The myth of constructive criticism?

You’ll have heard of the need for criticism to be constructive. Something like, “That’s no good because… but here’s how to make it better.”

The “feedback sandwich” is similar — “That part’s great, you need to work on this, but I like this, too.”

But just how necessary is criticism?

Imagine if the sole aim was to encourage, creating a progression in design learning by only commenting on the good, and purposely leaving the bad un-criticised.

Which of these two learning environments would be more effective for design teaching?

  1. one with a direct focus on the negative aspects of a designer’s work
  2. or one that’s 100% positive

The first option can potentially demoralise the designer, but at the same time, some see criticism a necessary tool used to help us improve. The second option teaches through positivity, and is likely to breed a student more open to exploring ideas, and less anxious about getting things wrong.

But all that said, we’ll face the inevitable time when a client simply doesn’t like our work, and it isn’t up to a client praise what we do, so will constructive criticism help us deal with clients more efficiently?

Just something I was thinking about.

56 responses

  1. Hi. I`ve been an artist since 1996 and a graphic designer since 2004 (plus experience as art director) and if you allow me, I`d like to share my opinion on the subject.
    Continualy not pointing the things which a fellow designer failed to achieve in projects when asked for feedback is like trying to get a child to pass to the next grade without giving it the lessons. Critique is not nesessary to be rude, but without any of it progress`d be very hard.

  2. Hello. Im a first year graphics student at somerset college of arts and technology. I feel that all work needs to be criticised. How are you supposed to know where your going wrong if your only told what your doing well. I can imagine that this would then lead to making the same mistakes and bad judgement.

    You learn from your mistakes.

  3. Feedback on a piece is nice, but it should address positive and negative aspects of the piece, and ideally it won’t come from a lay person. Feedback is much more valuable when it’s provided by an expert versus somebody without any experience.

  4. I think you have failed to clearly differentiate between constructive criticism and criticism here.
    Constructive criticism should offer feedback from which the subject can learn from and build upon – and by definition is not negative.
    It is not actually possible to deliver constructive criticism and demoralize a designer – if it is indeed constructive.
    Hope that makes sense ;)

  5. As a web designer who deals, not only with aesthetic choices, but with usability testing as well, I always appreciate a critical eye when I show early drafts of my work, but it can potentially be damaging if it’s not accompanied by some positive feedback.

    In my first year of design school, I had a teacher that was always quick to point out what wasn’t working with my designs. Every single critique would follow the same format: “Okay. I see where you’re going, but this, this this and this isn’t working. Do this, instead.”

    I ended up in a design bubble for over a year, and became very timid with my work. I didn’t feel that I was a ‘designer,’ and focused on becoming a better web programmer.

    It wasn’t until about 6 months before graduating, that I created a piece that got really great feedback. It gave me the confidence to start designing again, I started to churn out piece after piece that got fantastic reviews– even from that original teacher that was so harsh, that I stopped considering myself a ‘designer’ in the first place.

    I feel that the best way to critique someone is to simply remove all negative opinion and designer ‘know-all’, and tell the designer what you are seeing.

    I had a graphic designer friend look at a website I designed. He responded “You need to move the thumbnails to the top of that image gallery, because you’re cutting them off from the most popular screen resolutions, and it’ll get really annoying to have to scroll every time I want to look at the thumbs”

    I took it really poorly, because he insulted my knowledge and decisions. If he had just told me ‘I am looking at this on a small screen resolution, and the thumbnails are below the fold.’ I would have considered a solution without taking any offense.

  6. I’m a 1st year graphic design student. My teacher is always trying too freaking hard to be positive: “Oooh, this is lovely!!!” is her comment on most things (most of the time she’s obviously not honest).

    Most of the time I myself don’t quite like my work and I see some of the problems and I’m like wtf? If she doesn’t like my stuff she should criticize me instead of pretending that its so awesome. I understand that we’re first year and she’s trying not to discourage us, but thats too much…

    On the other hand I’ve had art teachers who didn’t hesitate to criticize or make me erase and redraw a drawing I spent 5 hours on. And from those teachers I learned the most.

    So yeah, constructive criticism is a must.

