I recently attended an AIGA portfolio review (I wrote about the feedback here), where several people told me to “go wild” and “let my hair down.” That feedback felt really discordant to me, but I find there’s often something productive hidden inside that kind of discomfort. For the past couple of months, I’ve been unpacking and playing with that feedback to see where it leads.
First, I need to get some resistance out of the way: I’m not the type to need permission to express myself creatively. Often, I think that the people giving this feedback imagine that I need someone to tell me that it’s ok to be myself. Lots of people struggle with rules and being put in boxes, but I don’t find that to be a problem for me in my design: if I want to do something, I probably will.
The fact that I haven’t “gone wild” in my work is more an expression of my aesthetic sense and a conscious artistic choice, not a reflection of fear. I’m aware that my work is not big and bold and splashy; that’s not who I am (nor is it who I want to be, most of the time). I appreciate and enjoy people whose work commands an audience’s attention, but I often find it to be noisy and exhausting as well. For my chosen field, the artist is not the center of attention: the data is. I like the idea that a good design should be almost invisible; it should feel so natural that you don’t even see that it’s there. A lot of the “wild” design that I see reads to me as simply trying too hard, and forcing people’s attention to the wrong place. I do love big, bold, and splashy in its place, but I have seldom found a place for it in my work.
If art is a vehicle for personal expression, it must also be an authentic representation of who and what we are. I give myself permission to be different than the stereotypically bold and splashy artist, and my response to this feedback is partly resistance to the idea that my work should look or feel a certain way to earn someone else’s approval. This is me, deliberately choosing to be quiet in a loud world.
But beyond that, the other part that I was hearing in those conversations was a sense that you have not truly demonstrated mastery until you have done this. You might not have to do it all the time, but people want/need to know that you can. Sometimes it is valuable to demonstrate the capacity to do something, even if you don’t intend to use it much. I have found this to be true in my interactions with people as well: sometimes a person can’t respect you until they know that you could be bitchy, and that you simply choose not to be. If you don’t demonstrate the capacity, they dismiss you as a wimp and a pushover rather than someone who is deliberately choosing to be nice (even when that’s harder than bitchy would be). If people are consistently reading my work as timid or repressed and judging my skill accordingly, there is value in demonstrating for that audience that I am capable of leveraging my power as well. It is also true that a person who cannot (or will not) use power does not have it: I can see that it is worthwhile to find ways where it is appropriate to express this power in more socially-recognizable ways, even if I generally wouldn’t do so in my day-to-day work.
For me, once we get past the imperfect expression of this feedback, it wasn’t really about technical or design ability so much as it was about command of the tools, and pushing the limits to get to a different level. My sense was that these comments were generally well-intentioned and affirming — people were seeing and responding to potential, and then asking me to take it further. Every person who told me to be bolder also commented on how good my work was; they were looking for clearer expression, not saying that I didn’t have a basic skill. They were encouraging me to move beyond scales and technically sound performance to something more virtuosic. And that is a reach that I can fully get behind. I think we may disagree on my methods and approach (and on what “counts” as a goal), but the stretch toward greatness is one that I will always take, and I appreciate the honest push in that direction.
And so, I have been playing with this idea, trying to find a path forward that both embraces what I take to be the core message of this feedback, and that also feels authentic and meaningful to me. I doubt that “going wild” will become a central part of my work, but I’m curious to ask myself where I would consider it appropriate to use a louder, bolder, more graphic style, or how I would incorporate that same visual mastery in my work in a different way. Stay tuned!