Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have been subject to criticism for any damn work and couldn’t arouse your critic’s attention on a rather special project of yours?
Regardless of where you work or who you work for, taking criticism is part of the job. Sometimes comments demand a response. Other times, ignoring them is better. Determining when and how to respond to negative comments is something that every individual and organization wrestles with.
Despite its negative associations, criticism can be an excellent opportunity to grow—but before you can respond effectively, you need to recognize the opportunities. One certainly experiences criticism in the field of design as well, and we put this article together to talk about how to effectively handle criticism on the social web.
To criticize is to analyze the negative and positive aspects of a subject from various points of view, to pass judgment on something or somebody by way of personal interpretation. In a narrow sense, criticism highlights the negative. Criticism is unpleasant for most people because they don’t want to be held in low esteem by others, nor do they want to be embarrassed.
Yet criticism is an essential part of work and study. If no one was corrected or evaluated or there was no debate or discussion to establish relevant facts, would anyone really learn? Whether you participate in social media (blogs, Twitter, etc.), it’s only a matter of time before someone criticizes something you’ve said.
Criticism is extraordinarily helpful and, at the same time, can be extraordinarily destructive. It depends where it comes from. We have probably all come across individuals who criticize everything and everybody, for example. Their constant stream of criticism probably comes from a need to assert their sense of superiority, which actually indicates feelings of inferiority or insecurity.
All of us have been criticized, sometimes unfairly, and we have all criticized others. When it comes to giving criticism, some of us are tight-lipped while others are outspoken, and some are more effective critics than others.
We can categorize criticism as being either constructive or negative. What is the difference?
Negative criticism involves putting down or disrespecting the subject. It can arise out of jealousy, prejudice or ignorance—though sometimes it is motivated by good intentions. Negative criticism points out problems (sometimes obvious ones) but offers no solution.
Constructive criticism is more effective and more pleasant. It involves offering feedback, both positive and negative. With constructive criticism, you offer assistance to an individual by giving them feedback about possible improvements and apparent problems. This is important for both amateurs and veterans in a trade.
What’s more, giving constructive criticism can help establish your credibility and expertise, because the people who benefit from it will likely credit you in some way for their success. Constructive criticism can also keep feelings from being hurt by focusing on successes and possible improvements while avoiding personal attacks and degradation.
Digital and online media is overtaking traditional media. Public criticism was once limited to newspapers, television, radio, industrial communication and social interaction. Today, the Internet has the furthest reach and widest audience; social-networking forums (such as Twitter, Avaaz, etc.), personal and corporate blogs and email blasts are the most common ways to spread criticism.
Being able to take criticism, whether from a reader or a client, is a part of every job. 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.”
Many of us take pride in the ability to brush criticism off and move on, but by doing so we might miss opportunities to grow and learn. Let’s talk about how to receive constructive criticism:
Doing what you do well is easy, but it’s equally true that bad habits are hard to break. Criticism gives you vital insight into your work, showing you things you otherwise might not see.
Take pride in challenges
Feedback on any aspect of your work challenges you to become a better designer as a whole. Rather than settle with your own standards, you are pushed to take your work to another level—one that will be more appreciated by all.
Develop communication skills
Dealing with a critic can dramatically improve the way you communicate—an essential skill for a successful design career.
Constructive criticism often shows you that you need to learn a new design skill or technique. Self-motivation is great, but everyone could use a hand from time to time.
This is one of the prerequisites of a successful design career. Criticism can bruise the ego, but it keeps you grounded, which makes you easy to work with and open to learning from others.
Every day, I get encouraging emails, and this is what motivates me and sustains my blogging—but I also get negative comments fairly often. People criticize my writing, and they’re not necessarily nice about it.
How do you deal with negative criticism? The first reaction, for most of us, is to defend ourselves—or worse, to lash back. Here are a few alternatives.
Design is subjective and, like all art forms, has no rulebook. No one can prove that your work is “right” or “wrong”, but that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore other opinions.
Everyone looks at design from a personal perspective. You might have a degree in web design and years of experience, but not everyone will agree with your opinion—so don’t expect them to. The important thing is to have a positive attitude and be open to new perspectives. Realign your expectations and understand that criticism is part of the process.
Last but not least, try not to view criticism as a personal attack. This is easier said than done, but the distinction is the key to responding effectively. If you can rise above an attack or a negative tone and respond calmly, then you will earn the admiration of your critic and feel good doing it.
Figure out what the client is looking for before offering a mock-up, and create a finished and precise design before publicizing your work. Is the design meant to address certain problems? Or is its purpose to demonstrate design practices to a friend with little experience? To respond effectively to criticism, you need to be sure that the critic understands your goals and the goals of the project. Be specific and precise. Present your objectives in clear and concise terms; this way, all the criticism you receive will be focused and actionable.
If your first reaction to criticism is to lash back or become defensive, then take a deep breath and give it some thought.
Personally, I tend to get angry when I’m criticized, but I have trained myself not to react right away. For example, I’ll let a critical email sit in my inbox for at least an hour before I reply, or I’ll walk away from a situation instead of saying something I might regret later. 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. The visual arts have an intrinsic reward mechanism: the more you create, the more you progress in your skill. Keep in mind that your skill and perceptiveness will mature over time. If you cultivate the right attitude, the proper response will come naturally.
