Getting Critiqued

As an art major in college, it is a regular occurance to have your peers critique your work in 3 hour long sessions that are creatively called ‘critiques.’ I quickly learned to dread them.

At first, they were horrible. I was attempting to translate all of the wild stuff in my brain, heart, and soul into a physical medium that people could consume. Often unsucessfully as I was not a great or talented artist. I would walk into a critique with a varied mix of pride and shame. I knew the three things I did well. I was aware of the 200,000 things I got wrong. Creatives are their own worst critics, but that doesn’t always take the sting out of hearing the negative things someone else has to say.

Even if that exact feedback is something you’ve thought about. Many times.

The process of a critique was often similar: You put up your work or brought a class to your installation. Then people critique it for 20-30 minutes. You never get to say anything or defend your work at all. No explanation of your process or what you were trying to accomplish. Just raw feedback. People took what they saw and told you what they thought. As you might imagine, it was hard to work on something you cared about that much and then have people tear it apart. It’s hard not to feel like they are in some ways, tearing you apart. 18-22 year old kids are often not that great at structuring critical feedback in a constructive manner. But this lack of skill in no way slows them down from telling you what is on their mind.

Somewhere along the line, I don’t remember where really, I figured something out.

I figured out that the Beatles are in no way my favorite band. They aren’t even in the top 10 for me. But I still think it’s reasonable to consider them the greatest band in the history of the world (so far.)

I know some people who don’t like the Beatles at all. Just doesn’t do anything for them.

There are more than 7 billion people on the planet. And if I sit back and think about it, I’m guessing I could find 100 million people who honestly believe that the Beatles are horrible. Just plain awful at making music.

In truth, I could probably find more than 100 million. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I could find 500 million people who strongly dislike the musical stylings of Ringo, George, Paul, and John.

This was a liberating realization. I started to feel a lot more comfortable when people tore my work apart. Because I realized how I felt just didn’t matter. And what people said became more interesting. Some of it was good feedback that was well thought out. Some of it was bad feedback that wasn’t well thought out. But I came to appreciate it all. I also learned that giving thoughtful actionable feedback is a skill that most people don’t posess. So when you do find someone who has this skill, you should ask them for feedback all the time.

Later in life, after graduating from school with a degree in getting my work torn apart, I became a designer.

I still sit through a lot of critiques. Sometimes in the form of pull requests, sometimes in the form of in person meetings. Sometimes in the form of reading things on twitter or hacker news or reddit or some other website that has enabled posting stuff and making comments on it.

These design critiques are easy now. When you’re an artist, I think it’s okay if your work isn’t about the user. For me art was always about my own process. And while I enjoyed people being able to consume it, making them feel something, was really never the goal.

But design is different. As a designer, I don’t matter. My work doesn’t matter. Nothing I make matters in the context of my process. It’s all about the people you are building for. You’re just trying to solve problems for people. Once you realize this, it’s the most liberating thing. Because every critique is valid. It doesn’t need to feel like your soul is being ripped apart. In the producing/consumption relationship - it is natural as a user to feel helpless. Like you have no power. The power is held by the people who build the products. This is a horrible feeling. And when people feel helpless, they often times give feedback that might seem harsh or mean. I think it’s my job as a designer to be empathetic to this. And remember, it’s not about me or the time I spent working on something.

It’s not always easy to hear negative things about your work. This is a natural human reaction. But those moments where my heart skips a beat, or I feel a pang of hurt in my heart from someones insensitive words I meditate on the Beatles. And if they aren’t perfect and loved by all, how could I expect that of myself.

None of our designs are likely to last forever. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve designed that don’t exist anymore. We’re just cogs in an evolutionary wheel , trying to make the world around us a little better. So don’t get too attached to any part of a design. Don’t fall in love with borders, gradients, a shade of blue, text on blurred photos, fancy animations, a certain typeface, flash, or music that autoplays. Just get attached to solving problems for people.

If you fall in love with that, critiques will become easy. Because you’ll start to see every piece of feedback as a clue to making things better. Some feedback will be bad and poorly thought out, some will be mean, some will be pure gold. And it’s your job to try and distill the gold from the dirt. But remember, the second you become a designer you have an obligation to not make it about you. You have an obligation to make it about the people using what you design.

These people might never thank you. They might never even think about you. But I still think it’s the best job. And that it’s all worth it.

Additional reading