Lessons in design, from Don Draper: You are not the work.

John was sweating.

He sat in a stiff plastic chair, waiting to be called in. John shifted in his seat, and tightened his tie. He needed to look his best.

Don Draper always looked his best.

Just two hours before, John was working on a new design for an ad campaign, and Draper’s secretary had come in to the artists area and walked towards him.

“Mr. Draper would like to see you this afternoon. Please come by at five minutes before 3,” she said, before coolly turning around and leaving. The other designers looked up and then quickly mocked him.

“OOH, somebody’s in trouble!”

“Been nice working with you.”

John ignored them as much as he could, but a sense of dread began to weigh down on him. Draper never had one-on-ones with the designers. Unless he was going to fire one of them.

“Mr. Draper will see you now.”

John stood, and entered the just-opened door. The secretary closed it behind him, and John barely noticed. Draper sat behind a huge wooden desk, a cigarette hanging from his mouth as he read a piece of paper that was on his desk. He didn’t look up.

“Sit down.”

John sat down.

“You’ve been here, what…”

“Three months, sir.”

Draper looked up. His gaze focused on John’s eyeline, and John felt the intensity of the gaze at his very core.

“You any good?”

“Wha… Yes, I think so.”

“You think so. Well, let me tell you what I think.” Draper put his cigarette in his ashtray, shifted the papers on his desk and pulled out an artboard. It was one of John’s designs, an ad that he spent two whole days working on.

“You did this, right?”

Now John’s hands started getting clammy. “Yes, Mr. Draper.”

“It’s garbage.” Draper tore the thick sheet in half and tossed it on the floor. “What do you think about that?”

John’s mouth was agape. He didn’t know what to say. Words came out anyway.

“I think you’re wrong. I think it’s good.”

Draper, who had been sitting at a slight angle behind his desk, pivoted to face John fully. And John felt it.

“Really? Explain.”

“It… It was a balanced design, and the copy was well positioned along with the image. It followed the brief, and it was clean.”

“It was unfocused and juvenile. It didn’t work.” Draper snapped back.

John was stunned. This is it, he thought. I’m fired.

“So… What do you have to say for yourself?” Draper let the question linger in the air for several seconds.

John felt three feet tall.

“Let me give you some advice, something that I think you need to know,” Draper said as he rose to fix himself a drink. As he poured the scotch into an expensive crystal glass he turned his head to John.

“I need you to accept what I did just now in a professional manner. Your work represents this agency and I will not tolerate inferior work. At the same time I want you to understand something. Listen carefully.”

John listened.

“You are not the work. You will sweat blood sometimes to create something good but that does not mean that what you make will always work.”

John was confused. Was he being fired or not?

“We hired you because of your potential. You’re young, and we gave you a chance. We expect you to get better. The only way you are going to get better is to try, fail, and try again. What I need you to do is not take it personal when say your work is crap.”

No, he wasn’t getting fired. He was being given his first design lesson from Don Draper.

“I expect greatness, but I also expect you to fail. If you want to go anywhere in your job you need to pay attention and learn from these failures. If you want to get anywhere as a designer I need you to focus and care about what you are doing. Design is tough. Sure it’s not tough like digging trenches, but it’s tough.”

“Get tough. Do your best, and then separate yourself from the end product. Become your own worse critic, before someone like me has to be. Kill your darlings.”

John didn’t know what to say. “Yes, sir.” was all he could muster.

“Good.” Draper picked up the torn art board and, walking over to John, handed it to him. “Now fix this. I expect a lot… But I also expect you can bring a lot to the table.”

Draper pulled his glass to his mouth and swallowed a mouthful. Walking back to behind his desk he continued, “Get together with Peggy if you need someone to bounce designs off of. We’re a team here, and no man is an island.”

John realized the meeting was over and got up. “Thank you,” he said, and he meant it.

“Remember what I said. Do better. Learn.”

“I will, Mr. Draper.”

And he did.