May 17, 2009

“Hypercriticism” about My Design Lecture

I was invited to lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by a colleague, Adam Kallish, who teaches a course called “Design Ecologies.” The lecture consisted of two parts—presentation and then a workshop—and was given to graduate students of the course.

Notes of a graduate student during the presentation

I began working on the presentation several weeks in advance. I essentially captured words, phrases, and websites that piqued my interest, and that I thought would interest the class. Along with these notes, I made slides in PowerPoint (some, if not many of you, especially Keynote users, are cringing). Each slide was something from my captures or an interpretation. Being a believer that slides are talked to, rather than a form of dictation, most of my slides were solitary words or pictures intended as triggers for me to pipe up on what was shown.

There was back and forth with Adam about the presentation’s content. 37signals’ Backpack was used to store and organize our exchanges and control presentation versions. The presentation date came. I talked, participated in the workshop afterwards, and then left. I honestly didn’t know how I did. A few weeks later, Adam shared the feedback, which wasn’t in my favor.

Lessons Re-learned

I was naturally disappointed with the unfavorable response, but something funny happened—I was elated with the criticism. Actually, not “elated,” but, in essence, pleased. If you could see my face, it would be straight. Rather than dismissing the students’ feedback as counterproductive, I decided to convert it into lessons—good ones for anyone who is passionate about presenting. They’re especially good lessons for me, someone who doesn’t make it a practice to be on the “lecture circuit.”

Critique 1: “His talk seemed a bit scattered. Maybe the nature of scouting out trends. It seemed a little overly broad and hard to relate to what we’re doing here.”

Working on Design Feast increases my embrace of people and projects across design disciplines. I couldn’t help but take on the quality of everything-ness, because design is an immense body of thought and practice. Exploring design as everything or engaging the phenomenon of everything is a lot (but not too much). The course’s esoteric title of Design Ecologies speaks to everything, like an ecosystem. The course’s overview is filled with an ever-everything voice. This does produce a scatterbrain effect, but I tried to condense my showcase of creative people and their projects to these tips:
  • Pick an idea, not any idea—One that you’ll stick with for awhile.
  • Just do it and mostly DIY.
  • Give yourself the opportunity to get passed along.
  • Generate content, lots of it, because content is plastic.
  • Practice patience.
Yes, I could have sharpened the link between showcased designers and their projects with these tips in order to help ease the translation of why (am I highlighting these people and projects) to what (tips). Better translation and focus now and next time.

Takeaway: A former teacher of mine always prescribed to take the content of your presentation and cut it in half. Sound advice. I didn’t edit enough, to the point that tackling a sliver of everything becomes diffused.

Critique 2: “The thing that frustrated me most is that he was not prepared in knowing who his audience was. I have found this frustrating with almost all of the speakers, in fact.”

When the workshop commenced, I expressed interest in seeing student projects. Adam responded that there was going to be a final showing of graduate work. Perhaps this would have been keen at the start, to help my understanding—“knowing”—of the audience and more accurately “target” my presentation. Assuming that graduate design students are designers themselves—who can make connections, however slight—was an incorrect assumption in this case.

As a step to improve future presentations, a more thorough orientation of future speakers may be done.

Takeaway: Never hurts to go beyond first impressions, treating the initial description of the audience as merely preliminary.

Critique 3: “I was most bummed about not talking about trends since his talk was titled ‘Design Trends’ in the course overview and then he dismissed the notion of ‘trends,’ which confused me. Then I was disappointed that he didn't touch on the online videos we watched ahead of time.”

There’s that word again: Trends. I was stumped when asked about other trends besides “Web 2.0” technologies. In retrospect, it’s interesting how trends are quickly associated with technology. The aforementioned tips were my take on “trends” that I identified. Then again, I view them as more than ephemeral trends. They’re recurring truths, to me.

Regarding the online videos, this list, in its sequence, was provided a week before the presentation and workshop:
These diverse videos helped me galvanize the tips. I was also stumped about being asked why I chose these videos, because the values of persistence and self-discovery flowed throughout them, particularly the interviews with innovative choreographer Twyla Tharp and author Elizabeth Gilbert. So I was surprised to be asked why they were chosen. I assumed that the graduate students would pick up the demonstration of creativity, especially from the candid interviews.

The act of making connections (however slight) between design-related subject matter and one’s way of thinking-and-doing echoes here. Must everything be spelled out? Yes and no. I steered toward the latter because I assumed that the students would glean what was self-evident to me. Herein lies the lesson: Be sensitive to audience sensibilities, which, as related in the previous critique, I didn’t adequately know.

I’m wondering if the graduate students apparent desire for trends, though forward thinking, minimizes what’s fundamental: Namely, to embrace a good future with the help of design. Chasing the next trend sounds like a blind-spot for what’s here and now—whether these be words, images, colors, textures, raw materials, etc., and the guts and imagination to engage these elements.

Takeaway: Parallel to previous takeaways, clearly articulate the connection of what is being presented and how it relates to the sensibilities of the audience, even a design-oriented one.

Critique 4: “I think it’s not very good practice for a presenter to continually put down the quality of his own presentation. I have no doubt that he worked hard on it, but the fact that his work didn’t really translate shouldn't have been something he was so eager to disclose.”

I thought I was being provocative, in a good way, by being brutally honest—because speaking about design in the vein of everything is tough—but such honesty disqualifies one’s content. Therefore, another to-do for me: Content must breed confidence.

Takeaway: Honesty, in the form of self-deprecation, is not the best presentation policy.

The criticism was thoughtful and I anticipate that their post-graduate work will match, even transcend, such thoughtfulness. In particular, comments about making clear transitions amongst diverse topics within a presentation are well taken. Ensuring clarity is always a moving goal.

Trying to be hyper-proactive on criticism

Expectations were not fully met in this instance, but it tees up the next opportunity to better meet the expectations of another audience in a different place and time. Criticism can be tough, but it offers an upside in learning.

Here’s to a better presentation in the future. Because, as technologist and writer John Siracusa put it in his article Hypercritical, “Every day is a new chance to do something a little bit better, to find something wrong with what you're doing and understand it well enough to know how to fix it. If this is not your natural proclivity, you may have to work at it a bit. I think you'll be pleased with the results…but not completely, I hope.”

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