Unsolicited Advice: Balancing passion vs. direction

Elizabeth asked: I’m in my last year of school and I still struggle, though slightly less, with finding a balance between what I want to create/what I think will work and what my professors want/think will work. Do you have any advice on striking that balance or should I just suck it up?

This post was originally published October 9, 2012

It is hard to “teach art.” You can teach technical skills, theory, reason, history and styles, but you can’t actually teach creativity. You can focus, sharpen, and train it to work most effectively, but at the end of the day it’s still some sort of inherent ability. I went to school for design, and there were a lot of people who were learning to be designers. They knew how the tools operated, they understood things like kerning and whitespace, and then they were sort of on their own. Some people were a little more creatively-minded. Others were dead fucking boring and made consistently shitty work that met the requirements of class assignments but was completely disposable. I know that personally I did work that fits both of those descriptions. Nobody is always good. That’s why we go to school.

Striking the balance is tricky, and that’s your challenge. You do need to respect your own ideas. You bring to the table your experiences, background, aesthetic values, influences, personality, and voice. Your professor will ideally see that in you, and help you focus it into solid work choices. So don’t let go of of that vision, and don’t just give up on it for the sake of an easier grade. Sometimes in school it’s easy to figure out what is “just enough” and do that. It is easy to take a solid grade and then move onto something else. It is easy to let your professor win and then use the extra time to get drunk on three warm beers that you stole from a party. I never drank in college. That’s a lie.

On the other hand, sometimes ideas aren’t as great printed at full size. Sometimes ideas aren’t effective when your work needs to actually communicate a message. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what is cool or fun or “you” and then end up with a final product that does not fulfill a project’s requirements. Respect the expertise your professors have. Respect the years of research, practice, and life that they have lived that you have not. Accept what they have to offer, because soon you will be in a big world where people are less willing to offer advice in a constructive way. You won’t even always have the time to re-work your pieces until they’re as great as they can be. Enjoy the opportunity for critique, and try to keep learning. Your last year of college is hard, because you often feel like you already know everything. Surprise, you don’t. I will readily admit that I thought I was good and cool and in retrospect I didn’t know anything at all until after my senior courses.

So I guess my answer here is to back down a bit, review the critique points, and consider ways to better your work. That doesn’t mean giving up and doing generic work. It means digesting the critique and working to incorporate your professor’s advice and requirements into your work. “Your work.” It is still yours. Do this often and eventually you will learn to edit yourself in the concept stage. You will simply have all those fun, awesome, creative ideas, and they will be more effective through your first and second drafts. You will be met with less resistance and you will be creating better work. This process is also sort of the entire point of going to school in an age when a 14 year old can call himself a web designer and get actual freelance work, charging way less than you do. And he might be better, too. Fuck!

None of us are ever done learning. Ever. Learn everything you can, grow from every mistake or wrong direction. Ask for help, ask for advice, get critiques from your peers as well as professors. Their word is not law, you do not need to mimic their aesthetics to get a passing grade. But you do need to recognize chances to get better, every single day, all the way to graduation, and then beyond.

Adam J. Kurtz is an artist and author whose illustrative work is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness.

AdviceAlyssa Nassner