Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Rejection and the designer

All designers live with rejection. It comes with the terrain—a terrain where decision-making is frequently based on personal taste and capriciousness (“Sorry, I just don’t like it”); a terrain where blunt commercial considerations trump everything (“Sorry, our market won’t understand this”); a terrain where a friend of mine who works for one of the big beasts in global corporate branding tells me that very little of her work is ever published (“Sorry, our new CEO has ordered a change of strategy”).

What are the results of working in a discipline where rejection, and its first cousins, compromise, dilution and modification, are ubiquitous? Does rejection harden ambition and act as a spur to better work? Or does it inject a debilitating toxin into the organs of creative ambition? 

Social rejection has a harshness that we don’t find in other types of emotional setback. People are rejected by lovers, employers, institutions, friends, even parents. And the reason rejection hurts is because our brains have been formed by evolution to see expulsion as an early warning sign of danger: anything that places us outside the protective embrace of the group means that our survival is threatened. 

Of course it’s not social rejection that designers fear, but it’s almost as deeply felt, and strikes at the core of what it means to be a creative producer. How designers cope with rejection of their work is fundamental to how they progress and develop as creative practitioners.

The novelist David Mitchell catches the exquisite pain of rejection so often experienced by neophyte writers: “I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash … knowing I’d remember every word.” 

What Mitchell is describing here is the fact that although in order to preserve our self-esteem we usually characterize rejection of creative products as an act of unfairness, the truth is that sometimes rejection is deserved. And since design is mostly about serving the needs of clients, it might not be unreasonable to say that any failure to meet those needs is the fault of the designer. 

But few of us think like this. Instead we develop strategies for dealing with rejection. Some develop protective psychological armor that rejection bounces off; others take rejection as a personal slight and nurse wounds that never heal. 

And there’s a paradox here for designers: if we wish to avoid rejection we nearly always have to choose blandness, but on the other hand, if we want to make work with depth and resonance, we have to risk rejection. So unless we decide to settle for blandness and cosy consensus, we have to live with the near permanent threat of rejection. 

It’s a situation made more hazardous by the emergence of yet another terrain on which to experience rejection: the Internet and social media encourages open season on new work in ways that were unthinkable a decade or so ago. Hundreds of trolls telling us—and the world—that our logo, web design or typeface “sucks” may lack the informed critical acumen of David Mitchell’s “professional reader,” but like an insect bite, it can still hurt long after the wound is inflicted. 

Shortly after writing that last sentence I randomly picked up a copy of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections—a book I hadn’t looked at for years. I opened it to a page that described his recovery from illness.

He wrote (my italics): “It was only after the illness that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen: an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory. Nothing is disturbed—neither inwardly nor outwardly, for one’s own continuity has withstood the current of life and of time.” 

Comments [1]

great post, thanks.

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