One of the keys to my success—and I use it for everything I do—is the ability to look at the positive side of things that most people would perceive as negative.
You can do this with criticism. In most critical commentary one can be found a nugget of gold—that is, honest feedback and a suggestion for improvement.
The person might just be having a bad day and is taking it out on you, or they might be inexperienced or unqualified to give you valuable feedback, but most often there’s at least a grain of truth in every critical remark. See it as an opportunity to improve. Improvement is a good thing: without it, we are just sitting still.
Yes, design is subjective, but being able to separate useful feedback from cheap shots and misinformation is important. This is not, however, an excuse to ignore comments that you don’t like. Unless you believe a critique was made in malice or ignorance, don’t be quick to dismiss it.
What kind of criticism is useful?
Valuable feedback is always specific. It is clear, logical and defined. “The logo is ugly” or “I don’t like the choice of colors” are examples of useless criticism.
Constructive criticism should enable you to take remedial action. You should be given concrete ideas on how to go about improving a concept.
This step is the most difficult but by far the most important. For criticism to serve its purpose, you need to act on it, not just move on. Don’t go back to business as usual; make an effort to improve. The great thing about criticism is that it shows us our blind spots and weaknesses that only others can see. That’s difficult for some people to deal with because they think they’re always right, no matter what. But no one is always right.
Take baby steps. If someone criticizes your color choice, for example, then read relevant articles, blogs and reviews once a week. Buy a book. Practice. Gaining experience and maturing in the process is key. A series of small victories is often the fastest way to success. Eventually you will improve, and you’ll have your critics to thank.
If you think you can’t learn anything new from a piece of criticism, keep looking for the value in it. Another individual’s perspective allows you to examine your work from a viewpoint that you never would have considered otherwise. Just as you can get inspired by an art gallery or the work of another talented designer, you can find inspiration in constructive criticism. Be curious, and approach the criticism objectively; it could be incredibly useful.
At some point, everyone has received vague, ambiguous or unactionable feedback. If you do, try to uncover the things that no one else seems 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. This kind of question is part of a healthy flow of communication, and you’ll walk away with practical and concrete advice.
Make a point of saying “Thank you,” whether the criticism is constructive or downright rude. This can leave a lasting impression on even your worst critics, and it will keep you humble and open the door to additional feedback in the future. If you see any value in the criticism you receive, then saying “thank you” shouldn’t be too difficult.
My habit of thanking critics has actually won a few of them over; they eventually became friends of mine, all because of the simple act of thanks. It’s unexpected and often appreciated.
People who are new to the web won’t be used to getting truly honest feedback or participating in raw online conversations.
Those of us who have been around since the early days of the Internet still feel a sense of freedom, of being unrestricted. The originals continue to drive the web’s rawest conversations and discuss the true nature of the social web.
My point is that online conversations, by default, are honest, real and critical, and you need to grow a thick skin. Don’t take things emotionally or personally.
You are unique, and you might be publishing content that’s interesting and has personality, which means it will be interpreted in many ways by others; some people will love it, some will hate it. That’s the nature of the business.
Reacting to criticism the wrong way makes you seem guilty and unsure. If you react calmly and rationally, though, audiences will want to read and follow you, and those followers will likely link to your conversations. An impulsive and emotional rebuttal almost always makes you look worse than a measured and logical response.
Sometimes the best move is no move at all. Depending on the situation and your strategy, you might intentionally be irrational about a subject or publish incorrect information. Maybe you’re being controversial to get links and attention. In that case, you might not need to respond to the critics because outcry was the objective.
If you publish industry-specific content without citing sources, don’t be surprised if people pick apart your ideas. This isn’t personal; you’re spreading misinformation about something that a group is passionate about, and they will challenge you on your sources. Publication does not make statistics and declarations truthful. Look into the sources and sample sizes of your data; if they’re not legitimate or defensible, and you publish the data, of course you will get flamed by industry insiders.
Popularity and criticism are directly proportional in nearly all fields. Think about music: those who are passionate about music are inevitably critical about popular music that follows formulas, takes no risks or has cheesy shallow lyrics. Similarly, movie buffs rip most blockbusters apart. The inner circle is usually unimpressed by popular products because they’re overdone. The more popular something is, the more critical the reactions will be.
If you reach the point where others are reacting to your content with criticism, consider yourself successful. That you are being talked about at all is a positive sign, even if it does not seem that way initially. Media outlets have known this for years and, by accepting it, have developed pretty thick skins. They don’t take criticism personally; rather, they quietly (and sometimes loudly) leverage it to increase their exposure.
Each of us in the field of web design needs to anticipate how others will react to our ideas before we publish them. At no point should you take critical responses personally. Learn from them, but don’t get emotional; it won’t get you anywhere. It’s not a productive use of time and will drain your energy and motivation more than encourage or help you.
While compiling this list, it’s always a possibility that we missed some other great tips. Feel free to share it with us.