Winston Churchill once said: “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.” Regardless of where you work or who you work for, being able to take criticism is part of the job description. Whether you’re getting feedback from your boss or a client, having a proper perspective on criticism and a sound understanding of how to use it effectively is important.
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Unfortunately, not many people enjoy criticism. In fact, many have developed a thick skin and take pride in their ability to brush it off and move on. However, despite its negative connotation, criticism often presents an excellent opportunity to grow as a designer. Before you can respond effectively, you need to understand what those opportunities are.
Let’s take at some important aspects of getting constructive criticism:
- Uncover blind spots. Doing your own thing is easy, but your habits will eventually become deeply ingrained and hard to break. Criticism gives you a vital outside perspective on your work, uncovering potential areas for improvement that you are unable to see by yourself.
- Challenge yourself. Feedback challenges you to be a better designer. Rather than settle for your own standards, you are pushed 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. Constructive criticism often gives you the kick in the butt you need to learn a new design skill or technique. Self-motivation is great, but everyone could 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 isn’t enough. You also need to know how to respond effectively when it comes. Here are eight tips you can use to start making the most of criticism today.
1. Have The Right Attitude
Design is subjective and, like any art form, has no rulebook. No one can tell you what is “right” and “wrong” with your work, but that doesn’t mean you can completely ignore your boss or client’s opinion either. However, by taking criticism and feedback with the right attitude, you can use it to your advantage and even enjoy it.
Everyone looks at design through a filter shaped by personal experience, and this filter is usually very different from your own. While you may have a degree in design and 10 years of experience, not everyone will agree with your “expert” opinion, so don’t expect them to. The important thing is to have a proper attitude from the beginning. Expect others to disagree with you, and be open to new perspectives. Align your expectations and understand that criticism is part of the process. While harsh criticism can cut deep and even scar, it can also motivate, instruct and do all of the good things mentioned above.
Last, but not least, try to remove yourself from the criticism and view it as a commentary on your actions or work and not a personal attack. While easier said than done, this distinction is key to responding effectively. If you can rise above the criticism and respond calmly and effectively, 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
Clearly identifying the goal of a design before you share it with others is always a good idea. Are you showing it off to mom for some fridge time? Is it a client who’s trying to solve a business challenge through design? Or perhaps you’re consulting 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. To respond effectively to criticism, you need to be sure that the critic understands your goals. Be specific. Present your objective in clear and concise terms; the criticism you receive will be targeted and actionable as a result.
3. Check Your First Reaction
For most people (me included), the first reaction to criticism is to get defensive or even lash out. If this sounds like you, take time to develop the habit of taking a deep breath and counting to 10 before responding. This simple yet effective method gives you a chance to regain composure and allow logic to prevail over emotion. The last thing you want to do is get overly emotional and give a response that you will later regret. Remember, in most cases, your critic is only trying to help you.
Despite the initial sting, you need honest feedback to become a better designer. This is especially important for enthusiasts or beginners in the trade. All visual arts have an intrinsic reward mechanism: the more you create, the more you sense the progression of your skill. It’s a loop that keeps all artists going, and when this euphoric moment is crushed by accurate and much-needed criticism, recovering may be difficult. Keep in mind, though, that your skill and perceptiveness in this field will mature over time. If you have the right attitude to begin with, the proper response will follow.
4. Separate Wheat From The Chaff
Unfortunately, not all criticism is constructive. Some people are in a bad mood, bitter or just plain negative and will take any chance to put others down. Some are also inexperienced or unqualified to give you valuable feedback. While design is subjective, being able to separate useful feedback from cheap shots and misinformation is important. However, this is not an excuse to ignore comments that you don’t like. Unless you believe a critique was given in malice or ignorance, don’t be quick to dismiss it.
Here are a few tips to distinguish between 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 examples of useless criticism (if you get a lot of this, see #7 below).
- Actionable.. Constructive criticism should enable you to take immediate action. You should come away with a clearer idea of how to improve the concept and the path to follow.
- 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 one in this learning experience but by far the most important. 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 uncovers our blind spots, weaknesses that only others can see. When you’re confronted by criticism, don’t let the opportunity pass: write it down and do whatever it takes to change for the better.
If someone criticizes your copywriting skills, start with baby steps. Read a relevant 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.
6. Look For A New Idea
If you can’t learn anything new, look for a new idea. A different perspective gives you a chance to examine your work from a viewpoint that you would never have considered otherwise. Just as you get inspiration from a gallery or another talented designer, you can find ideas and inspiration in constructive criticism; seeing it just requires you to step back. Be curious, and approach the criticism objectively; it could be incredibly useful.
Criticism is sometimes the cold shower you need to wake up and hit the “Reset” button on a project. Remember, your work is based on your own preconceived notions of what the client wants, and you should always be open to the possibility that you have missed the mark. In the event that you do need to start over, discuss the objectives and expectations right away. Clarifying this information in the first place could have prevented a re-do altogether.
7. Dig Deeper When Necessary
At some point, everyone has received vague, unclear or unactionable feedback. It’s a part of life. Unfortunately, unless you take the initiative, this type of feedback is more or less useless to everyone involved. However, if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you may uncover things that 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 communication lines open and allow you to walk away with practical and concrete advice.
If you feel uncomfortable asking your critic for more detail, or if 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 that you need to move forward.
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8. Thank The Critic
Whether the criticism you receive is genuine or downright rude, make a point of saying “Thank you.” Thanking even your harshest critics can create a lasting impression, keep you humble and open the door to additional feedback in the future. Expressing gratitude will also make you feel better about the experience and help you alleviate any innate avoidance of feedback and criticism you may have. If you have followed the guidelines above and recognize the true value of the criticism you have received, saying “Thank you” shouldn’t be too difficult.
If you respect the person and their opinion, go one step further and develop a long-term mentoring relationship with them. Much like in the old days of craftsman and apprentice, an individual whose opinion you value and hold 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 help you continually improve.
Do you have a technique to share or a real-life example of criticism in action? Let us know!
Valuable feedback is great, but getting it is not always easy. Here are a handful of free online tools you can use to start getting feedback from peers and professionals today:
- Concept Feedback A free design feedback tool for designers, freelancers and marketers.
- Smashing Forum A simple but effective text-based feedback forum for designers.
- SitePoint Forum One of the largest forums for developers, offering website and content reviews.
- Web Design Forums Smashing Magazine presents some of the better Web design forums around.
- How to Accept Criticism with Grace and Appreciation (Zen Habits)
- 12 Ways to Manage Feedback (Six Revisions)
- How to Handle Criticism (Lifehack)
- 7 Effective Ways to Deal with Criticism (Lifehack)
- How to Deal With Criticism and Get Something Good Out of It (Wiki How)