The thoughts and musings of a strange breed of techy and artist.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Criticism is your friend

I have, in the past, taken professional criticism poorly. I was very quick to become defensive when someone provided feedback about my design work. I think that this is common for designers with a little less experience and a lot to prove. Over time, I have learned that this is a detriment to both my business relationships and my personal and career growth. It's ok to defend your design, but it's not ok to be defensive about it.

I still sometimes have the urge (and occasionally even act on it) to immediately jump to the defense of a design without thinking. This might happen particularly when, for some reason, I do not give due respect to the source of the critique. It might be that I think that the person providing the feedback has bad taste, a poor since of usability, is out of their realm of expertise, or just plain doesn't like me. It's even more likely that I'm just too in love with my design to consider its flaws. Does this mean that I should just instantly disregard what they have to say? That might be my first inclination, but if I really dig deeper, I might actually learn something and improve my skills in the long run. And let me tell you from experience... it's much more difficult to go back and say, "You know... when you gave that criticism three days ago and I bit your head off for it? You actually had a point..." than it is to force yourself to step back and consider it immediately before responding so inappropriately.

I think that a designer's ability to take criticism and effectively use it to improve their work is a clear sign of their maturity in the field. When interviewing design candidates, I often ask questions targeted at this subject specifically. I want to know that they can take criticism without getting defensive, but also that they know enough to analyse it beyond the words.

For any good designer, there is often a reason behind just about everything - from the color palette usage to the button placements. These might be consciously considered during the design phase or they might be intuitive. I personally tend to be a more intuitive designer. So, my subconscious had a reason for doing what it did, but I might never have consciously thought about it. In this case, if I jump to defend my design against criticism without giving it some thought first, I might completely miss the point and thereby render my arguments useless.

Every single piece of criticism received, no matter the source, should be considered as objectively as possible. Does this mean 'design by committee' is a good thing? Absolutely not! I agree with everyone out there - this is a bad practice. However, if you consider the *reason* for the criticism as opposed to taking it at face value, you might be able to improve what you've done.

Here are a few rules that I try to enforce on myself when handling criticism:

1. Don't take it personally.
It is definitely hard sometimes, but this is the first step to avoiding a defensive response. Even if the comment is made in a derogatory manner, try to consider it objectively. It's not about you.

2. Try to separate the comment completely from the person who provided it.
Not that a person's perspective and motives shouldn't be considered, but that will come later. It might be best to try to analyze the comment without the baggage. This will help to make sure that you're not dismissing a comment out of hand because you believe that it is unworthy of your consideration. There is no comment that is unworthy of consideration - even if it's provided by someone without experience in the subject.

3. Look beyond the words.
Did someone say that they thought the border should be purple instead of orange? Don't just say, "Ok" and change the border to purple, but try to consider why they said it. Is the orange border distracting their eye away from the more important content? Is there an imbalance in the color palette such that there is simply too much orange in the design? Maybe it's really as simple as the person thinks purple would make a better border color, but I find that to rarely be the case. And taking the time to think about other possible interpretations of the comment may help you to find other areas for improvement.

4. Consider a different perspective.
Everyone is looking at their work through the veil of their own preferences, experiences, and expectations. You might see it differently if you can look at it through someone else's veil. Try to consider where they're coming from and place yourself inside that mental model to view the design differently.

5. Defend your design where it bears defending.
Was there a good reason for doing what you did? Great! Explain it. Say someone wants you to move the button from the lower left part of the screen to the upper right. Maybe having it on the lower left is consistent with all of the other screens on the website. Maybe it's a usability concern. Try to articulate what you may have done by pure intuition. And if you didn't have a good enough reason or their idea is simply better than yours, accept it and move on.

6. All criticism is good criticism, but it's not all valid.
If, after going through the due diligence of considering the comment from every different direction possible (and asking follow-up questions to try to understand it better), you judge that it's invalid, let it go (if you can). Did that person want a purple border just because it's their favorite color, but it would upset the branding and throw off the balance of the design if it was implemented? This is where we can avoid the 'design by committee' issue. The designer *should* have the final say (or maybe an Art Director, depending on the project structure). But what if the person who wanted the purple border is the one writing your paycheck? Well, you might first try explaining why the purple border is a bad idea, but you might have to implement it anyway.

7. Be confident.
Just because you don't always achieve the 'perfect' design out of the gate doesn't make you a bad designer. I think that what really makes a good designer is someone who can communicate, listen, and analyse all aspects of both the design challenge and the criticism to create the best final result. I will personally continue to strive to be a good designer in this context.


Eric said...

Interesting post, Teresa. These are all excellent suggestions.

For number 7, I would add the corollary, "but don't get cocky". Sometimes when you get on a roll and are wowing client after client with the first comp presentation, you can start to believe the hype. "Wow, I really *am* a design rock star."

It can be that much more disheartening when you finally do miss the mark and realize that sometimes good design takes multiple, sometimes frustrating, "failures" to get right. I think the latter tends to happen when the client doesn't really know what they want and we haven't done enough prior to the visual design phase to get consensus.

I'm going through this right now, if you hadn't guessed ;)

techsavvydesigner said...

Quinn also made a good point - that you should analyze *positive* criticism as much as you do the negative. There are a lot of people out there who were taught "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."