If design teams had a ceremonial initiation process, watching a stakeholder trash something that you’ve spent countless hours building would be it. But rejection is inescapable when we’re making multiple variants for every module of every single project, perpetually.
While distilling hours of work into screens which have been agonised over, one is bound to pick a favourite, consciously or not. It’s always the variant that seems to be primed to address every problem elegantly. Developing an affinity towards a particular variant is not only healthy, but it’s also a sign of a well-developed aesthetic, and a certain degree of understanding. The problem only arises when one develops an emotional attachment towards their work. While there have been studies on how emotional attachment towards work leads to improved well-being, they review attachment towards your overall practice. But if you find yourself aghast at the idea of your preferred variant not being realised, you’ve crossed the rubicon into the hostile territory of unhealthy emotional attachment.
Of course, there aren’t many cures for disappointment. Upon instinct, you may want to lash out at everyone, particularly yourself. Take a moment to centre yourself. Then talk about it openly, but calmly, with your peers. Candour is appreciated, but venting to the point of negative self-criticism or worse, outright stakeholder-bashing — is pointless, and rather destructive.
Remember, this doesn’t need to be a complete and total loss. Park your beloved variant, and like a former distant lover, revisit it when the time is right. Yes, every project is unique and tailored to the stakeholder’s hyper-specific needs. But with a few quick updates, an older variant from a completely different project can transform into the near-perfect solution you’re looking for.
And if you take a moment to notice your managers and senior team members, they don’t react as adversely. Not because they’re jaded, or stone-hearted. With time, they’ve just learnt how to cope.
Once your primary stakeholder has chosen the variant that they want to go with — bring your love and effort to the ‘chosen’ one. Nurture it to bring it to the level that you can be proud of, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Maybe, the ‘chosen’ one will surpass your initial choice and prove to be a more elegant solution. This will also help you shield your sanity, and allow you to move on.
Another method you can employ is to find joy in the small things. Focus on refining the micro, and the macro will start to come together. And if you can’t seem to find joy in this process, bring joy to it. Was there a particular interaction you had in mind with another discarded variant? Bring it. How might we introduce motion design to elevate the existing flows? Is there an older prototype you can pull from? Bring it.
More often than not, variants are rejected for practical, non-negotiable constraints. In such cases, understanding why can help you to see how an elegant solution, is not always the answer.
Conversely, this can also help you figure out when you can push back on certain decisions. You’ve been hired for your expertise, not just for your execution skills. Is this the hill you want to die on? Sometimes that answer can be — yes.
Now and then, you’ll find yourself in the maze of hierarchical working — wherein the decision taken by a certain individual on the primary stakeholder’s side, cannot be challenged. Respecting their authority can bring you some solace. Unfortunate as it may be, some things will always remain outside the locus of your control.
The goal is to employ a combination of these methods. Develop a thicker skin over time, so you’re not thrown off course. Gain enough understanding to know that some solutions do not work for certain business dynamics and the reasoning behind the same. And, channel your unrequited love for dead variants into the ‘chosen’ one.
While remaining objective can prove difficult when you’re in the thick of it, take a moment to reflect when you feel calmer. Tap into your inherent awareness — the feedback, no matter how critical, is about the work itself. Removing yourself from this situation will also show you how the work has benefited you. We’re all better designers today than we were yesterday. Your skill set is better off for having made several variants, even if a few were rejected. This history will inform your future practice, and having an archive to fall back on when you feel fresh out of ideas, is always a source of comfort.
“Persistence reveals the path.”
— Jaro Tapal, in the game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
By nature, design is democratic. It’s an empirical way of getting people’s ideas out, and will always consist of variants. But design is beyond screens, variants, and colours. The more eclectically you look at things, the better you’ll feel — since you’ll understand that you’re not solving a design problem, you’re solving a problem through design. In the long run, it’s not about being desensitised — it’s about becoming even better.