The Best Piece of Design Advice I Have Ever Received

By: Kelsie Redditt

I had arrived at my Mecca, thrown off the bonds of high school and made my way to the Ryerson School of Interior Design. Here, I imagined, I would spend hours in dissertation discussing design, architecture, history, and philosophy with likeminded students and great design thinkers.

In reality, it was not quite the salon atmosphere I had envisioned. There was certainly a culture of experimentation, there were lively discussions, and brilliant and supportive faculty to encourage us on our journey, but I had not prepared myself for how difficult it was going to be.

It was mentally exhausting, an emotional roller coaster of all-nighters followed by grueling critique sessions. Our class was fiercely competitive and the faculty’s expectations were high. Sometime during second year I completely lost my confidence.

Coming from a small high school in a rural town I was used to being lauded for my creativity, but here I was surrounded by a group of peers who were all equally talented, the bar was set high. It was tempting to believe that my inability to rise to the top of the class was somehow dependent on external forces. Why are my million dollar ideas not materializing? I was acutely aware that university was the time to be bold, no budgets, no clients, I should be dreaming big dreams but they weren’t coming.

Noticing me sitting frustrated at my drafting table one afternoon, Professor David Johnston sauntered over to offer help. He leaned in very close with his ever present mischievous grin and whispered in his very droll British accent “you know, real designers don’t sit around waiting for a genius idea to hit them like a bolt of lightning”.

In order to find the solution to my design problem first I had to get out all the bad ideas, put them on paper, laugh at them, get mad at them, ball them up and toss them in the wastebasket. Only when all the terrible ideas have been laid to waste would the good ones emerge. I had been afraid to put the wrong thing on paper, believing that the act of drawing would somehow lend credence to what I knew were bad ideas. But paper was cheap and I trusted Professor Johnston so I gave it a try. I drew some truly terrible, ugly, derivative designs but then the good ideas started to come, slowly at first, then gaining momentum until finally that eureka moment would strike.

I would like to say that that one comment gave birth to a truly stunning achievement on my part. But while I’m still waiting for the circumstances to present themselves for my legendary idea to be born, Professor Johnston’s advice alleviated the writer’s block that so often haunts creatives.

It’s tempting to believe that genius ideas are floating in the ether waiting to land on the desks of hapless designers, if we simply provide the blank paper for them to manifest themselves on. Design exhibitions often feature the “napkin sketches”, sometimes literal napkins with parti doodles or half shaped gestures, of what we now know as architectural marvels. But these doodles are only half the story. What no one seems keen to celebrate are the overflowing trash cans full of all the shit ideas that came first. The reality is, while giving life to new spaces is a labour of love, it is a labour. Don’t be afraid to put on paper ideas that you know aren’t your best work, your internal critic needs to see these ideas, to evaluate why they don’t work in order to shape and recognize the ideas that will.