    • She could very well “not like stuff” that is done well because art is subjective and in large part based on personal taste/aesthetic, worldview, values, etc. And there is nothing more stunting to creativity than shutting down someone’s work because *they” don’t personally like it. Your teacher is not expecting you to proceed based on her standards. It’s freedom. You should appreciate it. You want to know how to get “better,” then you have to have that internal dialogue on your own. Someone else can only teach you how to play the game, give you the rules to a game, provide the formula based on prevailing ideas of what is “good” and has value. That is so arbitrary and often based on nonsense like money, politics, power, influence. Be grateful. Step out of the box and look at it from a different point of view.

  7. I’ve found positive critiques are nice and encouraging but I learn more from people who are able to articulate what didn’t work for them in my work or what other approaches might be considered. Nothing but positive remarks often doesn’t give one much to mentally chew on and be challenged by, a bit like having a dinner that looks nice but without a lot of flavor. Lack of such critiques was one of my disappointments in going from school to work in a graphic design department. It felt a bit empty.

  8. I have been reading a book titled “Talent is Overrated”. The basic idea put forward is that those who are the bent at what they do are the best because they practice outside the comfort zone. They deliberately find what they are bad at focus on it They do it over and over again until they get it right. It is not pleasurable partly because it *is* demoralizing. It’s like Jordan taking free throws left handed. It sucks because it hurts – being right handed the left is weak and gets sore quickly. But it also sucks because you can’t make as many baskets left handed. Without being told what is bad you can’t start to work on it. If hearing what is bad about your work is to demoralizing then focusing on it with the intensity necessary to improve or become great will be beyond you.

  9. David, you’ve answered your own questions by requesting comments about your article. I agree with both of the previous commentators, with one tiny caveat. It isn’t necessary to agree with the critique…you could know The Rules, but choose to break them on purpose. I’m an advocate for the critique, but dislike the term ‘criticism’.

  10. Hello there.

    I’m a Design student myself and i find your point very interesting. Most of the time, the feedback from my teachers are very clear and straightforward: Get rid of the bad part and keep the good part, doing this is better than this,etc…

    But hey, i really want the teacher to give some opinions about my method to solve the problem, the way i think and if it doesn’t work, can we make it better? I love a feedback that encourage more experiment and discovering than one that lead the design to a “proper” way.

  11. I think that it depents on the approach. “thats crap, thats crap, thats crap but thats cool” does not work in my eyes. But saying “thats good, but for these parts..you know what would be cool”

    That just allows for more thought and creativity in my books.

  12. Positivity should really be the main focus, and blatant errors corrected in a kind and educative manner. However, realistically, given the fact that the workplace is populated with stressed out, tired individuals it’s practically impossible to guarantee that any kind of criticism is ever going to be delivered in a manner that is not sarcastic, nasty, and damaging. Ultimately the onus is on each person to a) deliver constructive criticism in the nicest way possible, and b) for the person on the receiving end to grow up and not take it personally.

  13. I think it depends on the person who is giving the “critique”. Some personalities find it hard to be constructive without causing unnecessary offense, whereas some other personality types can deliver it with sincerity and also add in some positives.

    If the critique is to the point where the student is scared to bring their work in again, then that’s not good. But if there is a healthy balance between being constructive, and being positive, then that would be the best teaching formula.

    I know this because one of my old Lecturer’s was like this. He actually would comment very little himself once we put the work on the table, but he would ask our peers (no more than 6 around a table) to comment or say what they thought. So that way you will get the criticism needed, but it won’t be too harsh, and won’t feel like you are being singled out. Then he would take what they said and suggest things to look at to make it better. He would show by example too – he would have his pantone markers and marker pad on front of him and always illustrate what he was suggesting.

  14. I feel for the earlier commenter about his timidity after negative criticism. The problem with negative criticism is that some recipients take it so much to heart that they seize up and fail to produce anything, which does nothing for improving their work. Personally, long ago, my experience of crits at the RCA was that they were nothing more than an opportunity for the tutors to show off to each other as to how wittily cutting they could be to the students. So in the end I stopped attending this organised bullying. On the other hand, I received wonderful constructive criticism from my tutors at Middlesex.

