The Daily Heller: You’ve Graduated! Any Questions?

Posted inThe Daily Heller

The blooming of multicolored academic robes—a chromatic bouquet of academic regalia—means just one thing: It’s Spring commencement season, that joyful time for students who are ready to join the world’s design fields. Bravo!

Every year I anticipate the call that never comes. I’m talking about a request inviting me to offer 10–15 minutes of wisdom to a cohort of newly graduated artists and designers. This Spring is no exception. However, adhering to tradition, I always write a commencement address just in case a scheduled speaker gets ill, tests positive for COVID or misses their plane.

Illustration courtesy Ross MacDonald

This year’s topic is not, however, my usual optimistic hurrah. Rather, I’ve conceived a list of some important questions that many grads will have to address at some time during their professional lives, particularly now that we’ve entered an age of increased (and not altogether unwarranted) sensitivity. I admit up front that I do not have all the answers, but knowing the questions is a good beginning. So, let’s begin.

As a professional designer you will be asked your opinions on other people’s work. What do you say (or not) when you don’t like someone’s work?

Should you volunteer an opinion if someone’s work is not to your taste?

How honest should you be with a colleague? Underling? Student? Stranger?

Can harsh criticism be construed as abusive?

What is more important: the quality of the work, or the feelings of the worker?

Can you balance two extremes?

You are working with someone who oversteps their job description. How do you respond?

If a person is threatening your position, how do you respond?

How do you address (or not) professional jealousy in the workplace?

If a colleague gets promoted and is now your superior, what is your response?

If you do not like a fellow worker, what do you say, or how do you act?

If you are displeased with a client, what do you do?

How do you handle conflict with a professional friend?

Can respect overcome animosity?

If you believe your personal and/or professional ethics have been compromised, what do you do?

With colleagues, clients, students or superiors, how do you balance differences in beliefs—political, religious, philosophical?

At what point do you act upon any of these issues?

Should you seek out professional guidance if any of these issues arise? 

Here are some thoughts on a few of these quandaries:

What do you say (or not) when someone asks you for a critique and you don’t like their work?
If you are asked for a critique, honesty is best. But someone once told me to look at the best part of someone’s work. With a portfolio, for instance, instead of a blanket rejection, I single out the one or two examples that should be the high bar, explain why that is the case, and that that should be the goal. That avoids saying that everything is bad. But what if everything is below “my standard”? There are two alternatives. One is easy to say: “This approach does not appeal to my subjective taste,” which puts the onus on me (which maybe the reality anyway). The other is hard: unvarnished truth. Whatever that may be—e.g., “You don’t have the skill,” or “This is a competitive field and you need to invest more time and effort to make the cut.” Within those poles there is a lot that can be improvised.

Should you volunteer an opinion if someone’s work is not to your taste?
Volunteering is tricky. Often someone will show work simply to show the work. They may, in fact, be quite proud of it. Or maybe they are insecure and afraid to ask for an opinion. The best option is to take the temperature of the presenter. Silence says a lot. Saying “interesting but I’m not sure it works” is my usual noncommittal response, which leaves the door open for a follow-up question. The most radical, and possibly helpful, response, is complete candor.

How honest should you be with a colleague? Underling? Student? Stranger?
Honesty may not be appreciated at the moment it is given. Or it may be just what is needed. With an underling or student, total honesty is the only correct response. An employee must meet your standard; a student comes to you to learn. For a stranger, again, it depends on what you are willing to invest, but dishonesty isn’t worth your time.

I hope this was useful for some of you. If not, please let me know … but nicely!