature of the business. Someone will always want the logo a little bit bigger. You will gain confidence in your design and stand behind it eventually.

In the end, if you've invested all this time and money into it you must have loved it at one point. Try to rediscover what you love but also remember the client pays the bills, finding what they need and like isnt always easy.

Good Luck.

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I used to be just like you in college 9 long years ago. I was designing websites in high school and figured, hey - I like this. I never thought I'd actually make a living out of it.

Then I hit college and discovered that I could actually convince others to pay me to do this.

Then I took some art/design classes as part of my design major and I got my butt handed to me. I regularly imagined boo'ing coming from the minds of my classmates. I cried every now and then when I was suffocating under the weight of everyone else's talent. There were glimmers of "success" when the professor remarked about what was good about my work. But mostly, critique time was a dreadful time.

I know. Melodramatic.

But something happened during my senior year. During the final critique, my professor remarked about how impressed he was with how much I improved. I worked and worked and worked at my weaknesses. Now, he didn't say I was good. But the fact that I had demonstrated marked improvement was enough encouragement for me to get teary-eyed and ridiculously hopeful about my future.

I don't think I was happy with what I was producing until 2 years after college. That's just because I, like you, didn't feel I had any natural talent for design. I knew, however, that I loved what I did and that with time, effort, and paying attention to my mentors and peers, my taste would eventually match up with my skills.

I do understand that as a design student, it can be an advantage to be 'thick skinned'.

Yes, it is because the real world is a lot tougher than a tough professor. You will likely thank those professors who cared enough to criticize you later down the road when you find yourself remembering the little nuggets of wisdom they've shared with you.

What advice would you give in order for me to pick myself up?

I want to ask yourself something first. Do you love designing? Why did you get into it the first place? Is it to help people? Is it to satiate your ego and the need to express yourself?

If it's primarily for the former reason, you owe it to the world and yourself to do whatever it takes to build up your talent. That means working your butt off and just doing the work. If it's the latter, then perhaps you are an artist. Either one is totally fine. I think the trick is to remember during the hard parts exactly why you're doing this - and then "pick yourself up" from there because design isn't just for you.

To give you a glimpse of what it was like for me (an actual person companies have paid good money to) to work under a tremendous amount of self-loathing, check out this article I wrote about a time not too long ago.

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It's pretty often that we as Designers, and just generally as humans have periods of doubt. When we doubt ourselves in most cases we asses what we are doing the best, and make improvements. I wrote about mentality and psychology in design a number of months ago and came across an infographic regarding painting skill improvement, and redesigned the graph to fit with graphic design.

We tend to look at other peoples design in periods, which we often research before of whilst a project or piece is being designed. Our perceived technical ability tend to grow above our actually skill level the more we design and look at work, usually because we feel we are on par with other designers. Our actual technical skill grows through experience and consistent work, and generally only grows and becomes saturated, before growing after a period of frustration. Until a point of saturation where we are at our peak.

Hope this helps.

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This quote has helped me deal with people commenting on my work:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. —Neil Gaiman

People have an innate sense of what works, and what doesn't. So if they say it doesn't work, it doesn't. But only you know how all the pieces fit together and what the underlying logic is. Any change they suggest will probably ruin that logic. So listen to what people say you should change, but not to how they say you should change it.

Take your critique and split it into the important (where to look for improvement) and the unimportant (how to fix things). A good critiquer will do this for you, but we do not always get the ciritiquers we deserve.

We have to listen to criticism and take it seriously, but we don't have to take it at face value. Just because someone has spotted a flaw in you work, doesn't mean that they should be the designer.

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Particularly if you are a person who takes criticism very personally.

Don't. Then you don't have to be 'thick skinned'. Criticism is of your work. If it is of you then you should ask for clarification. If it is about the inanimate object that you designed, write down the points and thank everyone for the input. If you have a reputation later you will jump at every chance to get real input and criticism as many people shy away from doing so if you have already 'proven yourself' (whatever that means).

I am not particularly very talented at design.

No one is. Talent is a myth. There is only hard work. The difference is seeing mistakes or poor results as failure or as something to lean from. It is part of western culture to do the former but you need to understand that mistakes are going to be made, and the earlier you make them the easier it is to put them behind you as experiences. If I told you that you have to make 100 terrible designs before you make one really good one, wouldn't you be happy to know that you are already at 92?