  15. Nicholas, you said, “How are you supposed to know where you’re going wrong if you’re only told what you’re doing well.” Valid point. I was wondering about a different method — one where positive attributes are reinforced to such an extent that they simply drown out the negatives. Perhaps it’s not possible.

    Julie, I’m surprised about the RCA. If you don’t mind me asking, when did you attend? Did you finish, or were the tutors why you moved to Middlesex?

    Mark, I agree — the person giving the critique plays a huge role. Not only with experience and tact, but also with the relationship between the critic and the designer.

    Great comments.

  16. I completely agree with Nicholas, and some other commentators, that criticism is essential if you’re going to progress. I also agree that feedback should be given kindly, and that it’s just as important to give praise as it is to explain the problems. But I also believe that the designer owes it to him/herself to learn to deal with criticism, even if it’s harsh. I personally have learned a lot from some great teachers who were really good at giving feedback, but equally I’ve learned from some talented people who had minimal interpersonal skills and were frankly brutal in their treatment of students. Yes, it can really, really hurt; but if you don’t pick yourself up and think honestly about *what* they’re saying about your work rather than *how* they’re saying it, you’re cheating yourself out of an opportunity to learn.

  17. Hi David, Nice new CID BTW ;-)

    I think you raise some very important questions. I will need to think more on it to give my own opinion, since I have been wondering about these same things for a while no and I still don’t know for sure which way is best. I guess it’s a question of context and from your post it seems a more applicable question within the teaching arena.

    I will however share some thoughts that came to me from reading the late Paul Ardin’s books that taught me something: “BE WRONG” and when you present your work to your peers, ask them “What is wrong with this?” not what is right, since you will learn more and not rest on your laurels.

    I would highly recommend his books: IT’S NOT HOW GOOD YOU ARE, IT’S HOW GOOD YOU WANT TO BE and WHATEVER YOU THINK, THINK THE OPPOSITE to fully appreciate his recommendations on thinking differently and going beyond the status quo.

  18. I was just reading this when I got a phone call from another graphic designer I am working with at the moment. We were discussing a website, I have built and she designed. I will just add we are both graphic designers. Anyway back to the story she wanted to make a comment about the website but was very careful not to offend. The long and short is I completely agreed with were she was coming from and have made the changes.
    Its important to get other people to look at your work but it is equally important to criticise in a way that doesn’t offend. Respect for everyone seems to get the best final results.

  19. It entirely depends on the quality of the critique. Some people are more interested in showing you how smart they are than actually giving you useful feedback. I actually went to a school where all critique was in the form of “via negativa” – there was little to no positive feedback. Most people recoil in horror at the thought of that, but the result was that you developed your own eye for what was working by listening to what wasn’t mentioned. The reward of hard work is more work, and by successfully working on one level earns you the ability to have a conversation on the next level. However, I can see that in the hands of someone without an amazing capacity for compassion it could become debilitating.

    I think the important thing about a critique is that the recipient keep in mind a few things, assuming a knowledgeable auditor:

    1. It’s not a critique of the artist personally, or even their artistic ability. It’s a critique of one piece, in progress. Yes, it’s an example of what you’re capable of, but get your own ego out of the way and see if anything is said that gives you a new perspective which you can use.

    2. Remember that it is an opinion. It may be an expert opinion, and in that case, disregard it at your peril, but it is an opinion. You are ultimately the creator, and it is your perspective which makes you unique. Learn what you can from what is said, and try to apply it to your work, but keep it your work. Never supplant completely your point of view for another person’s, no matter how great they are. The world doesn’t need another pale copy of a great artist, it needs more people willing to let their greatness shine.

    3. Things should come in threes, even if you have nothing to say for the third bullet point. And yes, “Talent is Overrated” is a fantastic book. As is “The War of Art”. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  20. Working alone as a freelance designer you need feedback from your client and peers. Though you have to take from it what you need to take from it, not just what you want to take away from what’s been said.

    If there’s something a client doesn’t like it’s often good to talk it over with the client and you may even come to a compromise.

    In the end feedback’s there to help you and for you to help others.

  21. In education, we use the analogy of “two stars and a wish” – tell me two things you like about what you’ve seen and the one thing that would make an immediate, important improvement.

