Get a Thick Skin! Living with Criticism

Speider Schneider By Speider Schneider  |  Jun. 07, 2012

I posted on Twitter that I was having a case of writer’s block and asked what my followers wanted me to write about for my next article. “More horror stories!” was the resounding reply.

Well, here’s one of the most horrid. It speaks of the worst of mankind.

A soul-ripping tale of people who will never be the same because of hurtful things said and the realization that as designers, more than any other profession, except perhaps being a stripper at a bachelorette party in Vegas, we need to develop thick skins in a world filled with criticism from others who know not of what they speak.

Perhaps you know the type. Perhaps you are the type. Read on and gather strength because you’re going to need it in this business!


Ask and ye shall find!

I was invited to speak at an AIGA event known as “Say Anything.” An informal get-together with a loose theme and attendees could, as with the title, “say anything.”

I was asked to show samples of my career work and do my “funny schtick,” as my lectures are more stand up comedy with some good information thrown in and some sort of moral at the end. As I went on, the participants laughed and I was thanked for coming in and making a presentation. After the event, I chatted with a few of the attendees, exchanged business cards and was told I could come back again in the future.

A day or two later, I received a phone call from one of the AIGA board members, telling me how much he enjoyed my talk but he also informed me that I couldn’t speak there again. It seems one of the attendees was offended that I dropped the “F-bomb.”

I didn’t remember doing it, as I don’t really swear. As with any adult in the company of other adults, sometimes one will slip out. I never expected to be banished because one person was offended. Who was he/she and why did his/her opinion have so much weight that everyone else there would be denied another session of learning and entertainment?

The same thing had happened years before when I was speaking to a class of seniors at Parson’s School of Design. One “F-bomb” and a student went running to the dean of students to complain that I shouldn’t be allowed back. She was an older student, back in school after her kids had graduated and left the nest, probably to get away from her, but the teacher of that class laughed it off and I returned the following year to speak to the new class of students, this time making sure I watched my language. This time several students were offended that I made working in the industry seem “so hard.” They actually cried in the dean’s office because no one had ever told them they would have to work hard to be designers. Of all things, THAT was what got me uninvited to speak the following year.


In the olden days…

…People who went around complaining about others were usually stoned to death or forced from the village to live alone in the woods where they could only complain to the trees and forest animals. Now, in our overly-PC society, one complaint is a guilty verdict of anything and everything.

If you’ve ever been employed by a large corporation, you’ve no doubt been forced to watch a harassment video that was filmed in the 1970s. It’s nothing but bad acting with horrid guitar riffs that look like a porn film without the sex. The last one I saw brought mumbles from the audience as the actress who played the “offended employee” was always ratting out her fellow coworkers who seemed to be enjoying their daily interactions with each other. She was always peering over her cubicle wall and leaning into the conversations of others and then filing charges with HR. My solution to all the “harassment” is to fire her and there won’t be any further complaining.

There was also a time when creatives were allowed to do their best work without design-by-committee. Society, it seems, now runs itself on the opinions and sensibilities of the 1%.


Criticism and egos

I never cared much about having my work critiqued. It was simple — I was right and the other person was an idiot. They were a wiggener, flambernator, sniggle, or membican, not that we’re allowed to use those tags for people anymore. Still, I understood when some designer would come into my cubicle or office in tears because via the criticism, their feelings were hurt. “Don’t take it personally,” I would always tell them. It rarely helped.

I guess it may have been my upbringing in New York that gave me a thick skin. As a small child, every day was filled with swearing, insults, racial epithets, and personal attacks on my height, looks, hair, nose, feet, and anything else my mother could pick on to try to break down my spirit. Even birthday cards from my grandmother were filled with the most vile threats and insulting language, which made it hard to be happy on my second to seventh birthdays.

Still and all, it made me the man I am today and after some intensive therapy, I can say I let the small stuff roll off my back, so take my advice and stop caring about the little things in life. Ignoring the insults from others just infuriates them more than anything you could say to them. If not, email me and I’ll give you some really hurtful zingers my grandmother put in my birthday cards. Those will send most people running for deep psychotherapy.


