the crit, aka "How come you're so average?"

This video of the legendary Roland Young, giving a critique, is both hilarious and brutal. Watch the entire video for the full experience. 

Before I started taking classes at Art Center, I thought I'd developed a fairly thick skin after decades of working as a designer and art director. How very wrong I was. I've only had a couple of client meetings as tough as the crits I got at ACCD. 


client relations: don't disappear

One of my rules for managing clients is: Don't disappear. 

It's quite simple: if a client calls you, call them back. If a client emails you, reply to their email. If they stop by your office, don't dodge them in the hall. Reply to your client within a reasonable amount of time, even if it's just to let them know you're out of the office, and will give them a better answer when you're back. Or to let them know you're still working on the thing they need from you, and when you'll be done by. 

It's not rocket surgery. And yet, many people you'll encounter in your professional life seem to have never learned this very basic rule. You'll call and get voicemail. Your emails will go unanswered. If you were dating these people, you'd consider yourself ghosted on, only when some girl never calls you back after coffee, your paycheck isn't affected. 

As an art director, I encounter a lot of these people. My job often requires that I get people I have absolutely no authority over, to do something for me, by a certain time. It can be frustrating in the extreme, when I have a deadline, and something I need for the deadline isn't up to me. Design is often close to last in the print production chain, and it's not always as far up in the web design workflow as it should be. If your organization doesn't have a strong commitment to making design an essential part of the process, odds are good that you'll be where the project manager decides all the slack can be cut. 

Here's how I handle people who disappear: 

  • First, I explain to the person I need something from why I need it in the first place. I try to tie my goals and needs into this person's own goals and needs. I give them their very own reason to help me, that doesn't rely on sheer altruism. Our payroll office wants for nothing, because everyone is very invested in making sure that the people who put money in our bank accounts have precisely what they need in order to make that happen. Try to be as important as payroll. 
  • I set very clear expectations when I need to hear back, and what I need from them. If you know how to delegate well, you've got this down. 'Hey, get back to me whenever you can' is doomed to fail, but 'I need this proof revised with the client's changes made, and back to me by 5 p.m. Thursday,' is much more likely to succeed. 
  • Ask if there's anything you can take off of their plate in return for their help. The reciprocity is key; that way, you're asking, but you're also offering to help them. You can also ask if there's anything they'd like from you to make their job easier, that they want. 
  • I build time into my project schedule that specifically allows for people to flake on me. Because they're human, and life happens. Even well-meaning, conscientious people, who usually get back to you right away with everything you need, can still be hit by a bus. 
  • I follow up the next business day, in the same medium as my original message.
  • If it's been two business days, and I've still not heard back, I'll follow up, but this time, I escalate mediums. If my email got no answer, I'll call; if my voicemail gets no answer, I'll stop by their office, if possible. If it's not possible for me to get there in person, I'll call their receptionist to see if they're in the office. (Always, always be polite to receptionists. Bring candy. I'm not above bribes.)
  • Ask if the person you need's out of the office, or has gone on vacation, and forgotten to set an out-of-office notification (it happens constantly).
  • Ask if there's a better person to help you; there may be someone who's got more bandwidth or resources, that isn't overwhelmed. 
  • Send another request, and cc their boss, your boss, and possibly your client, if the deadline's looming. It's rare that this will be ignored. Usually, this will be enough to get their attention. Now, don't be that jerk who always cc's everyone's boss, the very first time you ask. 
  • If none of those things work and another day goes by, I escalate again, directly to their boss — I ask for their boss' help resolving the problem, and getting me the thing I need. If I have to do this over email, I include the email thread of unanswered messages, complete with a timeline of my communication attempts. Use this sparingly, as it can really tank any future relationship with the person.   