    Often on a second draft looking at just one piece of work needing retouched, you’ll hit on several others yourself, without the need for a client (or teacher) to come out with masses of red ink.

    If you’re interested in formative assessment as a design theory, I’m sure you could cobble together a new book by hashing the education world with the design world:
    http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/assess/

  22. In our small in-house design dept, citiques like “I don’t like this photo” are not acceptable. Explainations are always required to quickly arrive at a solution. ex: “Do not use this photo because it does not show a pleasant facial expression.”

    On another note: As designers, we need to try not to be so sensitive about our work. Stand up for excellent design that makes the most sense in achieving project goals, but be willing to make compromises. We all pour our heart into what we do as designers, but empathize with all members of your audience. If one person thinks one way about your work, chances are, that others may also. Our best work is often a collaboration.

  23. come to think of it all i had to learn from was criticism, both ++ and – –
    sometimes its offensive, and u wished the others had used more tact.
    The balance between needs to be found I believe.
    or else u ll get creative doubt. Especially with a student designer.
    but even worse… a designer who fears its own creativity…
    a right balanced criticism does bring forth quality
    and shows mutual respect.
    no matter what it is… listen and learn even if its to learn how not to react…

    It will in the end help us deal with clients. The patience and being open to what someone, being colleague, teacher or client, has to say has been build in.
    funny,… how i was wondering about this question yesterday…

  24. I believe all criticism is constructive. An internal meeting for an hour could save hours of studio time. However, you’ve got to be prepared to take a beating now and again when it comes to clients and you’ve got to have the strength of character to take it squarely on the chin. But you’ve also got to be confident enough to fight your corner and explain your decisions and ideas.

    If the client straight out doesn’t like what i’ve done, then that’s my opportunity to turn the spotlight back on them to ask: Why? Where am I going wrong? What would you like to see? It’s pointless wasting more and more time and money going back to the drawing board and them still not liking it. There’s nothing wrong with being firm back. This has given me a lot of confidence over the years.

    I’ve noticed you get more of this kind of criticism in low-end paying jobs, whereas the clients with the larger budgets will 9/10 times trust your design skills and go with you all the way.

  25. As a graphic design student I’ve found that the most effective feedback we can get from teachers is when they help us to see the problems on our own by asking questions. Instead of saying “This is great/wrong/bad…” they ask things like “what would happen if you moved the logo up?” or “what’s the first thing you see when you look at this? where does the eye go next?” and so on. This way we learn from our mistakes and it helps to build our confidence at the same time because it feels like we’re finding ways to improve the design ourselves.

    On the other hand, I don’t suppose there are many clients out there who will comment on a design in such a way, so maybe a bit of blatant criticism to thicken the skin and prepare us for “the real world” isn’t such a bad thing.

  26. Hi , David
    yes constructive criticism will help us deal with any client as , it will tell you what is good and what is bad in your work , I remember during collage no body there used to give positive criticism only negative and that wasn’t at all constructive so I had to go and search and find out through the criticism given to others to learn what is right and what is wrong , some times the best opinion u can get doesn’t need to be from an expert , some times u need another opinion from some one in the business before your client, and constructive criticism is considered as further education as when you know your weakness lies you will start to improve your self , some times we get so confident about our work that we don’t need any other opinion but here comes the disappointment as your client will refuse the project , so constructive criticism will define either your work is really good or your client is one of those who don’t know anything about design
    But the question is where could we find this constructive criticism , where is this designer expert who gives some of his time to other young designers to apply their work and give them constructive feedback to help them to progress in their career .
    Finally thank you for bringing up this issue

  27. You know those poor souls that appear on Pop/idol/super/Talent shows… that have no sense of tone or rythme, and are there for the sole purpose of morbid curiousity…? you know them.

    they are the guys that never had any constructive criticism…
    Insecurity encourages exploration, to expand possibilities using the skills you are sure of to attain more experience. confidence and self-belief are nice but they are terrible teachers.

    Criticism is the best free advice you can get if you detach your ego… You get squat from a “hey cool!”.

