The Epiphany of Failure

Welcome to this month’s Topeka AdFed Blog and a huge and hearty welcome from your new President. I’m looking forward to what this year will bring for Ad Club and most importantly want to thank Maria for some SERIOUSLY phenomenal work over the past year. Our entire community wishes her well on her journey to Seattle to see where life takes you. Please know we are better for your leadership and we thank you for all the time, generosity and enthusiasm you brought to the club.

And now… the blog!

I’ve told several of you this story but now I’d like to share it with as many possible because of how burned into my psyche it is. This blog is all about my epiphany of failure.

Loads of folks have heard me say, “I’d be glad to be wrong about this one,” or, “I’m good with it if it needs to change.” And there’s a very distinct moment in my life where this attitude came from. A gut check if you will.

I graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Kansas in 2003. In some ways, this was a hard fought degree for me. The “vision” of design didn’t crack into place for me the way it did for other students. This wasn’t to say I was a “bad” designer, I just hadn’t shifted my mindset yet. Prior to college I painted, sculpted, took photos and often created cartoon characters for the elementary school teachers at my mom’s school so they could show the kids who was the lunch line helper that day. I DID all kinds of artistic things. But in large part, I did those artistic things for me.

Then came college and I was going to be a graphic designer! (Insert 1950’s theme music here). I had all my supplies and a big shiny smile and I was going to do it! But it was hard. And all the patient teachers in the world kept telling me what I was doing wrong in the 3 hour long, grueling critiques of all our work and it wasn’t sinking in. And as I have a raging fear of failure, I was also slowly drowning in the depression of, “I’m not succeeding at this.”

Flash forward to my junior year. I’m struggling much less, but I still don’t feel confident that I can find the path through any given project. Which, for me, is maddening. But one Fall day, in my typography class, I trundled in with all my boards ready to go, worn out and low on tenacity. I’d been working on a 12-page redesign of a military enrollment manual I’d borrowed from my then boyfriend who was all about the Army. This manual was utilitarian at best and deeply unattractive, hence why it got chosen for a facelift.

I plopped all my boards on the wall and waited for my turn for the chopping block. Blah. Dread filled my guts and I waited. I stared at my boards and I waited. I offered up advice to the other students and I waited. I stared back at my boards and I waited.

And sort of like that moment in the Lego Movie where Emmett finally “becomes” a master builder, the shift I’d been working so diligently on getting myself to started to snap into place. It was all clear. A proper epiphany. I was moving the artistic elements around on the page in my head. And not out of a desperate attempt to make myself or my professor happy, but because SOMEONE out there that I have NO CONTROL over would be VIEWING THIS THING and COULD I GET THEM TO THE PROMISED LAND.

AKA, was I solving the problem for the client and getting the reader to do what we wanted.

And I WASN’T. Oh my god, everything on these boards is ALL WRONG and I was SO EXCITED. The haul of critique was two people away and I was giddy with joy. I knew what I was going to ask of my professor and I also knew there was a real shot I’d be told I could go jump off a bridge but it was worth a try. It was my turn and I beamed at him and said, “I know what’s wrong with it.”

“You what?” He said.

“I know what’s wrong with it!” I grinned at him.

“We haven’t even reviewed it.” He said, slowly starting to smile at me.

“I know. And I’m going to ask you that we not. Give me a chance to fix it and you’ll have a full set of new pages by midnight. I promise,” is my final pleading.

“I don’t typically allow that. So you’d better know what you’re doing.” I get a little more smile and some serious side-eye and the class moved on.

By midnight, he had a pile of new pages and I passed out from exhaustion and relief. One of the best critiques of my life came the next morning before classin an email: Good job.

My epiphany in failure wasn’t necessarily that my design was off. That was part of it but not the entirety of the issue. It finally struck me, almost like being punched, that the issue wasn’t REALLY the design, the colors, the photos… the choices I had made. The issue was that I wasn’t solving the problem for the person on the other side of my project. I had “failed” them. I hadn’t given them the path to their answers. I hadn’t solved their problem. I’d been so wrapped around the axle of, “I have to get an A on this project,” that I’d always struggled to see the REAL person I was letting down. It wasn’t me.

It was someone who needed ME to help THEM.

So this is my gentle pleading… “Getting it wrong,” is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not a failure. It’s informative. It’s precious, life-saving data that, given the time, can allow for a phenomenal pivot in thinking, serving, being and doing for your creative works, your clients, your friends and your future. It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to make that mistake. Because finding your way through it and reaching your actual goal is going to feel beyond solid because the transition from artist, to creative problem solver, will radically change and improve the work you produce throughout your career and life.

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