Failing Graphic Design 101

Early in my career I showed a website I built using our company’s software to our CEO. He said, “This would fail graphic design 101” and launched into telling me everything I had done wrong.

It was a reaction that shocked me but it shouldn’t have. Paul was a man of definite opinions and he was never afraid to share them. Our VP of customer service described his job as “Going around apologizing to people for things Paul said.”

But still his comment hit me like a fist. It was so bracing I still remember it 15 years later. At the time I thought “I can’t believe he just said that.” It was a pivotal moment of decision – faced with such withering criticism, what does one do with it?

It was then I realized there are two questions to ask yourself when receiving criticism:

1. Do you respect the person saying it?

hackers and painters book cover

Paul’s book of essays. Worth reading

In this case, yes. Paul was a man unafraid of airing his thoughts but his thoughts were usually right. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. A talented painter, computer hacker, entrepreneur, and writer – I valued his opinion, as tough as it was to take sometimes.

Listening to it required me to remove myself from the equation, listen to it critically and get my ego out of it.

My belief in Paul as someone worth listening to later proved true. After tremendous success with our start-up, he went on to fund some of the biggest tech companies in California – his hits being Reddit, Airbnb, and Dropbox. His photo has appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine and he has been called a “legendary Silicon Valley investor.”

But before all that I knew him as our CEO and the guy who once helped me move my couch. Which leads me to the second question to ask yourself when receiving criticism:

2. Was it said out of malice or to help you?

Some people issue criticism as a way of tearing others down and making themselves feel superior. Ignore them, they are small and pathetic. Along this line – if there is ever a comment posted on YouTube that is worth heeding, I have yet to find it.

I knew Paul was not in this camp because he was equally capable of lavishing praise when you got it right. He later sent an email to the entire company celebrating a different website I created and called it “amazing.” It made me feel like I  hit a grand slam and almost made me forget about the graphic design 101 comment.

In fact his graphic design 101 comment made this later triumph possible. Instead of getting defensive, I took his criticism to heart, listened to it critically, and made a website that was rock solid. We could all use someone we respect who gives us their unfiltered opinion.

In addition, when Paul found out I was working on a related side project in my spare time at work, he set up a special slush fund to help it and to encourage innovation in the company. Paul could be devastating in his critiques but he would go out of his way to help good ideas along.

Over the course of 15 years in business I’ve come to realize there are three types you will encounter – creators, champions, and critics. Creators are the artists – the ones who make products, books, music, performances – things for other people to consume.

Champions are the ones who dare to say “I love this” and show their friends. They go to shows, they buy shirts, they join like minded champions. Critics are the lowest for their job is the easiest. It’s easy to say “I hate this” and list reasons why. Critics sit on the sidelines and snipe at the creators and champions.

Criticism is a prison though for a critic can never create. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”