What I learned about learning,
or Make, Rattle and Roll
That title is a nod to Rocky and Bullwinkle. Which is my way of segueing into this sentence: I went back to school at age 29. I entered into a masters program being well-aware that I would turn thirty while waist-deep in final exams, throwing out outdated references like the one above.
I was prepared to have more culturally relevant conversations with my professors and not my peers. I was ready to learn from the young kids, some who were busy being born while I was trying to sneak a copy of Dookie into my room unnoticed. I was ready to enter back into the world of learning as I knew it; one where I spent countless hours talking to my peers, passing ideas through anyone who’d give me a minute, critiquing others work, pushing each other far beyond our comfort zones.
What I got instead was something I was completely unprepared for. I was told over and over again that I was wrong. No, Nancy. Learning is about doing things right. Learning is about avoiding mistakes. Learning is about compromising for a good grade. Here I was, full of excitement and anticipation for the program that I spent years looking for. And I get there and my peers tell me I’ve been doing it wrong for the last decade.
In 2009, I made a really difficult decision. I sat in a drafty apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts that I shared with 3 other grad students and stared at the makeshift wallpaper behind my desk. My project, a tessellation of triangles that I forced to look like a building, had once again been called out by critics as cerebral and ‘strange.’ I was told that I was making objects, not buildings, and I had convinced myself that I may never be an architect. Unfortunately, I was in a masters of architecture program. A few days later I filed my papers to postpone my upcoming semester. Within a month I had officially withdrawn from school.
I never became an architect, but my failure stuck with me as I moved through jobs. I bounced around the architectural world, working in every possible discipline that surrounded it from construction to planning to writing about design. None of it stuck, and so I just started trying things. I made print materials and advertisements. I took over social media accounts and taught myself the entire Adobe creative suite. I freelanced and had real jobs and eventually became a director of communications for a nonprofit. I had no reason to accomplish these things. Lots of my projects and jobs were gotten by sheer willpower or luck (or bad luck). I felt like I was a fraud.
Which brought me back to grad school. I wanted to stop feeling like a fraud. I wanted to be surrounded by other creative types again, learning from the world that enticed me in undergrad. Emerge myself in the discipline without real-world consequences. School was the ultimate playground for me. I could be cerebral and strange again and not take into account the company’s bottom line. But I also knew that after working for 7 years, I could also bring in my real-world knowledge and help inform my designs so they can be useful.
The program that I chose was not architecture. I couldn’t justify another 3 years of grad school. And I still didn’t want to be an architect. I ended up choosing ux design. Which, if you think about it, is architecture for non-buildings.
The first semester of school I was perpetually confused. I spent much of the time feeling like an outsider, someone existing on an entirely different planet than my peers. But these feelings were not due to my age. Not due to social constructs or prior knowledge. There was a fundamental difference between how we viewed the world.
I am a designer. I am confident about that now. I wasn’t when I entered school. I never felt I was good enough for the moniker. If you go back and look at my bios you’ll see I always qualified it. The closest I got was saying ‘I sometimes design things.’
This program taught me that what I thought were weaknesses were actually strengths. I never felt like a good student. I had always chosen classes based on fascination or waning interests. In undergrad I optioned for courses that were taught by Pulitzer-prize winners and heads of global organizations. Not because they fell under my architecture major, but because, well, why not? My grades suffered from this outlook. Taking a course about weapons of mass destruction without a science background meant a struggle to pass. But I can still tell you at a high level why sticking two pieces of uranium together will make a big boom.
I took this approach in this program as well. I took a grad-level Behavioral Economics course knowing full well I’ve never taken a social science class in my life. I wrote papers for the first time in 6 years. I struggled and pushed and studied. Importantly, I learned so much.
In my second semester I wanted to better understand the struggles that my peers were going through. I asked the director of our program if I could do an independent study project under her. I’ve just finished writing up the findings from the semester, and hopefully someday I can post them here. But I wanted to talk about them generally too.
Making is about creativity. But creativity is about curiosity.
“I don’t believe in learning from other peoples pictures. I think you should learn from your own interior vision of things and discover, as I say, Innocently, as though there had never been anybody.”
― Orson Welles
There is no right or wrong way to be curious. There is no right or wrong way to be creative. But somehow when it gets to the making part, my peers felt strongly that there were right and wrong ways to make things.
When creativity must manifest itself and be critiqued and iterated upon, people want help. And they seek help in terms of guidelines and rules. That’s dangerous.
Critique is hard. Hard to give and hard to swallow. But critique is the backbone of design. I can express myself endlessly in an medium and ask the world to accept my viewpoints, but ultimately without critique and iteration, I’d be making art.
For anyone who has never sat through a critique, it can be brutal. While my current program never devolved into back-breaking slamfests, critique — in whatever variety — is ego-bruising.
As I mentioned, I came from architecture. One critic I once had told a fellow classmate to ‘draw until the ugly gene came out.’ Another refused to critique my project because I had not done what they had expected with it. I once used a colored ink in a paper model and my critic ‘couldn’t even look at it.’ He preferred monochrome. I’ve also heard numerous stories of architecture school from the late nineties. Critics would literally set models on fire. Take bright red markers and cross out entire drawings in front of peers and industry professionals.
Critique is extremely arbitrary. I know many many designers who will fight me on this, but ultimately, I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. It teaches students and professionals to anticipate the critics needs. Brutal as arbitrariness is, you can learn to defend your designs.
It also means that people start to understand what critics are saying underneath the base-level knee-jerk reactions. ‘That drawing is too abstract’ means they could not understand it enough to make an informed decision. ‘Where is the data to support this’ means you glossed over the rigorous research you’ve done. ‘Maybe you can look at this other person’s work’ means someone else communicated about their design effectively and you should not copy their work, but could try to emulate their presentation style.
Does this all sound super vague? Good.
Roll with it.
Find yourself within the confines and constructs of your projects.
This is a real life conversation I once had with a client:
J: I need a website.
Me: awesome. Let’s start by looking at some sites you like. Tell me what you like about each of them.
J: this one is nice. I like it.
Me: cool. Can you tell me what you like about it?
This is not a joke. It’s real. And I did ultimately end up making a site for him. And he really liked it. But it took a lot of asking questions and iterating on features, looking at magazines and books and color palettes. Finding a common language where we could exist in the project. This is what design is. Understanding your client and user needs simultaneously and creating something that fits both. And if it sounds like getting clear answers is akin to pulling teeth, sometimes it is. And if that isn’t something you’re into, it can be a long bumpy ride ahead.