And I have to agree with Zach quoting Amy Cuddy: fake it till you make it.

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It's not necessary to be elite in your field to be useful to clients who need design work done, and are willing to pay you to do it.

Get your head out of the classics and leading bloggers for a while ... go and look around your town, your local publications, look at some local advertising. Do you can feel an "I could do better than that!" coming on? Someone got paid to do those jobs - why couldn't it have been you, to do a better thing with it?

On the other hand, life is too short to stick with doing something you are not enjoying after having given it a good go. It's not like all that learning will suddenly abandon you - feel free to give something else a try, reconnect with what it is that really makes you tick.

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Some personal experience, for what it's worth. When I started out doing graphic design for a web development company, I found that it turned me into a massive prima donna. I couldn't take any criticism from the boss, and any commands to add elements or change things would lead to a hissy fit. I tried to hide most of this, but I'm sure a lot of it showed.

Then I moved away from graphic design and into UX design, I found that I suddenly became incredibly thick-skinned, much more in control of the process and, I think, a lot more pleasant to work with.

I think the difference is that UX design is much more about the process and figuring out what a makes a good solution together. All you do is make wonky-looking wireframes, and help people figure out what they want and how to express what they want. Contrast this with the insane myth of graphic design where you have to be born talented and everybody has to bow to your genius, and you can sort of see how the difference comes about.

The best way to stop taking it personally is to let go of the ownership of the idea. Figure out what the design needs to be together. Give everybody crayons and lego blocks and let them make ugly drawings. That will give you the heart of the design, and if you find out it's wrong, so much the better. Exactly what typeface you use or which grid system is not the point.

This article explains it better than I can. The heart of a design is its functionality, not how many hours you spent slaving over photoshop. If you test that early and often, you get into a much healthier flow.

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Much of design is learning about human perception. Anyone can learn to use the tools (Photoshop, Illustrator, et. al.). Learning the tools is honestly just a matter of time and practice. Anyone can be a Photoshop-whiz given enough time, even if they have zero design abilities.

A good designer deals more with the unseen or intangible aspects of a piece and then concerns themselves with the tools. The tools are just a means to an end.

While learning design I feel it is more important to learn the psychology of human perception. Learning what colors convey emotions and what those emotions are, the way people perceive shapes, ways to convey different moods, how the eye travels across a page, how long the average billboard is looked at, the best color to promote urgency, etc., are all things a good designer will be aware of while working.

If you feel you lack some design aesthetics, you need to boost your perceptional understanding. Most of this can be learned by simply working. You learn that more white space creates an air of openness and conversely no white space conveys a sense of compression or constriction. Pastel colors are calming while fluorescents are agitating. It's these sort of things that can help with design aesthetics.

I wish I could point to a direct source for these things. The best I can do is a couple Google searches and a couple good links:

Visual Grammar of Lines

The Meanings of Colors

These sort of things are often gained more through trial and error since, my perception is, many design schools focus more on the tools than the marketing. However, it is these sorts of articles you should seek out and ingest. Knowing this stuff will do nothing but make you more confident and decisive in your designing.

Marketing classes often go far more into what does and does not work when selling. And really, design is all about selling visuals.
Reading articles about marketing to specific audiences will help you better target designs. Then using the psychology for that market aides further.

As for post-critique feelings.... I hope my earlier critique wasn't taken personally. It certainly wasn't mean to be. Realize that no one ever learns anything by hearing "I Like It!" People only learn and improve when they hear dissent. I can sympathize with hurt feelings and you are right, developing a thicker skin is pretty much mandatory. Remember what you create is not who you are. I've had work literally spit upon. Think of it this way... if you were painting your bedroom at home and your boyfriend/husband didn't like the color of paint you want to use, would that be a personal attack or merely a difference of opinion? Design is subjective and opinion much of the time. Differing opinions aren't ever really personal attacks. You will always find others who disagree with your design choices. You may feel some disagreements have merit where others do not. You should take what you like and ignore the rest.

In the end, you just need to be bold, be brave, be confident, in your decisions. If you are, others will be as well. Half of being a good designer is just being gutsy enough to unapologetically stand by what you've created. Remember your worst creation is at least 300% better than what any client could ever create. And haters gunna hate :)

Don't give up. Four years is still early and there's a great deal you learn though actual work as opposed to schooling. Schooling only gets you so far it's the work environment - either as an employee or as a freelancer - that will really catapult your self-confidence in design.

