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on learning the harder stuff.

March 14, 2017

lisa hammershaimb

This week in my intro to graphic design course we’re discussing critique. Critique is one of those subjects in the art and design world that has a mythic quality to it. With my students I emphasize that critique is always just about the work and never about you personally though perversely…it always feels like it’s about you personally and never just about the work.

As designers we are fortunate to be part of an industry where we get paid to make things and be creative. In this transaction, we should do our best but ultimately we live in the creative tension that knows that the majority of our output isn’t for our own pleasure rather it is for communicating a specific message from a client to an audience. It’s hard work untangling your identity from a design piece—learning to hold it loosely. That said; if you cannot find that separation space between what you make and who you are, guarantee you will not be able to survive in the industry.

In design world, how you do the work matters just as much as what work you do.


A couple weeks back I received some bad news about my dissertation committee. Because I had done a pre-presentation to my full committee (well documented in such posts as this one) the member who was supposed to be my calm, cool, unbiased external had apparently become tainted. I now had an incomplete committee with no external member. Though he had only good intentions, the very thing my supervisor hoped might speed up the process moved it into an indefinite holding pattern. Education is a complex process. Inherent in this complexity is that realization that for better or worse, his errors will bleed into me and vice versa. For the record: knowing this in my head and feeling this practically are two entirely different things.

As my year had been tracking to a March defense, the news broke me. I was angry that no one caught the error…frustrated that by no mistake of my own my plans were stalled out. I was disillusioned by an opaque system secret society bent on giving me no information or power but wanting all of my trust. While at the beginning updates that things were being “worked on” gave me some hope, as days passed I stopped believing. I felt my own anger turn into bitterness as I realized I wouldn’t defend in March and with every day that passes, even defending in April feels like it’s slipping away.

I’ve spent the last few weeks doing what any logical human would do, namely sending copious emails to the single contact I do have in the system asking for updates, asking for information, and generally asking for any scrap of reassurance that I have not been forgotten. I’d love to say these have been rational, respectful emails but more often than not they’ve been messy, filled with equal parts desperation, rage, and demands for answers that might make the situation hurt less.

I came into this program with the very real sense that I am an outsider in formalized academia. I have a master’s degree in fine arts and am curious about the fringe phenomenon of transient studios…using the internet to extend and expand studio pedagogy in graphic design education. I still remember receiving my acceptance letter and the positive words my early profs spoke over my work. These words validated the feelings that I came into the program carrying, namely a weird sense that these transient studio ideas were deeply important and for whatever reason I’d been put in a position to explore. What my research revealed was meant help reframe the narrative of design education, something I’ve come to love so deeply because in many ways it helped me find myself. At the beginning these ideas were easy to hold loosely because it was easy to remember they were not mine or for me alone rather they were for the sake of the world.

2016 saw coursework transition to proposal writing and as it all became more real, I began to fall hard for the potential. Conference panels and presentations gave me valuable face-to-face interactions. My face became the face of these ideas…my name became synonymous with alternative graphic design studio pedagogy and my own network expanded. Little by little, these ideas and this work became mine, a core pillar of who I am, interwoven with how I identified myself. I remember being at a conference where I’d installed an exhibit about my work. The dominant feeling was not “I hope this connects with others” but rather “I hope they like it and even more…I hope they like me.” At the time this realization didn’t even faze me because I considered myself to in many ways be the embodiment of my research. Looking back, this thought now terrifies me.


As a doctoral student I think it is vitally important to internalize your work to some extent. This process is long and obscure and the only way to persist is if you allow the work to burrow down deep into you, shaping your time and your rhythms of life. That said, just as I tell my own design students I think it’s also vitally important to learn to hold this process loose.

This unresolved situation has revealed that while I am not ashamed of my own ability to fight, my own desire for justice and my own drive to find proactive solutions…I am not proud of the desperate, grabby, protective mindset that I feel taking over. I am not proud of the ways this work has become mine alone. I am not proud that I allowed my supervisor’s innocent mistake followed by the slow workings of an academic system to become a personal attack. I am not proud of the ways I let these systemic setbacks dominate me and make me myopic and self centered.

Here is where I’d love to insert the resolution paragraph—the place where we all discover that I’ve grown and matured, I will be defending the proposal in early April. Here is where I wish life were not complex.

In truth I have no idea what will happen. It’s been four days since I’ve heard anything. I’m still angry—most likely will still send emails into the abyss asking for updates. That said I’m also trying as best as I know how to begin extricating my identity from my research. This is legit important work and I’ve been put in a position to explore and bring my findings to the wider design education community but…I want to try holding it loose. Ultimately it’s not who I am and I want to be just as proud of how I do this work as I am of what work I do.


Post a comment
  1. AK #
    March 14, 2017

    Sending some positive vibes (Archimedes vibes) toward your way, and. Hope for a speedy and satisfactory resolution to this 🙂

    • March 15, 2017

      Thanks friend! I will take all the positive Greek vibes possible! I was actually just asking Athena what she thought about the situation… : )

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