“A good designer understands that part of their role is to teach the next generation.” —Mike Monteiro
Graphic design’s one of those fields everyone thinks they can do. …And a lot of them are right: there’s no universal standard for who should be allowed to practice design and what makes their work acceptable. That’s a good thing, in my opinion: it leaves it up to the designer and the client to come to an agreement on what works for them, with no formalities getting in the way. But it leaves us with another question: what makes a good designer?
In my opinion, it’s the ability to give and take criticism. “Not training?” You might ask. “Not even hard work?” Don’t get me wrong, those are crucial, but in isolation, what do they mean? There are people who go to school for graphic design, then never use what they learned. There are others who work for years but never improve, churning out the same quality work all their lives.
Design exists to be seen and used by other people, so the ability to take those other people’s feedback and use it to improve, then to learn your field well enough to teach it to others, is the real test of your skills.
It’s something you can only learn through experience, but here are some tips:
The first thing you should do, before your likes and dislikes even enter the picture, is look at the design’s purpose.
Helping the designer reach their goals is more important than your tastes. To use an exaggerated example, if they’re designing an app logo, it doesn’t matter that you like wood textures and retro fonts, you should be guiding them towards flat design and sans serifs… Assuming that’s what fits the company’s brand. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not saying you should never consider your personal tastes, but keep them in perspective, and only apply them if you think they’ll move the project closer to what the client needs, too.
When it’s time to give advice, “actionable” is the name of the game. The more you can focus on concrete actions the recipient should take, the better. And try to make it as specific as possible. When you know something’s off about a piece, but can’t put your finger on it, try to avoid offering wishy-washy suggestions like “try experimenting with the color” or “see if any other fonts work.” It’ll probably be ignored, since they’ve already experimented with the fonts and colors to come up with a design that was best they could do at the time. …Which is why they’re asking for your advice in the first place.
In fact, if you can straight up show them how it’s done, that might be more helpful than anything you can tell them. In online drawing critiques, there’s a common practice called “redlining” where a critic will download an image with bad anatomy or proportion mistakes and draw over it in red.
Some of the most helpful criticism I’ve seen does this. Take this Redditor whose three-minute sketch of how an amateur’s logo should have looked was far more effective than his last attempt to explain it in text.
If you can say anything positive about their work, do. As much as possible. This is especially true for amateurs: making them feel like what they’re doing is worthwhile, and that the obstacles aren’t so big that they should just give up, will make them more motivated to implement the changes you suggest.
And if you can’t? I’ve been caught in situations where I simply didn’t have anything nice to say about something I was asked to critique. It just stank, and I searched for a redeeming quality but couldn’t find one. In those cases, what I did was try not to mention my opinion on it at all, and instead tell them what they needed to do. The point was always to give them hope that if they took this action, they could be a better artist, not to tell them that their work was crap.
What is bad criticism? In my opinion, only two things:
- When you tell them to quit.
- Insults with no suggestions on how to improve.
I used to run a drawing club. We had one member who was proud of his harshness when it came to criticizing people, and loved that when dealing with less experienced artists, his word was law because he had more experience. “You can tell them ‘your work is terrible and you should stop drawing,’” he would brag, “and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
I don’t talk to that guy anymore. Don’t be that guy.
On the converse of the advice from the first section, you’ll need to learn how to distinguish between criticism that will progress you towards your goals and criticism that won’t. Note that I didn’t say “good and bad criticism.” I’m still of the opinion that criticism is never a bad thing unless it falls into one of those two categories. But some criticism will get you closer to what you’re trying to accomplish, where some will only make your work more like that the critic wants it to be, not you or your client, and although you shouldn’t dismiss anyone’s opinion on your work as being just “dumb,” you have the right to consider it, decide whether it’ll advance you towards your goal, and decline to follow it if it doesn’t.
But the “consider it” part is extremely important.
First, give it some distance. Despite the image of the prima donna artist, the reason we have trouble accepting critique is often just burnout. It’s not that you think your work is perfect, it’s that you’ve pulled two all-nighters this week working on it, it’s already run wildly off its timeline, and if you have to spend one more minute comparing two nearly-identical header fonts, you’re going to jump off a bridge. So, instead of accepting any criticism that would force you to sink more time into fixing it, your first instinct is to believe it’s fine the way it is, preventing you from having to spend any more time fixing it.
Ironically, though, this is when you need criticism the most, because people with fresh eyes will see the forest you missed while you were manicuring the trees. This is why, when responding to critics, always make sure to be as polite as possible, no matter how vehemently you disagree with their suggestions. If you think you have to refute them (you don’t), take a moment of silence if it’s in real life, or a day if it’s online, before you try to explain to them what they misunderstood.
And whether the crit you get is good or bad, get a second opinion. If you can build a consensus as to the best and worst parts of the design, that will help identify how most people are likely to react to it when you release it.
How do you give criticism? And how good are you at taking it? Leave us a comment.