Skip to main content
canadian university report - growth

From left, students Clayton Millard and Lydia He, Professor Paul Dallas, and students Aliya Ghare and Janine Kwok discuss the students' work at OCAD University.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Resilience 101 – teaching undergrads to feel better prepared for the demands of the outside world – sounds great, but it is rare to find resilience training listed as a formal class or on a syllabus.

A typical liberal arts or science major, wading through a degree among thousands of other students, will get graded, have some interaction with instructors over the course of four years, will on occasion receive some encouragement or life-changing advice, maybe even some mentoring. But rarely do students get the kind of regular, formal critique which could push them even further.

Design students are the exception.

The very nature of an education in graphic design, illustration, architecture, any design discipline, is built on continual, formal critiques, not just by the instructor, but also by fellow students. It is a level of attention that academics in other disciplines might want to consider and other students, especially, might want to ask for, particularly now that design-minded creativity and team work are so sought after in all fields.

The nature of design education requires constant critiques, and repeatedly facing criticism can develop psychological resilience and personal growth and adaptation.

Designers by trade are required to pour out their creativity (often expressing things dear to their heart) for public scrutiny, as fine artists do. In addition, design students must problem-solve the fickle needs of clients (or in this case, problem-solve instructors' assignments). No one will care if a student has arrived with a stellar high-school portfolio or has 5,000 followers on Instagram.

What is necessary is meeting the task at hand and going through the necessary critiquing process, while at the same time interacting with other design students also pouring out their creative hearts and coming to their own problem-solving conclusions.

It is an environment in which resiliency is key.

And ideas around how to teach this have evolved. “I think we have a much better sense of what resiliency really means,” says Bonne Zabolotney, vice-president of academics and provost of Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.

Instead of fostering resiliency by bludgeoning students with criticism, or making the class all about seeking an instructor's approval, teaching resiliency and the ability to learn from criticism should be about giving feedback "to everyone with equity, without prejudice, without the kind of discriminatory behaviours that may have been imbedded in the critique years and years ago," Dr. Zabolotney says.

She contrasts this with the kind of critique often given to students in earlier times.

Back when she was a design student herself, resiliency went "hand and glove with survival, and you had to put on a brave face. Nobody wants to run crying out of the room, but you might receive a critique where somebody says, ‘I’m not talking about this garbage today. It’s not good enough to talk about.’ And they flick it off the ledge, and you go, ‘Wow, okay, I don’t know where to go with that, but I better toughen up … If I don’t maintain my composure, I’m not good enough for this program.’ That kind of criticism “is garbage really. It speaks nothing to really critical thought or ideas, or developing students in a way that they have a right to be developed, as tuition paying students,” she says.

Today, there is less emphasis on pleasing the instructor. "The world is a lot more complicated than that, and people understand that that level of arrogance prevents us from learning more about our own work," she says.

The rationale used to be that taking harsh criticism built a sense of professionalism. "It was like there was a master, and we were all apprentices."

Instead, critiques should now be more about a dialogue back and forth between students and instructor, and between students and other students, design academics say.

"I think one of the things that makes students accepting and resilient is being in a learning environment where the professor is not up there pontificating and expressing everything as the truth," says Paul Dallas, chair of the illustration program and professor in the Faculty of Design at OCAD University in Toronto. "The professor is sort of guiding the conversation among the students, so that students know that when they are critiquing someone else's work, they are also going to be critiqued back."

In this sense, resilience isn't about merely coping with criticism or winning favour. It is about growing, along with others.

“What I’ve gotten from my own students' feedback – I’ve been teaching for 24 years now – is that what they appreciate most are the comments that are direct,” Mr. Dallas says. “A lot of students actually resent your trying to cushion the blow too much. They want it to be constructive and practical, meaning that there is something that you’re telling them that can be applied to a next piece.”

This also means "being respectful of them as people, so you're open to a new way of seeing things, or how their background might inform what they're doing."

If this sounds a little airy and inapplicable to other fields, think of it as acquiring fundamental skills.

"In larger ways, you go to design school to build a language, so that when you are sitting by yourself, and you are struggling with [a project], you are able to say, 'This is working because of this, and it's not because of that. I'm going to change this, I'm going to change that.' That's just a habit that you form, and you take it with you on your own," said Juliette Cezzar, assistant professor of communication design at the New School's Parsons School of Design in New York.

What Ms. Cezzar likes to see is for students to develop, through the critiques, their own voice inside their heads that will continue to help them refine their work. It is the ability to have “an internal compass for whether or not something is good,” while avoiding just complaining that the client doesn’t understand.

It takes resilience training to strike that balance between knowing what works and yet problem-solving a clients' needs effectively.