“It’s really not good…”

The most inspiring feedback I ever received, professionally.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~African Proverb

Feedback and inspiration can present themselves in the strangest of ways. Sometimes completely catching you off guard. Occasionally you will even realize this in a most obscure manner. The following is one of the most profound moments in my career that paved the way for future success as a designer who was just beginning to enter the real world:

When I was younger I did very well in college. I have no shame in admitting that whatsoever and I’m certainly proud of the accomplishment. I was in the top of my class with a perfect 4.0 GPA. I’d certainly be bragging when I say that my professors adored me. Having done so well it had me convinced that I was a bit invincible and was meant for nothing but great things when graduation rolled around. I was so excited to be done school and couldn’t wait to get my first job.

I sought out and applied to so many exciting places. I pictured Marvel Comics picking me up, or undoubtedly someone like MTV in New York would consider me a shoe-in. Better yet I could strike gold and move to Cupertino and work for the infamous Jony Ive at Apple. The whole process was super exciting. It felt like I was a space cadet from the movie Starship Troopers just waiting to get beamed into action 🚀

Boy, was I really off…

I started out working for a local healthcare corporation, where wearing a long-sleeved collared shirt with a neutral colored tie and khaki pants every day (even casual Fridays) was mandatory. I sat in a makeshift cubicle that was more like a shelf in an actual hospital setting among doctors and nurses, with a desktop Dell computer 😩, working as one of two designers. The other was a grumpy, approaching retirement, older lad. He worked there for almost his entire career and managed the website (back in the day of tables). He didn’t understand why we needed one in the first place and reminded me of it every single morning. Oh, and I made $9 an hour.

Despite the above description sounding like designer suicide — I stuck it out — at least for a few short months. I recall feeling confident that I was so very good at my craft that I could whip this place into shape with my stellar right brain thinking. I was no extrovert so thankfully the big head I had didn’t seep through too much. I really was just so green and eager to get my hands on my first project and finally show the real world how much I was ready to face it head-on.

After a day or so of awkward on-boarding, my boss who from my recollection was a doctor with no design background, gave me an assignment to work on. I’ll never forget my first project as a professional designer:

Postcard: “Celebrate Wellness Day”
Size: 5" x 7"
Color: 1/1 (K); Double-sided
Stock: 80 lb. Cover; Yellow

To my limited knowledge I had no resources available to me; no provided imagery, no stock photo options, no direction at all honestly. That might sound like it was a scary first assignment, but I thought of it more as a Superman moment for me, or so I thought. I could do whatever I wanted! Swooping into the rescue I immediately started sketching like a madman. Conceptualizing both horizontal and vertical layouts of what my epic cover was going to be and considering what an enticing headline might sound like, all I knew is that it had to blow everyone’s mind 🤯

I remember daydreaming of people exercising, or maybe once I coined a clever headline I could crank out some sort of over-styled typographic treatment. Being a self-proclaimed track star in my youth the vision of someone running on a path stood out to me. I had just watched the movie, Without Limits”, about one of my teenage heroes growing up, Steve Prefontaine, and was certainly gaining some direction from that as well.

Long story short; I was given a day to finish this assignment vs. the obnoxious two weeks school would have provided. Semi-anxiously I jumped into Illustrator and created a solid black vector silhouette of an elderly couple power-walking down this windy path towards the bottom right of the layout… where I stole the title of the movie I just watched the night before… and used it as my headline. I didn’t consult with anyone, not even the grumpy old design coworker with decades of experience beyond me. I just packaged the work up on a CD-ROM and off to the press it went (SMH).

About a week or so passed until the final samples arrived on my so-called “desk” and I was beside myself (in a good way); these were real, and hundreds of people were going to find them in their mailbox! I was over the moon excited and couldn’t wait to tear out of work and meet up with my advisor from college to tell him about my first gig and show him what I had produced. He was a tough cookie and not easy to impress, but he definitely took a liking to me and I knew he was going to be so proud. For a lack of better words I was feeling, accomplished.

Sitting down in his office our conversation began with how satisfied he was that I got a job within days of graduating, which wasn’t easy to do as a newbie fresh out of college. “Congratulations”, he replied with a simple smile. He wasn’t a man of too many words and liked cutting to the chase so without hesitation I pulled out the yellow manilla folder with my prized possession—my first professionally produced “design”.

I jumped right into my pitch. Introducing the piece I began to explain how the graphic had movement, was clean and simple, and how compelling I had made it to be even with a limited budget. Then suddenly my advisor’s one hand just shot up ✋🏼… as I’m sitting there anticipating his praise, he very abruptly responds with, “Did you consult with anyone on this? It… It’s really NOT good”

I was horrified and utterly deflated.

What did this mean, and what just happened? There really wasn’t much explanation beyond those few words from him. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but it was a deliberate move on his part—he knew I was cocky about how “good” I thought I was. He left me to my own devices to figure that out. Reflecting on my entire schooling I was never told that something wasn’t good. All of the projects were make-believe, but while there were critiques constantly happening the sky was usually always the limit, and plenty of time was padded into the semesters to refine and perfect. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that what I did was selfish, and quite simply sucked. It took me awhile to grasp that my ego definitely was getting in the way, and it was a struggle to defeat that beast.

I’ve carried his words with me throughout my entire career. I look to them often in my work, actually. I’ve molded them in ways to adapt to so many different situations beyond checking one’s ego. I’m honestly grateful having someone burst my bubble so early in my career. You see every designer—no matter how good they are—gets many, many things wrong along the way. We’re not perfect, no matter how much some of us may think we are. It is crucial to commit ourselves to building partnerships with one another where we thrive on honest feedback. The biggest mistake that designers often make is falling in love with their own work. The moment it’s your pet-project and the moment you’re unwilling to change it — it’s already done. The whole point is for other people to experience it, not you.

Let’s always help remind one another of how important this is, because together… we can go far ✌🏼

I hope you enjoyed this story. Thank you for reading 😁 … but I’d like to hear from you! What inspiring moments have you had in your design career that brought you success? Go ahead and post a response or give me a shout @joepascavage … I’d love to chat!