  28. I am my own worst critic and have found critiques from fellow designers – another pair of eyes – to be invaluable and generally kinder. I solicit feedback from clients, be it positive/negative. I remain very wary of clients who seem overly anxious to critique my work. I’m not an egomaniac but I will defend my design choices – as I learned in college. Nothing worse than having to make a perfectly good design “ugly” to appease someone who is power-trippy or doesn’t understand design challenges. (Reminds me of the article I read here about the difference between consultants and freelancers…)

    Constructive criticism from a valued designer or resource: priceless. Criticism for the sake of criticism: not so much.

  29. I think the most valuable criticism (for me at least) are the ones that tells me what is working, and what to re-analyze. The comments that forces me to rethink an idea, or a type treatment, or a color, etc, are the comments I want.

    Sure it is nice to get a “looks great” but that hardly helps me. When I ask for opinion, I’m mainly expecting constructive feedback. How I can make things better. Otherwise I would just be asking for approval, and setting myself up for disappointment.

    I don’t see any criticism as “negative” because i can either learn from it, or argue it, and Comments that are 100% positive are near useless to me…

    When I look at product reviews (on Amazon or w/e), I almost never read the 4 or 5 star reviews… the 1 and 2 star reviews are where it’s at!

  30. I don’t think you can have an either or approach. A balance of both is better. I think it’s also worth taking into account the personality and current situation of the person you are giving feedback to. I give levels of feedback depending on how much needs improving or whether I know their skill level is usually much higher.

    I get a lot of positive feedback in my job because most of the people I do work for don’t have a clue about design, so my standards got lazy. Now I have a manager who knows about design I get plenty of criticism and it has really pushed me to work harder and improve quicker.

    Having said that, I get lots of criticism at karate but not as much praise to encourage me to persevere, sometimes this can be very demoralizing and feels like I can’t do anything right – which isn’t the case.

  31. I’ve always been an advocate of not tearing at an idea till you let it grow some wings and see if it can fly. If you crush a concept before it has time to develop there’s no room for exploration. You’ve already created fear and apprehension.

    Constructive criticism is necessary to a point. In the end it’s completely subjective. Your clients may love something you hate or vice-a-versa. You have to have trust in your own ability to communicate your idea.

    You have to trust the judgement of the one criticizing your work as well. If you don’t, you take what you feel is important and leave the rest on the table. Multiple perspectives on your work give you some idea that the effectiveness of a design isn’t just in your head. Sometimes it may even open up new avenues you never thought of by having someone tell you something’s “not working.” As long as they explain their reason for saying that.

    When egos get involved and it feels like a personal attack on your work, that’s when it goes downhill. Straight negative criticism is always wrong. I feel this at my job right now. (in-house ad. design) It creates an uneasy atmosphere of stunted creativity. Its hard to develop an idea when its shot down at birth. Even harder when its done repeatedly over a long period of time. You start to second guess your gut instincts and develop that voice in your head always telling you “it’s not good enough, they won’t like it, its not working.” Simple tasks get extremely difficult. You ultimately start loathing your work.

    I would suggest the middle ground. Creativity shouldn’t be stunted, it should be encouraged and given time to develop. But at the same time asking for another perspective from someone you trust can help you develop yourself even further.

    In the end its about the self-confidence in your ideas that wins the day. If you have trust in yourself than you’ve already developed the ability to handle any client. If they don’t particularly like your direction, then educate them. If they still don’t bite, tack it down as a lesson learned for the next time. It’s subjective.

  32. In my opinion, a critique is neither positive nor negative by definition. It is merely an opinionated observation, made however the commentator deems fit.

    If you’re asking in an educational context, perhaps a positive-focus model could help build students’ confidence, but their ability to give and receive balanced critique might be compromised, making them less prepared for the outside work

    In a professional context, it is important that the client be allowed to speak their mind as comprehensively as possible. This is where a designer’s ability to take whatever is useful from a critique and discard the rest comes in.

  33. David, I see your point. Obviously, negative opinion is necessary to help us understand what is in need of change, but I do think that a multitude of positive reinforcement is a great way to help a designer. Not only in feeling positive, but also in understanding one’s strengths, rather than just the weaknesses. I think it was Sun Tzu that said it’s just as important to know yourself as it is your enemy.

