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How to provide more thoughtful criticism
If you or someone you know have ever felt like this after receiving feedback, keep reading.
Being a designer* is not always easy. While you get to solve problems and exercise your creativity, you do need to have thick skin. Doing design work means you have to constantly receive feedback, and adjust your course of action based on it. And it’s the receiving part that can make or break your day.
Rationally, you know you shouldn’t be taking it personally. Criticism of your work doesn’t mean criticism of you; you’re not your ideas or your products. Sure. That’s all nice in theory. But in practice, when you get comments that demolish weeks’ worth of effort, it may take you a while to digest them calmly. I sometimes need from a few hours to a few days to completely detach my emotions from the process.
So what can we do about this?
I’m not going to suggest you meditate or go for a walk to react to feedback better. This is not that kind of letter. Instead, I want to flip it around. Let’s talk about three ways you can provide better feedback. If we all make an effort to be better feedback givers, it may in turn make the life of a few designers easier as well.
*Your title may not include the word designer in it. Perhaps you’re an analyst, a developer, or a project manager. But as long as you create and read charts, there’s a design aspect to your work.
I used to give public speaking workshops to kids and teenagers where each speech activity was followed by a feedback session. We had one rule though: positive comments first, suggestions second. When someone is speaking in front of an audience, it’s damn scary, to begin with, so you want to show your support before you start suggesting improvements. The same can be applied to design.
We give feedback to improve each other’s work. We all know that. The goal is to come out of the iteration process with a robust, beautiful, and valuable product—be it a chart, a website, or a mural. But in the midst of that cycle of iteration and improvement, don't forget to also mention what you do like. Perhaps the creative direction of the project is good yet a few adjustments are needed to make it more playful. Perhaps you like the chosen chart type but the annotations could be clearer. Whatever it is, don’t forget to mention the positives for a balanced feedback session.
What’s the worst kind of feedback? For me, it’s probably the vague type. When you receive comments that don’t seem to be directly related to the project at hand, that’s when your insecure inner voices wake up. It can feel like criticism of your wider practice and skill set. I know I need to continuously work on silencing those voices (if you don’t, message me, I want to know your secret!).
So next time you give feedback, try to be as specific as possible. Avoid comments like “this needs more creativity” or “this should be redesigned”. These types of comments run the risk of being taken personally, and, most importantly, are not actionable at all. See if you can be more to the point: “I’m not sure this chart works because it doesn’t highlight the outlier enough”, “The colour contrast may need to be checked for accessibility”, etc. Turn your comments into actionable insights for the designer, and explain your reasoning.
Alain de Botton keeps reminding us that even though we play the role of adults, there’s a fragile child deep down inside each of us. While the idea may sound like a bit of a stretch for the work environment, I think it’s nice to keep that in mind when we give feedback. Sometimes we focus so much on the task at hand that we forget an actual human being will be listening to our comments.
So stop for a second and think about the person you’re addressing the criticism to. Can you reframe it in a way that is kind and respectful? Is there a different tone you can employ in lieu of sentences like “this must be done” or “I don’t like this”? I don’t mean that you should sugarcoat your feedback such as to make it less effective. Do keep it direct. But also remember to be kind.
What are your best tips to give constructive yet friendly feedback? Let us know in the comments!
As always, thanks for reading The Plot. 💛
See you next week,
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Lessons from the screenplay. If you’re into storytelling, you’ll love this YouTube channel. It’s full of insightful analyses of how the world’s best screenwriters do their magic. I binge-watched half of the videos on the channel in a single day, that’s how good they were!