Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
Smashing Conf San Francisco

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. upcoming SmashingConf San Francisco, dedicated to smart front-end techniques and design patterns.

How To Respond Effectively To Design Criticism

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.

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.

How to Respond Effectively to Design Criticism

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 Link

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 Link

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.

Clarity of Purpose

3. Check Your First Reaction Link

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 Link

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 Link

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.

Learn from It

6. Look For A New Idea Link

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 Link

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.

Dig Deeper When Necessary

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.

8. Thank The Critic Link

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!

Further Resources Link

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 Feedback1
    A free design feedback tool for designers, freelancers and marketers.
  • Smashing Forum2
    A simple but effective text-based feedback forum for designers.
  • SitePoint Forum3
    One of the largest forums for developers, offering website and content reviews.
  • Web Design Forums4
    Smashing Magazine presents some of the better Web design forums around.

Even more forums:

  • Your Design Forums
  • Freelance Switch
  • Web Pro World
  • All Graphic Design
  • Estetica Design
  • PHP Freaks
  • Graphic Design Forum5

More reading:


Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook


Andrew is the founder of Concept Feedback, a website feedback community for online professionals specializing in web design, usability and strategy. He also runs an explainer video service called Demo Duck as well as Video Brewery, a business video company.

  1. 1

    Great tips!

    There is a big difference between “constructive feedback” and “criticism”, I just wish that people knew what it was.

  2. 2

    great article! criticism is necessary and helps make things better. I find myself getting very frustrated, though, when the client wants things that just look bad or tacky; I don’t want to put my name on something sub-par.

  3. 3

    #7 is definitely the one I run into the most. The best is when people don’t like the color, but don’t suggest a different option. Sometimes I feel like they think there is some undiscovered color that we could be using.

  4. 4

    I think the most important part is not to take that criticism as a personal attack, and deal with it with some wisdom.

  5. 5

    one of the hardest things i find working in a blue chip corporate environment, but honestly the more constructive criticism you take and work with it, the better designer you will become!

  6. 6

    Ow boy. This sounds just like me… I have a hard time receiving negative responses from my designs. Although my emlpoyer is one of those that gives me useless critics which I have a hard time working with. As a designer you really want to know what wrong, and not hear somthing like: “That logo sucks” or “I don”t like the design”. In all of those cases it’s back to the drawingboard, back to the beginning…
    So numbers 7 is for me to work on… This article is a true life saver…

    Many thanks for sharing

  7. 7

    FrontPage Blogsome

    October 1, 2009 3:34 am

    Thanks Andrew. Sometime the first respon is to strike back his design, or even in ad-hominem tone. But the positive respond usually freshen our feeling and creativity. So, yes, “thank to critic.”

  8. 8

    Nice article, love the illustrations!

  9. 9

    Great reminder, all the time I had a bad critic, I’ve ended up designing something that I was really proud of. Most of these pieces are in my portfolio now! Criticism is good.

  10. 10

    I’ve always been able to take and give criticism well, without being too vague or subjective (though there’s always subjectivity in design criticism). One thing that does bug me, however, is when people are lying or telling a white lie to make a new designer feel better. It’s better to be one hundred per cent truthful to make somebody improve, rather than lie and let them carry on with something that is downright vile, and I’m sure many of you agree with me.

    A really nice article there, I even start a thread over at the Web Designer Forum asking people to criticise themselves.

  11. 11

    I would love to work in a company where my boss actually knew what he was talking about. I crave critisim and always welcomed it in uni when meeting with my design lectures, but working for someone who is more clueless than my left foot grinds me down!

    • 12

      That`s true Paul. I`ve been through this many times. By means of not letting my capacity and even my motivation to get killed, and on the other hand not killing my boss, i left and went find somewhere else to work. Best thing i did.

  12. 13

    I know how hard is to get bad feedbacks from our clients/bosses because that happens all the time.

    Sometimes you get paid not to really design, but to draw and format those elements according and stricktly to the boss/client´s point of view, and that my friend, is the saddest day of work.

    However, criticism is always good, so it makes you come down to Earth and realise that those infinite hours you worked are worth or not. If not, then you realise that the one who´s needing to change is you. Sometimes criticism comes in a rewarding way, i guess, most of the time though.

  13. 14

    Love this article. I posted a link to it on a graphic design forum i peruse. I also included a tiny snippet to entice people to visit this page.

    It really is a learning tool. Don’t ignore it, a sponge and absorb it…if you don’t act on something now, it may come back to you when you feel a design isn’t there and that critique before will help.

  14. 15

    Michiel Ebberink

    October 1, 2009 5:17 am

    Really bad criticism, I noticed that I don’t get it too often anymore, but don’t get me wrong I had my share. Sometimes I still do get a good load of criticism. The worst design processes are the ones without any criticism.

  15. 16

    I really helps me to have a boss that will rip apart my designs if need be. It was hard to take at first, but it gives you the freedom to try new ideas. You know if it sucks, it will never make it out the door…

    Andrew is right, it would be much harder to grow without someone to challenge your designs.

  16. 17

    Martin Bentley Krebs

    October 1, 2009 5:51 am

    “Constructive” is a key word when it comes to criticism, but the reality is that sometimes we get opinions from someone who is barely qualified to give an assessment. So be it! Whether they’re qualified or not to render an opinion is not the point; sometimes, we are charged with executing to the wishes of the “internal client” first, then the external client second.

    The best lesson I ever learned over the years was to separate the issue from the tissue—who I am is SO much more than what I do.

    Great article!

  17. 18

    When in college I had a prof in our video classes that would bring your work up in front of everyone and tear it apart. He tore into mine one time and I never forgot it, so when I shot I made sure I took into perspective everything he said and it made me a better shooter. He was really tough on people and those that rose up he kept pushing. I was one of the only people he wrote a letter of recommendation for in the end.

    I just sat through a session Monday with clients and their print designer and had a session similar to all this. I had to defend a few things since print and web design look at different things, but the elements I have added have made my stuff better.

    Criticism is just part of this business and so few people can take it whether its nicely given or shoved down your throat you need to accept it, and smile.

  18. 19

    def something i need to work on .. ha. thanks SMASH!

  19. 20

    Great article… I definitely know some people who should give this a read.
    Being able to accept criticism is important to a designer, but almost as important is being able to defend your design decisions. I find that outside of creative fields many times people just ‘don’t get it’ until you explain it to them. The subtleties of symbolism and metaphors are sometimes lost on those lacking a background or passion for art.

  20. 21

    I think as many have already said, its sometimes difficult taking criticism from people you think aren’t qualified to give it. A bitter pill to swallow when you know your idea is a winner.

    But yes I have been taken down different routes and from that the final product has benefited from the initial criticism. Yet many a time that criticism and client led projects have ended in a less than effective design at best.

    Many a time I try to explain to clients not to try and personalize their website and look at it through their customers eyes instead. This usually provides common ground to take things forward and get them on side with the initial drafts.

    Yet I would disagree with the above post, no criticism means I get the project billed and paid quicker, no one can argue with that.

    Great article, as always.


↑ Back to top