My student portfolio is a minefield of emotionally-charged projects. My senior thesis is hidden in a closet because I'm so afraid to show it to anyone other than my husband. It's a series of typography posters that feature photographs of my actual friends and family. Ouch. Plus, overlay text in big, Univers Condensed white. The subject matter (and title)?
"Things I Can't Believe Were Said to My Face." Double ouch.
Some of them only the teacher got to see. And all of them are 100% authentic. Of five pieces, one is a remark made out of pure love and encouragement. It hangs beside my door so that I see it every day before I leave. It is also the image on my "About Me" page. It does a far better job of encapsulating my persona, style, and motivation than any headshot ever could.
Last year, my sister introduced me to John Green, a young adult author who is sweeping the nation with heart-wrenching tails of very real pain and experience through the eyes of the ever-evolving teenage mind of today. I grew up in (what I believe to be) the last era of mental silence — lots of feelings, questions, and wonder that the Internet just wasn't refined enough to satiate. I kept journals throughout high school, and leaned heavily on the two legs of music and illustration to complete my racing thoughts. John Green puts into words something I've always felt to be true: "That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt." - The Fault in Our Stars.
[Another favorite is "What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person."- Paper Towns. This one is a particularly sore spot for me. But maybe that's another blog post.]
With so much introduction, I'll now move onto the design-relevant portion — I found a way in design to channel my quiet mind and come up with answers. I've always been quiet in difficult moments. I've gotten so much better at calming the occasional mental storm, and I've done it through focusing my own questions into design.
My first two years of design school, I focused very, very hard on learning to use my hands (read: not computer) to express my ideas. I take solace in the story of Michelangelo furiously chiseling out a bust's teeth after Lorenzo de Medici commented "He looks too young," because every drawing class I've ever taken has been borderline the most humiliating public experiences of my life. And being that I went to SCAD, I paid a lot of money to feel pretty terrible for a solid year and a half. But here's the thing — my lowest grade was a B. I passed "Drawing for Design" (aka Technical/Blueprint Drawing) with an A-. My final was a technical drawing of a spray bottle. I did it while listening to the Assassins Revival Broadway Cast Recording on repeat. And lots and lots of crying. But it happened. And I lived. And it did more good for me than harm, and I applaud myself for the effort and bravery.
What John Green told me, I knew through experience. Pain, fear, anxiety — it can motivate. It can move you. It can propel you forward at near light speed. The only requirement is that you feel it. Feel it wholly, fully, and in every atom. And then, it will become your answer. And it will become your motivation. And it will become your story. And you will become better.
My earliest work reeks of the fear I felt being a teenager on my own for the first time. This happened a little bit earlier for me than it did for the rest of my peers. My journals are often too raw for me to read even now, knowing that I make it out okay. But these artistic expressions are a very important part of who I am now, even/especially as a designer. Every moment of doubt, whether contained in the creative process or not, has strengthened me and thickened my skin. Every harsh critique or total miss on a design first pass has given me that essential broken record before exporting Layer Comps to Files — "Does this fit the brand? Does it fit the brief? Would you buy this?" It's made for some late nights, but it's the hallmark of commercial design craftsmanship. If it's not right, it's not finished. And those late nights are finishing earlier and earlier.
And every moment outside the creative process adds to who I am, too. I covered this a bit in the "Work, don't play" post. As designers, we are invaluable, individual assets. And no one, especially us, has any right to devalue it by portraying what we do as anything less than careful thinking, artful craftsmanship, and business building. Our pain demands to be felt, inside and outside our professional arena. And when we feel it, and are transformed by it, it changes everything about us. Most powerfully, it changes the way we see and represent the world. And to me, this makes every pain worth every moment.
This endeavor, this adventure I'm taking, has all to do with the outcome of feeling what's truly there. A few events this year set into motion the idea that I needed to take more responsibility for my life's path — design career, friendships, family relationships, marriage — all of it. And in soaking in moments both painful and joyous, I drew new lines on a very unfinished life map. Today, and in days previous (and hopefully all to come), I am happier than I ever could have expected. And from that I am emerging as a more thoughtful, confident, and motivated designer.
I may not be the poster child for, well…anything, really. But this is the way I have crafted my life — from deciding on design school over musical theater academies, moving to a new city without having even visited (to go to said design school), cutting ties that needed to be cut (many times), mending relationships with blood, sweat and tears (many times), and even moving into the infinite unknown on my own career path — I am feeling what is truly there, letting it motivate and inspire me, and constantly repeating the process.