高处不胜寒 It is lonely at the top.

My partner recently commented that it is frustrating when the people she reached out to couldn’t “pick apart my (her) work and make it better.”

To which I replied, “What do you expect when one is an employee and the other is technically a “supplier” who obviously wants to maintain a client?”

I started a design studio when I was 24. It wasn’t a solo show; I had two partners – an accountant and an engineer. I blame it on being young, foolish, and a lot of ego; I was tempted by the idea of building something from zero.

I only had a short 15-month working stint with two advertising agencies. Suddenly I found myself being the FA artist, DTP artist, Designer, Design Director, and Creative Director all combined into one. A 15-month experience didn’t prepare me for this role. We started growing, and I started hiring people. But as a new startup the budgets were limited – we couldn’t afford the best talents and had to settle for the average fresh grads.

Many times while preparing design proposals, I wished I had two types of people in my life.

First, a mentor. Someone who could take a look at what I am doing and advise me on how to make it better. Maybe on the overall design direction, or maybe pick on some details – for example, “Drop that Drop Cap, it is horrendous”.

Second, a sparring partner. Someone to work alongside. Someone to bounce ideas. Someone who is ready to pick a fight over an idea, a colour, a typeface, or argue over the merits of a 7-col grid vs 8-col.

But I never had them. And I had to learn and grow through trials and errors, successes and failures. I remember at the age of 25, I always wanted to pick up the phone and call William Harald-Wong, a Malaysian designer whom to date, I still have tremendous respect and admiration for. Perhaps just to show him my work-in-progress before presenting to clients. But I never did.

That was more than two decades ago.

I eventually became friends with William. Yesterday I asked him what would he do if a random stranger called him up to get his feedback on some W-I-P project.

His reply. “Well, it may be worth the time to read his proposal and learn something about the project. Giving a few tips shouldn’t be a problem.” Turns out he has never received such calls, ever.

Why didn’t I do it 20 years ago?

Turns out I am not the only one. I asked a few friends who started their studios at a relatively young age (and are now doing pretty well) the same question. “Did you reach out to someone, anyone, during the early days of your studio to get advice and feedback?”

Interestingly, most of them reached out to people when it comes to the business side of things. But when it comes to design, it is almost an unanimous NO.

Why didn’t you call, for example, Chris Lee or Hanson Ho?

“I did want to, but why should they help me? They don’t owe me anything. I am nobody and I don’t feel entitled that they should do it. Their time is precious.”

Why didn’t you tap on your NID network and seek help?

“Mostly it’s the sense of insecurity. Not wanting them to know the clients I have and the work that I was doing. But as I matured, it became easier for me to open up and talk to peers about projects, but of course, restricted by NDAs and contracts.”

“I admit, it was a me-first mentality. It’s my client. You are my competitor. You are much more established than me. I just can’t reveal too much to you, just in case, you know… In hindsight, that was very immature.”

Somewhere I figured it might be the Asian values system – to be non-confrontational, non-collaborative, and non-intrusive.

Or perhaps it is the other extreme, in which the young ego is just not ready for feedback? I remember an incident a few years back when a young mid-20s designer asked me to shut up when I gave my views on the design of an ongoing web project. His title? “Co-founder and Chief Design Officer”. Confession: He wasn’t the first to ask this boomer to shut up. Point to add: I always stop working with people who can’t handle feedback once the project concludes.

One designer offered a nice perspective. He said he always has a selection of people he could lean on. People whom he trusts will be honest with him about his work. And he has no issues sharing work with them, despite being from the same industry, or could be competitors in many ways. Friends, that can be trusted. “Otherwise, you are totally alone and it can be really hard”. The caveat? He is not Asian.

I am not sure how others think but I am speaking for myself. I’m approaching 50, and more than ever, I actually enjoy looking at young designers’ works and interacting with them. It allows me to see new things, allows me to learn different perspectives from a different generation. I have also learned not to give any feedback if they were uncalled for. #boomer is a beast.

Let this sink in. If you are running a young studio, if you are ready for feedback, it is OK for you to reach out to the more senior and established people. I am almost certain most are ready to listen and help. Whether you want to act on the feedback, is still your choice, but at least, you were given an alternate perspective on your works. And that will always make you a better designer.

Written after conversations with Anthony Lopez, Ankur Rander, Jia Hui, William Harald-Wong, and Christopher Doyle. Thanks!


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