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Yisela said: "I have heard lots of professionals saying some people just 'don't have it', aesthetically-wise. I don't agree." This is certainly a viewpoint that is either right or wrong, and the conclusions that you'd draw from that are very different. If a tone-deaf person can learn to sing, then tell him to try as hard as he can. If he can't, then he's wasting his time, right?

An analogy

Before I started taking art classes in high school, I was a big math and science guy. I was good at calculus.

You know what doesn't happen in the math field? People skipping algebra and trigonometry, jumping straight into calculus, struggling, and then throwing up their hands and saying "I just can't do math."

Sure, some people are better at math than others. Some people flee from math because they hate it, and some people just aren't able to grasp higher concepts (one of the smarter people I know got tripped up on his college differential equations class!). But there's a logical progression. Learn counting. Then addition. Then subtraction, multiplication, then division. Then math with negatives. Then equations and exponents. Then polynomials. Then integrals. And on from there. Note that this process takes place over a child's entire education.

Point being, while there are some true math prodigies, most people learn it progressively and systematically. And yet, people go into the art world and expect people to just "have it". It's not like that at all, though! There's a reason we spend a lot of time teaching kids how to write - dexterity takes practice. There's a reason why art classes often focus on still-lifes - it teaches you how to see something and translate it to your media. There's a reason why plenty of designers start out designing boring forms for their company - it teaches mastery of the software tools and more minor design execution skills which will help you design new things more quickly later. There's a reason why we do critiques - it teaches designers how to think and imparts wisdom from people who have been doing it more.

Worth noting too that for every prodigy in any field, there are probably 100-1000 people who are in the trenches of the same industry, doing great work but not posting it on the Internet. The beauty and curse of the Web is that it shows you the best of everything. I look at other graphic and web designers out there and feel like an utter failure, and yet somehow I've been blessed to have jobs where I fit in and do good work.

So, with all that in mind...

Improving upon knowledge

Read. Do. Revise. Revamp. Repeat. If you like logos, read Brand New or design firms' blogs to learn more about the industry. Find a project you care about and do a logo for it. Ask design friends (or us!) for a critique. Make it better. As long as you're getting better, you're continuing to set yourself apart from the people who don't. And believe me, not everyone in your design school is getting better.

Picking yourself up post-critique

I like to think that for every person who gets shredded in a critique, there has to be a person who was unwilling to ask. Which person gets better in the long run? I noticed that you did a critique on this site. So did I! My critique got some positive responses, some really negative ones, and some really thoughtful ones in between. Some advice I'll accept, some I'll reject, but my menu today (as well as the future rollout of it) is better than it was before because I was willing to put myself out there and hear criticism.

Another way to look at it: Everyone is a critic. When you design something and put it out there, your work will still be critiqued, except it'll be done by people who can't speak the design language as well, won't be able to make it better, who don't know or care about you. I'd rather hear it from a small group of designers pre-launch than a large group of everyone post-launch.

There is a proverb: "Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you, Reprove a wise man and he will love you." I don't know if the wise man loves being reproved, but he loves the person who does it because he knows that he can become wiser still. Be willing to accept hard truths and use that feedback to make yourself better. I think that advice would apply to any field, and if that sounds like something you don't want to do for the sake of design, then and only then would I say that you might not cut out for that line of work.

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The same doubts you're having with you design ability can happen in regards to learning anything, from asking people out on dates to learning a foreign language. One of the most encouraging yet true posts I've seen about this doubt is The Gap, a short video by Ira Glass. You should definitely check it out and take what it says to heart. The full interview can be found on YouTube in four parts (part one starts here). Part two is especially relevant to this discussion as he explains the importance of failing.

With that being said, I wrote a lengthy blog post on this subject which I encourage you to give a good read. Here are some main points as well as some additional thoughts:

Continue to do work - lots of it. There is no better teacher than experience. Someone can give you a detailed exposition of an experience, but until you have had the experience yourself, it can’t have the same meaning to you. We truly get to know the subject matter by simply doing it - in your case creating work.

