In the context of a years-long conversation, a brief portfolio review with a respected teacher has a lasting effect. Just three simple words make for a gem of insight that sustains a career.

The smell of burnt coffee and copier toner saturated the small room off the computer lab on the fifth floor of the university’s alumni center. In the feast of creativity, this is where we broke our bread. The design department was a few blocks further downtown, ostracized from the main campus. We were shoved up to the top of the building like a team of astronauts in quarantine. We were excluded. Then we were forgotten. A harsh atmosphere for education? No. We quickly learned that if you’re forgotten, you can do whatever you wish. We were free; encouraged to be reckless and boisterous. We were treated as humans and co-designers by our teachers rather than as mere students.

I was waiting in the spare room outside his office hoping for one last opinion of my portfolio before heading out to present it to the design world. This was my coming-out party; my portfolio was going to be my master stroke to land the best internship I could between my junior and senior years of school. We’re all stupid at twenty-one, thinking that humanity is waiting with bated breath for our emergence into the world of commerce and responsibility. Truth be told, it doesn’t care. We think it will gasp. Instead, it yawns.

I peered through a gap in a window tiled with postcards from previous exhibitions of his work. He was on the phone but made eye contact and waved me in, motioning with his hand to sit. We had a long history: I had taken six classes with him, and in the next year I would take three more. Our communication had a shorthand—general gesticulations that meant tighten it up or loosen your marks, think harder or, at worst, “Start over, Frank, what the hell are you doing trying to play this off as work?” He was a stern practitioner and I thrived on it. This was the first teacher whose standards for my work were higher than my own. He pushed, and pushed hard. Other students broke, they cried, they dropped the classes. They villainized him. Not me. He wasn’t impossible to please, but he wasn’t happy until you forced yourself one step beyond what you were comfortable doing. No half-measures allowed. If you tried like hell, he mirrored your efforts. If you emptied yourself onto the page, he would empty himself out for you.

He motioned to the blank space in front of him on his desk and signaled me to place my portfolio there. He wedged the phone receiver between his shoulder and ear and uttered the occasional “Yes.” “Right.” “Uh-huh.” He started quickly flipping through the book. Most of the work he had seen before; I was especially interested to see his response to the projects he had not. He turned to one. “Yep. Oh, that’s great. Yes. Yah.” I pretended he was saying that about my project and not to the person on the other end of the call.

He finished going through my work, and said into the phone, “Janet, could you hold on for a moment?” He covered the receiver with his hand, and I leaned forward in my chair. “You know, Frank, after looking at this…” My eyes widened. Okay, here we go. Finally, some honest feedback. Something other than “looks great.”

“Needs more love,” he said to me. “Okay, Janet, I’m back. Sorry for that, just have a student in here.” He waved his hand to shoo me out of his office. He wished me well on my trip and said that he would see me next week in class. He smiled.

“Needs more love.” Best damn advice I’ve ever gotten. You can keep your practicality and your action items and your take-aways. You can have your instructional advice, your recipes, your prescribed steps to fulfillment, and your ladder-climbing. I’ve got this: this little gem of insight from a man who taught me so much. The only thing that matters is that we care more than we already do about the people and places and projects that we give our time and attention. We’ve got to believe in the stuff.

And, you know? I can forget everything else I ever learned from him and just keep this. I can lose my portfolio, I can lose my clients, my motivation for the work; I can lose my bluster, my attitude, my point of view, my aesthetic. I can lose a million dollars and every client I’ve ever had or could ever hope to get. I can quit design, I can never speak of typography again, I can never put words to another page. I can lose my memory, I can lose myself. All of it can disappear in the next second, and it won’t matter.

I’ve got this. “Needs more love.”

Frank chimero

Frank Chimero is a designer, writer, illustrator, and educator. He lives in Brooklyn and leads Another, a design studio for page and screen. He is the author of The Shape of Design, a design theory overview that focuses on storytelling, craft, and interdependency.

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