08 November 2006
Kim Levine
Kim Levine

Let's face it. Losing sucks. We take it personally. Broody and pouty, we don't welcome warm-and-fuzzy pep talks full of Tony Robbins optimism or Oprah Oprahtism. We don't seek empathy or mercy. We prefer good old-fashioned self-loathing.

As crusty coach Knute Rockne once said, "Show me a good and gracious loser, and I'll show you a failure." All hail Knute!

Why the drama? Why not just learn from our losses and quietly move on? Because the nature of the beast dictates otherwise.

Designers compete with each other for business, recognition, and respect. At the same time, we seek acceptance and approval from our peers. As we review each other's work, subjective opinions are kicked around, opposing schools of thought disputed. Technologies, mediums, and specializations fight for dominance. Pity the designer who gets caught in the crossfire.

There's much at stake: time, money, our future, and the future of the profession. Some-times, like it or not, our value is measured in one shot our best shot, if we're lucky. But even if our work succeeds as design, whenever we have to sacrifice a client to another firm, yield to an associate's concept, or accept defeat in an award competition, we feel as though we've failed.

Defeat makes us believe we're fallible which designers don't want to believe.

To this pressure-cooker atmosphere add a legacy. Our forefathers and mothers, at once the focus of glory and resentment, blazed a trail that has led to the acceptance of graphic design as a respectable profession. In order to maintain this regard, we must constantly push our limits and raise our standards in other words, criticize and be criticized. Rising to these ideals, and taking the heat, is hard especially when the heat comes from our harshest critics. Ourselves.

That justifies the brooding and pouting. But some recent soul-searching has led me to re-evaluate my own "gotta-win-or-feel-like-crap" attitude. My reasoning is built around the concept of Truth.

Truth is a little thing I play with every day at work as you do. My speciality is a bit unusual, though: our firm does legal design. We design presentations of evidence for trials. Our projects run the gamut from simple bar charts to detailed timelines and sophisticated 2- and 3-D animations. Our clients are attorneys and corporations, our audiences, judges and juries. We incorporate into our designs a delicate balance of formal aesthetic principles, informational structures and techniques, and the basic building blocks of reason employed by the human mind. Our job is to "sell" the judge and jury a particular understanding of the facts. This gives me a special regard for the truth.

Like an attorney, I detach myself from the issues. I disregard guilt or innocence and put our clients' arguments in the best possible light, through salient visual explanations of the most useful facts. And, like an attorney, I want our clients to win. When they lose, I don't look back at the facts that the ex-CEO was, indeed, giving inside trade information to his porn-star mistress. I don't see the rather obvious temporal correlations between her buy and sell orders and the mergers and acquisitions only he should have known about. I see instead that my designs failed to hide these facts. I see the fate of our client hanging on my designs alone.

No doubt, there are clear advantages to the visual presentation of complex information in the courtroom. But the reality is that it's not my job to influence the finders of fact judge and jury beyond ensuring their comprehension of the facts. Nor is it legal or ethical to do so. The facts are the facts. Yet I feel defeated when a client loses: my sense of competition clouds my concept of truth. Which, when you think about it, is unprofessional.

Our professional mission as designers holds within it an underlying respect for truth: we don't lie to our audiences, and we don't distort, conceal, or manipulate our messages. Let's take that authenticity to another level. Let's get radical. Let's find the truth in our defeats.

Embracing defeat allows us to be true to ourselves. Behind the enormous, self-preserving ego of the creative mind stands a mountain of self-doubt. Losing confirms this. It allows us to admit, truthfully and triumphantly if only to our inner pessimist "My stuff isn't good enough yet." It can give us the confidence that, if nothing else, justice has prevailed. The facts have remained the facts, and the most deserving competitor has won.

For those brave enough to try it, acknowledging fallibility can be liberating. It can free us to learn, to change, to understand that the most successful designs, the ones that win clients and awards, the ones that make us feel inadequate, are, simply put, the ones that communicate best. Yes, beauty counts. But genius in design is found only in the truest, most genuine, most emotionally immediate communications. Rather than envying their creators or hating ourselves, we should seek to understand the conceptual and aesthetic truths they embody. And be glad they're around to represent design to the world at large.

Aristotle wasn't the first to write about the difficulty of pursuing virtue in the presence of vice, and I won't be the last. Clearly, in an acidic environment, where vanity and self-interest are the order of the day, designers may find the pursuit of truth a great challenge. But it's this challenge, and our ability to rise to meet it, that give us the satisfaction and credibility we long for, as individuals and as members of the professional community.

About this article
The above article by Kim Levine appears here with permission from Critique Magazine. Copyright 2000, Critique Magazine.

About Critique Magazine
Critique is a beautifully designed quarterly magazine that makes sense of graphic design, and is devoted to clear discussions of aesthetics, communications, strategy, and audiences. Critique Magazine explains the thinking behind the styles, and the methods behind the messages, and brings in leading designers and experts from other disciplines to discuss the developments in business, psychology, and technology that will affect design tomorrow.

About Kim Levine
Kim Levine works with attorneys and large corporations to design visualizations of complex information for use in legal cases. She is Senior Art Director at FTI Consulting in New York.