Everyone’s a Critic

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

As designers, we’ve all had our designs criticized at some point. Whether it was a simple “I would like to see this changed here” to an all-out “I don’t like this at all,” we’ve all heard something about our designs that didn’t pan out the way we expected. I’ll use an analogy. Let’s imagine design as music. There’s pop music that’s going to fit a lot of people’s taste and make them happy, but there’s also indie folk and death metal that sits on the fringes and makes a niche set of people happy. No genre is better than the other but they serve different purposes and are never really going to satisfy everyone. Universal design is an ideal and not a 100% solution, but we’ll save that for another article. The fact is that design is not science and, while there are certainly principles and theoretical practice that improve designs, there’s virtually never one right answer. That’s why we’ve got to be able to accept the fact that our designs aren’t always going to be that 100% perfect solution for our clients. Here’s some tips to handling criticism of your designs.

1. Don’t take it personal.

This is a mistake I’ve made recently that I’ve learned from. Often times, there are many factors that play into a client not liking a design, it’s not typically that you are just a bad designer. Although, if you are getting really negative comments a lot then you might want to reevaluate your approach. Yet, most of their comments relate to other issues (budget, their intimate knowledge of users, etc.). The one thing designers must learn is that they are often not going to get a solution correct on the first try. Developers have to write code and then debug it for it to be correct. Similarly, designers have to iterate and evolve their designs to get them to where they need to be. It’s not you, it’s just the nature of the job.

2. Analyze the criticism.

Is the criticism justified or simply unnecessary? Who is it coming from? What exactly are they asking for? These are questions you should ask when your design is being criticized. If the criticism is justified then there’s no reason not to proceed with revisions. If you feel it is unnecessary then calmly try to elaborate further on the reason and purpose for the design you chose. This may not always win out, but it can’t hurt and it will also help the client to understand where you are coming from. Who the criticism came from is just as important because if you are familiar with your clients then you may be able to get a sense of the urgency of this criticism and how you can approach the iterated solution to make them happy. Knowing your clients is almost as important as knowing your users since they are the ones ultimately behind your paycheck. (Don’t take that to mean sacrifice the satisfaction of users for the satisfaction clients.) Try and figure out exactly what your client is asking for. If you don’t understand their criticism or requests then query them until you do understand it or you will have an arduous time trying to achieve their desired result. Be deliberate with your analysis of the criticism. It will help to cool heads and also to provide the necessary set of information to bring back a design iteration that really wows your clients.

Chicken Art Critic

3. Learn from it.

While your original design is not really a mistake per se, there are still things to be learned from it. It might just be learning the types of things your client is looking for and learning more about their likes and style. You could learn about a new design pattern that may fit the situation better. You could then use this knowledge in later designs. Look at criticism not as an opportunity to tear you down, but as an opportunity to build you up by expanding your knowledge. I’ve heard the saying “If you are not getting better then you are getting worse.” In situations such as these I believe that is true. You are either forgetting knowledge by sticking with one approach or you are improving your skills by learning new techniques and design approaches.

4. Use it.

This seems like a common sense tip because, well, it is. If you don’t use the criticism to go back and change your designs then the criticism was useless in the first place. You need to actually listen to what’s being said instead of just hearing that a change is needed. Now, if your client is failing at providing direction then it’s your job to try and draw it out of them. This isn’t always easy, but it’s your duty to shape that nebulous idea that the client is holding onto. Designs aren’t typically criticized for the purpose of someone hearing themself talk so you need to take what’s being said and go back, align it with established design principles, and produce something new based in both the criticism and best practices.

Criticism leads to growth.

Next time a client or coworker criticizes your design follow the tips above and you will come out a better designer. Remember, it’s not about you being wrong. It’s about producing a better product and, hopefully, a better designer in the process.

Justin Smith

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