How sharper than a dragon’s tooth…

Words can hurt more then an iron bar to the back of the head. Personally, I feel the iron bar wins out, which is why I have no friends in a small, Mid-western town that prides itself on passive-aggressive speaking. I’ve been told I need to lose my “Brooklyn edge.” Well, that’s not going to happen, so I guess hanging with my kids and their little Brooklyn accents will have to suffice. Every now and then, I do meet someone who speaks their mind and, as with age and wisdom have taught me to hold back sometimes, like insisting my kids not call George W, Bush the anti-Christ while we drove through Texas, I’ve learned that most people have thin skins and my words can hurt them.

In an article I wrote questioning how some recruiters were no-good bastards that couldn’t really be called incompetent crap-nuggets because it was unfair to include them in the entire group of crap-nuggets that inhabit the known universe, several recruiters commented about how wrong I was and how wonderful they were. I engaged them in professional but passionate debate until they started making up some facts and ending each accusation with “LOL!”

When my editor finally wrote to me and pleaded with me to loosen my grip around the throats of the recruiters, I naturally complied. He told me they had written to him privately and asked that I “please stop bashing them in such a public forum.”

My natural instinct was to laugh that they thought they were triple-teaming me to negate everything I had said in my article and although I used words like “some” and “many” rather then “all” or “executed,” they realized they were not going to get me into the corner. Debating is my strong point in client negotiations. Firm but fair, as I was in the article, but a few people couldn’t take it.

At one point in my career, I had a boss who liked to call people into her office and use passive-aggressive speak to break down designers until they were in tears. Then she would build them up, pat them on the back and send them back to their cubicles. I’ve heard cults use the same technique. I’m not sure what she was doing, aside from creating an atmosphere of terror about being called into her office but when my turn arrived, I debated all of her points and by the time I left her office, SHE was in tears.

In retrospect, I suppose a few tears on my part and I would have kept my job but I’m sure she’s still in therapy to this day because of my words to her. They were only the truth, which hurts the most because the truth cannot be denied. Ignored maybe but not denied.


Just asking for it!

As designers, we take criticism every day. In a project, our jobs are the only ones open to committee discussion. Have you ever sat in a meeting where everyone comments on the marketing or sales plan?

Clients will suggest we listen to their eight-year-old niece for design ideas because she won a second grade art prize. Does that make you tear up a bit? Judging by the amount of articles and blogs about lunatic things clients say, there are a lot of hurt feelings and frustrations out there.

If we receive so much unwelcome feedback from people around us, then why do designers join sites like Dribbble, which opens up a person’s designs to a group of what might be unqualified critics? Who is to say if a person, just by the mere test of being able to register for a site, has the right or knowledge to offer their opinion on your work? There are only two parties whose opinion should matter — yours and your client’s. Beyond that, everything else is just opinion and could be right or wrong or maniacal. Why look for more hurtful words in your life?

I’ve know designers who are so afraid of facing design by committee, they immediately went right past surrender and onto boot licking. They went to every person in the company, asking for their opinion on a design and left each day, feeling as if they didn’t matter.

When taking criticism in a committee on your designs, the best advice has always been to be able to defend your design decisions. Yes, there is a certain absurdity in have to do so, rather than just looking a critic in the eyes and responding that the person should be more concerned with their failing marriage or inability to use the restroom properly, than spending time worrying about doing your job for you.

At one job interview, I saw a sheet of paper outside the art department that had twenty-six names on it. I asked what that was for and was told it was the comment sheet used for every design. The art department, it seems, were seen as incompetent children and needed the entire company personnel to tell them how to design. As we walked into the art department, so I could gauge the mood of the designers, all of whom frowned like they were serving life sentences in a Soviet gulag, I asked my interviewer if the designers were chosen for their talent or just as a pair of hands to fill a spot. She asked why I asked the question and I started to reply that it was odd that designers, chosen for their talent and abilities were under the scrutiny of every other employee in the company. Then I asked if other departments like marketing and sales had the same sheets for comments.

The interviewer, who was the HR person, stuttered about how everyone wanted to be involved with the design process and often had “good ideas.” I reminded her that she had not ten minutes before told me how sales were declining and they thought the sales material wasn’t reaching the clients. Out of the corners of my eyes, I could see several designers trying very hard to hide their smiles. Meeting the gaze of one, she mouthed, “thank you,” to me.