    Marty

  34. A critique is very valuable when it is based an objective point of view.

    I think spending too much time ‘complementing’ someone on what they’ve ‘got right’ in their design, might be good for their ego, but it’s an unnecessary time waster.

    What benefit will the person whose work is scrutinized get from being told that they know what they know?

    Design is filled with intent, renarks like “…great use of colours, imagery, space, typography etc…” shouldn’t really make most part of the critics’ remark, as they’re what we as designers are striving (and employed) for.

    Not that great works shouldn’t be acknowledged or celebrated, but a person will learn more when they’re told where their work doesn’t work, as that encourages action to better their work or rectify whatever mistakes their design has.

  35. Great discussion everyone!

    My personal experience is that you better have a thick skin if you are asking someone for their critical eye. That being said, it is a HUGE responsibility of the critic to be able to handle the situation in a positive way (without being syrupy sweet and gushing about the good stuff.)

    I have worked with good direction and bad, and what I have learned is that someone in a creative/art director position needs good soft skills to be able to bring out the best from their minion, underling, student or jr. designer.

    It is important to me that if I am critiquing a piece of work, that I have suggestions for ways to improve it, not just knock it down. If something doesn’t work and I point it out, I need to be prepared to back it up with a suggested solution.

  36. I think over time, you develop thick skin and are more prepared for someone’s criticism . I believe it’s better to hear what’s wrong with it than what’s good. You need a little bit of both. I’ve had times where I was set on my idea and the client disliked it and so with that, fueled me to do a better job.

  37. I agree that it is important to accentuate the positive. I am often overly optimistic. While it certainly feels good, but am I pushing people and myself to be a better designer?

    It is so important to be open to criticism with our design work. I often try to ask people, “How can I make it better?” “What is wrong with this design” or “What is this missing?” It is really tough to get an honest critiques that isn’t more than skin deep.

    There are a few new breed of websites where people solicit feedback about themselves from friends and strangers. http://failin.gs/ is one that brings the user brutally honest feedback from anonymous sources. http://betterme.com/ takes a more neutral approach. Here you can ask for feedback regarding specific matters. If people are starting to need websites to get feedback about their personal and work matters, aren’t designers lucky that this is already part of our process?

  38. This post has clearly stirred a strong response from the design community, after reading only a handful of the responses above, it is very clear to me that this subject evokes an emotive response and designers are drawing on their own experience of constructive criticism.

    It certainly is clear to me that how criticism is delivered during your design training can be crucial to how you develop as a designer, as personally i had a lecturer whom only gave me negative feedback and it nearly drove me to leave my course, as i no longer had confidence in my ability or my work.

    Constructive criticism should be exactly that, constructive comments with both positive and negative points which will help you to develop yourself and your work through understanding your strengths and weaknesses.

    I also believe that through constructive criticism you can influence a guide a designer, even inspiring them and breathing new life into a piece of work. I now find in my current job as a web designer that i openly seek constructive criticism on my designs, this helps to further myself and my work as well as gauge the success of the piece.

  39. As part of my day to day duties, I oversee several interns in my office. Everyday I struggle with the right way to approach criticism and feedback.

    On one hand, you want to offer as much positive reinforcement as possible. On the other, what’s going to happen when they get out into the real world and the only feedback they get it “I hate it?”

    Personally, I feel that criticism is incredibly important, as long as it remains constructive. There is a thin line between constructive criticism and straight up bashing someone’s work. As long as you carefully walk that line, I don’t see a need for 100% positive reinforcement. After all, if you don’t explain why something doesn’t work, how will the person know?

    Tessa Carroll
    http://www.blogs.vbpoutsourcing.com

  40. Criticism is important. Sadly, it is all too often abused and hence has gained a negative connotation. As has been mentioned above, if given properly it can direct and be constructive.

    However, it must be based on the truth and never drown out the positive. It should also be given in the spirit of kindness rather than an evidence of some bad attitude. If feedback first encourages and highlights the positive then any negative comments that follow, if given in the right spirit, will be more readily accepted. Your balance criticism will spur on the recipient to keep going and improve without making him feel like he’s drowning in a vat of golden syrup or that he needn’t have bothered getting up this morning!!

