Advice — Words of Wisdom: Craig Oldham on why rejection will make you a better creative

Posted 19 June 2018 Written by Craig Oldham

As many students begin to wrap up shows and find their way into the working world, we’ve pinpointed some of the questions we’re most commonly asked, regarding those crucial next steps. Over the next month we’ll be handing over to multitalented designer, studio founder and writer Craig Oldham to respond to some of these queries, as he draws on personal experiences, and new-starter gold in his book Oh Sh*t What Now?. First up, we ask Craig: How do you stay positive in the face of rejection?

Hello. I’m Craig. And I’m going to be your agony uncle for the next four weeks. The idea of this series is essentially to try and help. Published at a time when swathes of folk will be figuring out how to make that first break into the industry, we wanted to try and offer some assistance.

This week, let’s start with rejection. No, wait – stay! When I say rejection, it’s not necessarily a Ghost of Christmas Future, rather something that everyone – and I mean everyone – has to get to grips with. And when you do, it’s something you can reframe, put to the back of your mind and not have to worry about again. Almost.

I remember, as a student on the eve of graduation, showing my portfolio to a designer from an agency whose work I loved. My year group had descended on London’s RSA [Royal Society of Arts] for a night where industry could meet new grads. I was a real nag to this designer, constantly pestering until he came over to my folio. He flicked through. All nice enough. I thought I was in. But just as he was closing up my book, he commented that he thought my stuff was “alright,” but that it just wasn’t for them, and that he felt I “wouldn’t be a good fit”. 

“I get rejected every working day. Ideas fail, hopes are scuppered, fees are rebuked, and dreams are shattered.”

You can imagine the scene, as floods of denial and disappointment coursed through me. All I could think was: “If the one agency I really admire don’t want me – and worse, thought I was shit – what the hell are the rest of them going to think?” *Picks up phone and cries down the line to Mum*

Now trust me when I say that it wasn’t the last time that happened. I get rejected every working day. Ideas fail, hopes are scuppered, fees are rebuked, and dreams are shattered. So I understand how it feels. Only now, it’s clients saying they don’t fancy it. But being rejected taught me something: You are never, ever, going to please everyone.

Everyone has different tastes, approaches, ideas, values, principles and definitions of what they think is good. And you will never be able to match everyone’s standards or fit their bills. But that’s actually a good thing. All you have to do is approach it positively. Remember that it’s not a slight on you as a person – so much more comes into it.

“Being rejected taught me something: You are never, ever, going to please everyone.”

Instead of sloping off with my tail between my legs, I thought, “Ok, fair enough, but whilst you’re here I’m going to milk you for all you’re worth.” I put that rejection to one side and enquired about other things: If you think the work’s “alright”, what would you do to improve it? If I’m not right for you, who else should I speak to? What would be a good fit?

You take the information that’s useful to you, and rejection ceases to be rejection. It becomes insight. It becomes something you can learn from, evaluate, and use to build towards your next experience. And that applies to all scenarios – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a portfolio review, a job interview, an idea, a project, your fees, or anything else. You’ve gotta keep going.

Rejection can feel tough and hurt like a fucker, but really, we learn much more from pain than we do from pleasure. When something hurts we want to fix it, and make sure it never happens again. When something’s good, you don’t question or challenge it. So when you think about it like that, rejection is actually just problem solving, and that’s something all good designers and creatives need to get better at. Rejection will make you better.


For more Craig wisdom, his book ‘Oh Sh*t What Now?’ is available via Laurence King.

Posted 19 June 2018 Written by Craig Oldham
Collection: Advice
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Photography, Illustration
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