I knew I wasn’t going to get that job and I certainly didn’t want it, so I had nothing to lose by going all out on the system that was in place. “You hire designers for their abilities and then chop them off at the knees, “ I told the interviewer, who was sweating and stammering at this point. “It’s the designers who studied color theory, type, and the impact of taking a blank nothing and tying the elements together to form a cohesive message that is effective. By asking an entire company of secretaries and administrators to play designer, you’ve watered down the message and THAT is why your sales are down.”

“Well,” said my interviewer, “we have to wrap this up as I have another interview in a few minutes.” She walked me to the door and mumbled something about how they would contact me if I made the next round of interviews.

“Will I have to interview with all twenty-six people?”

She looked like I had bitch-slapped her and I turned and left. As I got into my car, I rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. I looked over at the building and several people in the art department were looking out the window at me. I waved and they waved back. I felt like the hero in some old western, driving off into the sunset. I’ll bet they talked about my visit for a week after that.


Protect thyself!

So much for the tales of terror. Like the schoolyard, some people never grow up from their bully ways. They know taunts and hurtful words are harmful to others and they pump themselves up with those stabs at people’s egos. Some times it’s those who were bullied as children who use their positions of power to belittle others they see as those most like their tormentors. I had one boss who judged her employees by whether or not they appeared to have been the “popular kids” in her high school and did her best to bully them on a daily basis.

Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying, “always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” It’s very true because people want to get under your skin. It seemed the more I smiled at verbal attacks the more aggravated my attacker became. A friend of mine, who followed the same advice, would just sit and smile until one day a coworker physically assaulted her. He was fired and she was given a quick monetary settlement by the company and became untouchable by HR for fear that she would bring a legal suit, claiming it all harkened back to the “incident.”

It’s important to remember that it’s usually not personal when someone attacks you. You just happen to be the target of the moment. Show no emotion about it and they will move on to an easier target. When you refuse to let mere words bother you, then life is so much more pleasant. As kids, we were taught the cute little rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” There was also, “I know you are but what am I?”

When my eldest son was six, he came home one day, upset that another child called his mother a goat. I stroked his hair and said, “and what do we say in our best Brooklyn-ese to someone when they say that?” He looked up at me with confusion.

“So’s ya mutha!” I reminded him. The following week I had to meet with the principle because the other child was in hysterics that his mother had been called a goat. The child’s mother, who was also present at the meeting, was demanding swift and sure punishment for my child.

“Didn’t you say that my son’s mother was a goat, first?” I asked. The kid danced around it but eventually admitted to the insult. “Well,” I said. “I guess that settles the matter. Punish this little shit for starting it.”

The principal naturally tried to find a middle ground to calm down the irate mother of the other child, who thought her darling little criminal shouldn’t be called on his behavior. The principal, an old crone of the conservative parochial school, “Our Lady of Broken Wills,” thought that both boys should be punished. I argued that my son should not be held responsible for standing up to a foul-mouthed bully.

“Mr. Schneider,” the principal said in a firm, patronizing tone, “you need to learn the way things work at this school!”

“So’s ya mutha!” I replied as I led my son out of her office and out of the school. He wouldn’t be returning to that school the following year.

Many years later, every now and then, we see the principal out around town. We smile, grab our crotches and scream, “Punish dis!”


Live free of false guilt

There are times you need to engage others in a war of words and times you should just smile and let it pass. At one company, a particularly obnoxious marketing executive wanted to control the art department and all creative decisions. When push came to shove, I always stayed calm and answered every attack with a simple question. When he would insist to the vice president that he needed the power to control all art department output, I would simply ask, “Why is it you think I cannot properly do my job?” He could never answer that and his bid to seize power fell flat. He avoided walking past me in the hallway and making eye contact in meetings.

Overall, we have to remember that we are in a service industry. Our designs do not belong to us and more often than not, we need to make changes to which we don’t agree. Let it go. Not every design is going to make it into your portfolio. When you can let the small stuff roll off your back, you will have evolved, matured as some may view it, to a point where you realize that words are just verbal exhales that float into the air and dissipate a second later. So why let them haunt you for more than a second?

When you can truly walk away from an assignment or the work of the day and not take the little bothersome occurrences on your shoulders, you will find true peace. It will make for a happier you and a more enjoyable family life. Those around you will take notice and tell you how great you appear to be. Be sure to thank them and say, “So’s ya mutha!”

Images ©Niki Blaker