    Great question by the way… M

  41. This is a great conversation. Great input from all who responded!

    As a design professor myself, I was interested to read each response. I especially took notice of those like Victoria, who felt that negative comments “almost drove her from the course, as [she] no longer had confidence in [her] abilities or [her] work”. I don’t think this is something instructors willfully intend to do. I think most instructors in design try to keep it positive and not put the designer on the defense. However, there are times when I might intentionally challenge a student or give one or two students a tougher time of it in order to give them a taste of what might be expected in the workplace, ala future interaction with tough art directors and clients. (But I always tell the students that I was playing devil’s advocate after the fact.) Because not every design position students take after school (or in an internship) will be managed by benevolent, patient types of people who tender their thoughts or soften the blow with their comments. In my work experience the studio was always about business, and conflicts arose when time sheets & profit margins hit head on with the search for the perfect solution & designers agendas or egos. So how can instructors prepare students for this side of reality if we always ‘massage the message’?

    Also, I would suggest that some students respond to feedback differently. Some prefer comments to be given bluntly—like a football coach approach—and some like comments to be phrased or spun in a positive manner in all instances. This is ok, but the problem instructors have is deciding which students like which style, and the short time frame we have in which to deliver our thoughts. Usually we are trying to evaluate 15 students or more. At 5 minutes apiece, that’s 75 minutes of class time. There isn’t always time to point out all the positive aspects, as well as hit on the ones needed to be improved upon. Instructors try to say both pos an neg things, but it’s hard to nail the crux of each student’s problems quickly and efficiently, while also trying to be encouraging and nurturing. When I crit, I’m just going to tell you things you can try, as quickly as I can, and in the process try to reinforce what seems to be working already. Students are funny people. Sometimes I will say “Why not try and different typeface?” and the student will toss the piece entirely, and completely start over. So listening is important in a critique. Suggesting different type doesn’t mean you failed or to start over. It just means try other typefaces.

    As many have pointed out in responding to this posting, you need tough skin to be involved in the classroom experience, just like you will in the workplace. Telling a student to go back to the computer and try again is sometimes the only recourse in a crit. Do they take this personally? Sure. Should they? Not really. Is this considered “negative feedback”? If you ask me, no, it’s not. Getting a student to the point where they keep trying on a concept execution, again and again, to strive for the best solution, is the best experience for them in gaining independence as a designer. Many students come to class wanting the instructor or other students to give them ‘golden advice’ that will solve all their design issues quickly. This isn’t possible, or even desired. The instructor and others can and should only suggest paths to try and ideas to explore. It is up to the designer to explore and experiment with the advice, to prove or disprove its validity—visually. You have power as designer, then, to prove any advice given to you as worthy or unworthy, by testing it and trying it against other solutions. If the advice was given harshly, so what? Try it out. If you disprove it as bad advice, you win. If you prove it was good advice, you win with a stronger piece!

    So getting back to David’s question about advice (“that’s no good, here’s why, and how you can improve it”), I would say it’s more like “that could possibly be done better, and here’s what you can TRY to see if it improves”. In the work world the only thing that stops a project from continuous never-ending revisions is the client runs out of time and money to explore. So we need to learn to explore as much as we can in the shortest time possible. Feedback can help us to do that.

    Therefore, IMHO I don’t think the choices David presents (1. all negative comments or 2. all positive comments) are the only selections possible. How about a combination of the two?

    Thanks for this forum, David. Great question.

  42. As a teacher in a college program that focuses (to a fault) on the positive, I can say without a doubt that criticism is absolutely necessary. I learned early on that many of the seniors in my program crumble under the first bit of criticism in the first days of my portfolio class. I tell them up front: I can tell you what’s good, or I can really art direct these pieces and in some cases rip your work apart. And then I let them choose. Overwhelmingly they choose to be ripped apart.

    But you know what happens? They learn. Concepts they couldn’t grasp over their college career suddenly make sense. They can recognize what makes something good, and they put more thought into their work. The students who don’t want to hear a serious critique continue without fail to produce work that’s mediocre at best (usually it’s dreadful) and I don’t think they have any hope of making it.

