College was a little competitive for me. A classmate would hand in an assignment, we would both receive our marks, and I would silently vow to never be shamed again. Three assignments into this cycle and the outliers were clear. There are just some people who appeared to be naturally talented at design. But things weren’t locked in stone: I was going to draw the shit out of the next asssignment. Misplaced priorities. It’s college, that happens.

One of the favoured professors in my first year gave us an assignment about white space. We were given six square templates and each student was assigned two nouns. We were to combine the two objects in such a way that the white space between them illustrated a different concept. It didn’t have to be any particular concept but it had to be understood by a third party.

It was a hard assignment. I remember this because I was given wolf and swan as my nouns. To this day I still don’t know how anyone can draw a natural relationship between those two creatures. One of my squares used a wolf shape as a pond reflection for the swan to exemplify loneliness. Convoluted and, looking back, very embarassing. So, naturally, I will likely remember this until the day I die.

Instead of handing in our assignments, she asked us to gather around a large long table and lay our squares down. She let out what had to be a cross between mmmmmmm and a heavy sigh, reached out and grabbed one, and then… flipped it over. The student flinched. Then she did it again. More flinching. And again. Uncomfortable laughter. And again. Gasps. And she continued to do this until only two squares remained and all dignity had left the room. “The ones flipped over have to be redone,” she said before returning back to her desk.

The students processed their emotions after class. One student was crying and questioning if they were going to be a good Graphic Designer and maybe mom was right. One was wondering why they enrolled at the college because the university would have been way better. One was outraged that they didn’t receive an explanation. All confusion, no answers. The griping had no bearing on anything though as we still had to do it.

We stood around the table again the next week. Every student had learned not to tell anyone what they did this time. We all stood there, anxiety-ridden, hoping that this time it was good enough. Unfortunately, it was the same. She did it again. This time only about 50% of the solutions made it through. There weren’t many students that had all six solutions approved and the ones that did were as bewildered as they didn’t receive an explanation as to why their squares passed.

The next week after we stood around the table once again and were subjected to the third round. This round passed without many casualties and our class breathed a sigh of relief having escaped another battle with our egos. I don’t even think we were marked on this.

I think about this story often as it was a very formative moment in my college life. Design is a quietly rewarding career. It can be a bit stifling that way. I think that’s why some of us seek so much external validation for our work and use the word community to describe that type of support. The thing is, it didn’t quite matter how long I spent on a solution or how good I thought it was. Sometimes you’re simply not entitled to validation, even if the solution was good.

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