I had an awesome time talking to the art department at Cal Poly Pomona about the benefits of thinking negative—thanks Anthony Acock for inviting me to come speak in gorgeous Southern California. I came to this topic by remembering what my own design school experience was and how grad school became such a fertile environment for self doubt and nurtured lots of the negative emotions that are a strong part of my design process and psyche even today.
I was new to design when I started my MFA program at Pratt in NYC, and that was probably the only time ever that I wasn’t afraid of design. After the thesis process started, however, the expectations changed and the focus shifted from execution, craft, and form to concept, concept, and more concept—I didn’t take well to this change. One day, I was feeling particularly down while talking to one of my advisors, brainstorming ideas for possible thesis directions or project concepts or whatever and he said this:
“You're bad at metaphorical thinking”
I am bad at thinking metaphorically, and because metaphor is such a crucial, essential part of good design, I extended that to apply to all of design. I am bad at design.
Whether or not there was professor with questionable judgement to spell it out to you, these feelings of insecurity, self doubt, envy, pride, etc are emotions we all contend with on a daily basis as designers and generally creative people. Yet, we live in a society that tells us to think positive, and that there’s something wrong with us that needs correcting if we fail to do so. We’re told to hide these negative emotions as we project a constructed image of ourselves online (and offline).
As I've thought more and more about this, I've found that these universal character flaws can actually be harnessed and used to my advantage. Not just in a let-your-haters-be-your-motivators kind of way, but in a real, meaningful way. I told the Cal Poly students how boredom, for example, gave me the urgency to make drastic changes, and pushed me to make weird and ugly things, getting away from what I’m used to looking at. Or how envy gives me something to aspire to and pride reminds me to stay teachable.
Obviously, it would be better to not have to deal with any of these nasty feelings, but instead of letting them beat me down, or thinking that I’m the only one who’s creating in this tortured state while everyone out there is 23 years old and designing effortlessly, I’ve been gradually shifting my focus, becoming aware of the emotions I need to get rid of and the ones that I can live with and harness to create better, more meaningful work.
If you're interested in having me speak at your event, school, or company (or if you just want to chat about how I'm a master at thinking negative and feeling like an imposter), I'd love to hear from you! Get in touch by using the contact form on my about/contact page.