Design Criticism: How to Respond and Use It Constructively

Design Criticism

“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” — Norman Vincent Peale

For any artist, criticism is a necessary part of the career path. This can be a double-edged sword. Listening too much to criticism on something that’s essentially subjective can negatively affect the process. On the other hand, not considering criticism can be detrimental to the finished piece. Graphic design, fine arts, writing, and other forms of artistic expression will often receive a great amount of critique during the creative process. Often, the critics only get louder when a work is completed.

If you’re going to work in a creative field, you need to understand the positive aspects of criticism. You also need to develop a productive way to use it and respond to it professionally. An artist who shoots off a snarky response to an editor or publisher isn’t doing themselves any favors. A graphic designer who responds unprofessionally to a client is liable to lose that project and subsequent work.

Aside from the possible negative ramifications of an unprofessional response, there is a more important reason to listen to criticism: It will often result in a much stronger finished project. Criticism can be the hardest thing to master — both giving and receiving it. For a designer, it’s also an intricate part of the career path, which makes it an essential tool.

The Art of Receiving Criticism

The most intelligent people understand that there’s always more to learn. A lot of beginners have a much harder time receiving criticism. This might be partially because they don’t have a lot of practice with it. Taking and using criticism constructively is a learned skill, while not taking criticism well is the byproduct of a lack of confidence.

When you reach a stage where you’re secure in your talent, ability, and work, it becomes easier to take feedback without viewing it as a personal attack. Often the problem in taking criticism is that it’s received as negative, rather than an opportunity to view the work through someone else’s eyes and improve it.

Design is often subjective. There are techniques in design that are best practices. Depending on the type of design you’re working on, there will be aspects that have set parameters or specifications that make the product or piece work effectively. When you’re asking for or receiving critique, all the aspects of your design might be brought forward and remarked on.

Criticism should be a good opportunity to improve your communication and relationship skills. Sometimes the person giving you a critique, your relationship with them, and the way they communicate their criticism will influence your reaction. There are always two people involved in a critique. You’re responsible for your contribution to the conversation, but you can’t control the other party’s views or the way that they convey them. The only thing you can control is the way you respond. Always strive to approach these conversations constructively and professionally — whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of the criticism.

Critique is a part of the process when working with colleagues and clients. The following tips can help you use others’ critiques to strengthen your work and build better relationships:

Never Respond Without Thinking It Through

There’s a rule about responding to rejection that you should never send an email back right away. If you write a response, save it — and don’t allow yourself to send it until you’ve read it the next day. The cooling-off period gives you a lot of clarity, and you often won’t send that email at all. The same thing applies to criticism. Let the critique sink in and don’t let your emotions respond for you. After careful consideration, you might find that the critique has value. Even if you feel it doesn’t have a ton of value, try finding a compromise rather than an argument.

Collaboration Means Compromise

In artistic works, it can be exceptionally difficult to relinquish control. If your design project is part of a team effort, it’s important that you know how to pick your battles. There may be some aspects of a design that you should fight for, but don’t get so stubborn that you’re unwilling to hear another team member’s ideas.

Your Work Is Not an Extension of You

Design can feel very personal, but critiques of your work are not. You should never take criticism as a personal attack (even in the rare case that it’s meant as one). If you’re taking criticism personally, take a step back. Once you’re calmer, look at the critique again to see if it has any merit.

The Client Is Always Right

Working for a client requires balance. You are the design expert, but your work reflects their company, brand, or personal needs. In design, clients can have very strong opinions about how the finished project should look and feel, but they don’t necessarily understand anything about design itself. It’s your job as their professional to counsel them on the elements of design while taking their preferences into consideration. It’s important that you recognize the final piece is more personal to them than it is to you, even though you designed it.

Providing Constructive Criticism

As a design professional, you will have as much occasion to give criticism as receive it. This process often starts in school. You will undoubtedly have critiques from your teachers, but you’ll also have the opportunity to critique professional works for assignments and other students’ work. This is not just a school exercise to help you learn more about design — it helps prepare you for a world where criticism is a regular part of your career requirements. You’ll be in positions where you need to offer critiques to colleagues, team members, those who you work for, and those who work under you.

Offering criticism can be difficult. It’s an important skill to master because you don’t want to damage relationships based on negative communications. As you likely know from your own critique-receiving experience, many people don’t like receiving criticism. Your job is to communicate the issues you see that will help strengthen the work in a way that is diplomatic and without judgment.

These tips can help you communicate critiques in a professional way:

Only Offer Critique When Needed or Asked For

This is a major key. If you’re not involved in a project and the designer did not ask for your feedback, don’t give it. Unsolicited advice is rarely appreciated. The possible caveat to this advice comes once you’ve reached a high level of expertise. Many newer designers would love the chance to get feedback from someone in the field that they respect and admire. Even in those cases, ask if you can make a suggestion, rather than just criticizing.

Highlight Positive Attributes, and Points to Improve

Critique is taken much better when the person receives some encouragement along with the suggested changes. If you see things you really like in the design, make sure you point those out and not only the weak points.

Take the Designer out of the Work

You don’t want to critique work by pointing out what the designer did or did not do. It’s a lazy and easy pattern of speech, but it also makes the listener more likely to take the criticism personally. Instead, simply point out aspects of the design that work or don’t work for you and explain why.

Always Maintain a Professional or Friendly Tone

It should go without saying, but the tone of your critique has a lot to do with how it’s received. This is especially important in written communication where it can be difficult to catch tone.

Throughout your career, you’ll receive both solicited and unsolicited criticism. It’s part of the design industry. If you learn how to weigh the feedback to determine how useful it is, this can be a powerful tool to help you evolve as a designer. No one creates out of a vacuum. The ability to take and give critique is an essential tool that makes a good designer far better.