It takes time. It takes time to find people who outclass you who you can learn from. It takes time to start to understand what they’re talking about and how it works. This is the way it should be! As Publilius Syrus said, “It takes a long time to bring excellence to maturity,“ and we have to work at it constantly. Roger Staubach agrees: “Confidence comes from hours and days and weeks and years of constant work and dedication.” In the same way, we create by working hard and by mixing ideas. Doing so well takes time and a lot of thought.

And improving is addictive. The more you know, the less you think you know. And the less you think you know, the more you want to know! We never stop getting better at what we're doing unless we stop trying.
It should be intimidating and difficult. If you’re not somewhat intimidated by the people or content that you’re surrounded by, you’re probably not being pushed as hard as you can be, and you may not be reaching your potential. Tasks that are beyond your current ability help you grow the most.

Most great works didn't come in a flash of ingenuity, but rather from a long time spent thinking and a whole lot of work. Henry Ford (inventor of the automobile) once said, "I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work... Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready then it is inevitable."

That may mean that you get harsh criticism and fail at times, but at the end of it you’ll have picked up some of it, learned something of the mindset around it, and become more likely to understand similar topics in the future than you had been previously.
Be encouraged. Look at your past work, especially the failures, and learn from them. Take note of the knowledge you learned from creating it and the good and bad parts of it. Be encouraged by the fact that if you redid the work today you could do a much better job!

We also need others to encourage us. That doesn't mean we should seek to only be praised by others, encouragement is not so much saying kind words to a person, but rather an action towards or treatment of that person in a way that builds them up. Surround yourself with people that want to see you improve. That is not to say that they don’t care for you as you are now – they should accept you as you are now – but they should also want to see you ever improve. That is what true friends do, rather than simply trying to have meaningless fun. Get involved in a community of people that are going in the same or similar directions - being a part of the chatroom here is one small way to do so.
Faking it is making it. Amy Cuddy discusses how this is true for body language, but the same is true for non-physical subjects. If you get the job done, the job is done. It's always the case that we could do it better once we're more skilled, but we're not there yet. We do what we currently can and that's all that we can ask of ourselves. We should always be pushing ourselves to try and be the best we can be, but we shouldn't feel bad about ourselves because we're not perfect - we never will be.

Intelligence is defined in many ways. One of my favorite definitions is by Bertolt Brecht: “Intelligence is not to make no mistakes, but quickly to see how to make them good.” Using this definition, continuing to do work that you don't feel is adequate actually makes you more intelligent by increasing your capacity to think about the situation at hand and improve it. Simply by doing it we get better!

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I'll try to sum up what helped me the most when I was going through my last own little crisis.

Sometimes you will feel really good about your work. Other times (for some the most) you will realise your final result is nowhere near your previous expectations. This in my case gets aggravated by Dribbble profiles :)

I have heard lots of professionals saying some people just "don't have it", aesthetically-wise. I don't agree. If practise doesn't make perfect, it can definitely make great. And I don't think it has to do with more studying. If you like designing, don't stop doing it.

My very personal advice:

Observe other people's work. Follow other designers, keep an eye on what the big agencies and brands are doing, pick your favourite pieces. Use your designer eye for things around you, criticize, absorb. Also look at how the design process works for others, how they "come up with the great ideas".
Be honest with your own work, and try harder. This is the key, I think. When you create something, stop, look at it. Give it a couple of days, evaluate it again. Most designers know how good or bad a piece is, and some will settle for good enough. Don't. Push yourself a little more, aim for excellence. Keep trying. Start all over, if you have to. Don't stop until you know you got it, the real thing, the one you are proud of.

Not all jobs need to be executed to perfection, but it's good to have a few of these gold pieces. And it's something you can keep forever. Most writers, for example, start with a rough written sketch and then work their way up, we are talking months, even years making corrections. Only a very tiny group of people can grab a pen and create something unique and amazing.

I always tell this story when talking about "talent": I had two friends. One was superbly talented, but was lazy and had no real passion about what he was best at. The other was terrible, he couldn't draw a stick figure, I'm not exaggerating. Yet he tried and tried, he drew for months, then went to school, and now he's a famous artist while my first friend does something completely unrelated that he's not even good at nor makes him happy. If design is what you want, go for it. You don't need to be Mozart to make music.

EDIT: I see now I kind of missed the point with my answer. Regarding the thick skin... I have a very thin one. I asked this question a little while ago, I think the answers can really give you a nice perspective:

How do you deal with clients who bash your designs?

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