How To Respond Effectively To Design Criticism

Monday, November 23, 2009 | BY Andrew

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." - Winston Churchill

Regardless of where you work, or who you work for, taking criticism is a part of the job description. Whether it be feedback from your boss or a client, it's important to have a proper view of criticism and a healthy understanding of how to use it effectively.

Unfortunately, not many people enjoy criticism, in fact, most have developed thick skin and take pride in their ability to brush it off and move on. However, despite the negative connotations, criticism often presents an excellent opportunity to grow as a designer. Before you can respond effectively, you need to understand what those opportunities are.

  • Uncover blind spots
    It's easy to do your own thing, but eventually you develop deeply ingrained habits which can be hard to break. Criticism gives you a vital outside perspective on your work, uncovering potential areas for improvement that you are unable to see yourself.

  • Challenge yourself
    Feedback challenges you to be a better designer. Instead of settling on your own standards, it forces you to take your work to the next level.

  • Develop communication skills
    If nothing else, dealing with a critic can dramatically improve the way you communicate; an essential skill for any successful design career.

  • Outside motivation
    Often, constructive criticism can provide the kick in the butt you need to learn a new design skill or technique. Self motivation is great, but everyone can use a hand from time to time.

  • A lesson in humility
    Never underestimate the importance of humility. Although criticism can bruise the ego, it keeps you grounded, making you easier to work with and more open to learning from others.

A positive view of criticism alone isn't enough, you also need to understand how to respond effectively when it comes. Here are 8 tips that you can use to start making the most out of criticism today:

1. Have the Right Attitude

Design is subjective, and like any art form, there is no rulebook. No one can tell you what is "right" and what is "wrong" when it comes to your work, but unfortunately, that doesn't mean you can completely ignore your boss or client. However, by approaching criticism and feedback with the proper attitude, you can use criticism to your advantage and even enjoy doing it.

Everyone looks at design through a filter shaped by personal experiences, and often this filter is very different from your own. While you may have a degree in design and 10 years of experience, not everyone is going to agree with your "expert" opinion, so don't expect it. The important part is that you have the proper attitude from the beginning. Expect others to disagree with you and be open to new perspectives. In addition to setting the right expectations, it's important to understand that criticism is part of the process. While harsh criticism can cut deep, and even scar, it can also motivate, teach and do the rest of the good things listed above.

Last, but not least, try to remove yourself from the criticism and view it as a critique of your actions and not a personal attack. While it may be easier said than done, this separation is key to responding effectively. If you can rise above the criticism and respond in a calm and effective manner, you will not only earn the admiration of your critic, but feel better doing it. Set the right expectations, understand the benefits, remove yourself from the equation and remember, attitude truly is everything.

2. Understand the Objective

It's always a good idea to clearly identify the goal of a design before you share it with your subjects. Are you showing it off to your mom for some fridge time? Is this a client who's trying to solve a business challenge through design? Or perhaps it's a friend with no experience or stake in the project. Regardless, a vague or confused objective will always elicit off-target feedback, so make sure everyone involved "gets it" before taking action. In order to respond effectively to criticism, you need to be sure the critic understands your goals. So be specific. Present the objective in clear and concise terms, and the criticism you receive will be targeted and actionable.

3. Check your First Reaction

For most people (myself included), their first reaction to criticism is to get defensive, or even lash out. If this sounds like you, take the time to develop the habit of taking a deep breath and counting to ten before you respond. This simple, but effective method, gives you a chance to regain a proper perspective and allow logic to prevail over emotion. The last thing you want to do is get overemotional and respond in a way that you might regret. Remember, in most cases, your critic is only trying to help you.

Despite the initial sting, honest feedback is what you need to become a better designer. This is especially important for enthusiasts or beginners of the trade. All visual arts have an intrinsic reward mechanism - the more you create, the more you can feel the progression of your own skill. It's a loop that keeps all artists going, and when this euphoric moment gets crushed by accurate and much needed criticism, it might be hard to recover. Keep in mind, however, that your skill and perceptiveness in this field will mature over time. If you have the right attitude to begin with, the appropriate reaction will follow.

4. Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

Unfortunately, not all criticism is constructive. Some people are in a bad mood, bitter, or just plain negative, and will use any chance they can get to put people down. There are also those that are inexperienced and unqualified to give you valuable feedback. While it's true that design is subjective, it's important to separate useful feedback from the cheap shots and misinformation. However, this is not an excuse to ignore the comments you don't like. Unless you believe a critique was given in malice or stupidity, don't be too quick to dismiss it.

Here are a few quick tips to separate the two:

  • Specific. Valuable feedback is always specific. It is clear, logical and defined. "The logo is ugly" or "I don't like the color choice" are two examples of useless criticism (if you get a lot of these, see #7).

  • Actionable. Constructive criticism should allow you to take immediate action. You should come away with a better idea of how to improve the concept and the path you need to take.

  • Objective. Useful feedback is unbiased. It gives you a unique perspective without an ulterior motive. Objective criticism will always be even-tempered and appropriate.

5. Learn from It

This step is possibly the hardest part of this exercise, but by far the most important. In order for criticism to serve its purpose, you need to act on it! Don't just go back to business as usual, make an effort to improve. The great thing about criticism is that it reveals our blind spots, weak areas that only others can see. When you're confronted with criticism, don't let the opportunity pass you by, write it down and do whatever it takes to make a change.

If someone criticizes your copywriting skills, start by taking baby steps. Read a related blog once a week. Buy a book. Practice writing headlines for 10 minutes each day. Small victories are often the quickest path to success. Eventually you will improve, and have your critic to thank for it.

6. Look for a New Idea

If you can't learn anything new, look for a new idea. A different perspective presents a chance to examine your work from a viewpoint that you would never have considered on your own. In the same way you might get inspiration from a gallery or another talented designer, ideas and inspiration can be found in constructive criticism, it just requires you take a step back too see it. Be curious and approach the criticism objectively, there could be something incredibly useful.

Sometimes, criticism may come in the for of the cold shower you needed to wake you up and hit the reset button on the project. Remember, you're working with your own preconceptions on what the client should want, and you always need to be open to possibility that you missed the mark. In the even that you do need to start over, make sure you clarify objectives and expectations from the beginning. Chances are, this information upfront could have prevented a re-do altogether.

7. Dig Deeper when Necessary

At some point, everyone has received vague, unclear or non-actionable feedback, it's part of life. Unfortunately, unless you take the initiative, this type of feedback is virtually useless to everyone involved. However, if you're willing to dig a little deeper, you may uncover things no one else was willing to tell you. Start by asking open-ended questions that get to the core of the issue, questions like "I want to understand your point of view, could you please provide more detail?" or "How can I improve?". Ask for specifics, and above all else, honesty. These kinds of questions will help keep the communication lines open and allow you to come away with some practical and concrete advice.

If you feel uncomfortable asking your critic for more detail, or they are unwilling to provide it, approach someone you respect or trust and ask them what they think. Do they agree with the criticism? Why or why not? Assuming this person is honest and knowledgeable, you should be able to get the answers you need to move forward.

8. Thank the Critic

Whether the criticism you receive is genuine, or even downright rude, make a point to say "thank you". Thanking even your worst critics can create a lasting impression, keep you humble and open the door for additional feedback in the future. Expressing gratitude will also make you feel better about the experience and alleviate what to many is an innate avoidance to feedback and criticism. If you were able to follow the guidelines above, and recognize the true value in the criticism you received, saying "thank you" shouldn't be too difficult.

If you respect this person and their opinion, take it one step further and try to develop a long-term mentoring relationship with them. Much like in the old days of craftsman and apprentice, an individual who's opinion you value and keep in high esteem can go a long way in developing your skills and abilities. If nothing else, a mentor can keep you accountable to your work and continuous improvement.

Do you have a technique to share or a real life example of criticism in action? Let us know!


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