People talk, and if you have a habit of flaking on emails and messages, it'll get around, fast. You'll be seen as unreliable, and slowly, people will stop coming to you for help, and leaving you out of important projects. That may seem great at first, if you're not a people person — but it won't be great when you're laid off for lack of work. If you vow never to be the person who ghosts on someone, you'll go a long way toward building a reputation as a solid professional. 


advice about the gap

A couple of weeks ago, a friend who's taking a photography class with me asked if I thought his photos were okay — which is asking for free art direction. While I don't mind doing that in small doses occasionally, I get hit up for my opinion on creative work a lot. A LOT. Sometimes, giving some direction's the right thing to do — but usually, it isn't. 

It's not usually the wrong thing to do because it's being asked to work for free (although, it IS and I am). It's because the more someone else leans on my opinion and direction, the less they trust in their own. 

Here's what I told my friend (and now I'm telling you): 

You asked if any of these were "okay," and that question needs a longer answer than I can fit in a text message. 


Okay for what? Okay for whom? For the class assignment? For an experiment? For a shoot where you learned something? 

Having looked at your work for a few years, now, one theme you keep coming back to is women-as-sexual-objects. If you continue that in a personal project for class, then these shots belong there. Even though it's going to be more work for you, it would probably be a good thing for you to do a personal project and really focus on trying to improve how you shoot women-as-objects. 

It's good that you figured out you needed more light to make that shoot work, on your own. It's important that you self-correct as much as possible, so that you start to learn to trust your own judgment and your own eye, rather than relying so heavily on mine. It seems like your self-confidence has taken a hit somewhere along the way, and now you don't trust yourself to make good decisions. I'm not sure there's been one incident that got you into this state, but I can tell that right now, you're at a point that every artist/creative person hits on the path of developing their skills — a point where you can see where you want your work to go, but you look at your work, and recognize it's not there yet. Ira Glass calls it The Taste Gap: 

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

There's more, which someone set to a video, here:

No amount of my telling you which photos of yours I like or don't like, is going to get you over the hurdle of the gap. Only doing work — doing a LOT of work — gets you over it. (And trust me, he will assign you a lot of work.)

When you do your work, as you're doing it, ask yourself if it's good. Look in the frame; check your corners, look at the entire image. Is there too much stuff in there? Not enough? Where does your eye go? Look. Then look again. Then look a third time. Check your composition, your lighting; make sure you've managed to connect with your subject and engage them. Then hit the shutter. Then check all over again and hit the shutter all over again. Get to the point where you can do this in the same way that you write without having to constantly worry about whether or not you've used correct grammar and punctuation — which is going to take a bit. Try to remember that everyone goes through this, and yes, it does suck. 

Now — do these shots work for the class assignment? These are shots of People Doing Things, rather than the assignment — which was a portrait of someone, with a table or chair being used in the shot. I suppose you could argue that the 'rocket' is a kind of chair, and you might get somewhere with that argument — except that there's very little sense of who the subjects are as people. For the most part, they're simply attractive women's bodies contorted, sometimes in interesting ways. I looked through all 18 shots, twice, and I'd have a difficult time picking any of those women out if I saw them on the street. What do I know about their personalities? Their emotions? Their mood? But, are they okay as shots for a personal project about women-as-sexual-objects? Now these have some possibilities as a starting point for that project. 

Here's the thing — I could spend the entire seminar art-directing your work before you bring it into class, and then critiquing it a second time in class — but that's going to directly impact how quickly you close the gap. Relying on me to do it will actively stunt your artistic growth. If you have to sit down with your work and make decisions about what you're bringing to class, about what you could have done differently, then you're building up your confidence in your own work, and building your own sense of discernment. You're developing your eye. It's better in the long run for you and your work, if I wait to give you a detailed critique until we get into class. Also, then you can hear it in context with the other students' and instructor's critiques. 

I know you want help presenting only your best work in the class, especially if you're comparing your work to the other students' work; and I know it probably seems like I'm being an asshole for not helping you in the way that you want. I know! I'm more than willing to go out shooting with you; to include you in shoots I set up of other people; to help you with holding lights when you're the one shooting; I'm open to brainstorming ideas for the assignments, for doing post-mortems on how class went — all that stuff, I'm totally game for, and happy to help with. 



Which is probably the longest 'no' I've ever written, but it's useful advice, nonetheless.