    I teach in a very small program that’s terrified of losing students and telling people that they might want to consider another profession when they just don’t have what it takes. But all of my students who are willing to endure the criticism come out as better designers than they started. They may not all win awards or even get jobs in the industry, but it’s by learning **why** their designs are successful or not that they grow.

  43. For me, critique depends upon the environment in which it is introduced. My college courses were full of critiques. However, I did find it hard to be critiqued in class full of students who were never interested in design, didn’t care about it, or were just there to fulfill a prerequisite. That’s when critiques were less of critiques and more about bashing people who he or she didn’t like. I did also get the opportunity to take classes were everyone encouraged everyone else to grow as designers. My degree was somewhat split between Contemporary Media and Journalism as a major and Art as a minor, so I was able to see how both worlds treated criticism.

    That said, my professors actually utilized the method you proposed, David. One professor in the Art department let the class critique each student in front of the room, but he also gave his opinion by focusing on the positive aspects of the design. And briefly, he would tell us the possible weaker points and how to improve upon them. I found this much more effective than other classes that were in my own department. However, I should also mention that he didn’t just give glowing remarks to all students. If someone clearly spent 30 min. on a month project, he or she would definitely hear about it. He definitely was honest, but like I said, if he could see that we put in the work and effort, he normally gave more positive, encouraging comments rather than negative ones.

    Am I able to take heavy criticism? Absolutely. Do I think the negative should greatly outweigh the positive? No way. I’m definitely not saying we should do away with negative criticism. Without it, people would not have any input on how they could improve their work. Like my art professor said, “Our designs can be very personal to us, so when they are critiqued, you need to be able to take the negative comments into consideration with the positive ones. But ultimately, the artwork is yours, and you choose what the final design will look like.” I do agree with others here, that you do have to be able to take that negative criticism. But if a designer has clearly worked on this design and put their heart and soul into it, I don’t think negative criticism should outweigh the positive. Critique isn’t meant to be a proverbial firing squad to help you form some elephant skin. It’s supposed to encourage an artist to grow, learn, and feel good about themselves and their artwork.

    Now, real-world clients can be a little different than school projects. If you are working with real-life clients and you truly believe in a design, you have to have the balls to stand up for your design. I normally just always did everything they told me and added whatever they suggested after the first few rounds of design changes. One of the main and only criticisms I got from my internship from my boss was that I needed to learn when to stand up for my design. You always have to remember to trust your instincts, because ultimately, you decide how the finished piece will look. If the artwork is bad and you let the client use it, not only are you building a portfolio that makes you look bad, you might also be hurting the client’s business by providing them with an ineffective design.

  44. I think what you are suggesting is using only positive reinforcement as a tool to developing a designer, or a team. I did this to train my dogs and it does work. However, my dogs are not spending several thousand dollars of my clients money. While I think the idea is good, and it can certainly be implemented as one tool, it shouldn’t be viewed as the entire toolbox.

    Sometimes, for some designers, it is important to point out what isn’t working and why. I’ve art directed several young designers, and I am always amazed at the arrogance they operate under. It is my job as AD to get them to understand that, while their design may be lovely, the clients needs must be met in order for the design to be successful.

    The ability to accept critique is a skill every designer must have (actually, this is true in any profession). This seems to be something that is not taught in design schools, but it is essential. A lot less ego and a lot more humility goes a long way in building a career. And the path to that is critique.

  45. I have a penchant for analogies and adapting mindsets from particular disciplines to use in other fields. When it comes to criticism I simply apply the same mindset I have from snowboarding and escrima; sometimes pain is the inevitable cost of learning, and every bruise is a lesson. Take your licks, then work out what they are telling you.

  46. I just re-enrolled into an AA course. I have noticed with my instructors that they are all very positive, but very honest.

    I have found that through that positive criticism that I have done better on my work, and learned much more then from flat and “Direct attack” on the negatives. I don’t think I would be returning for an Associates’ degree, if that positive influence wasn’t there. I wouldn’t be an honor student, either.

    We all need to start somewhere, and we were all beginners. People tend to forget that. Being a designer, an artist or illustrator is no secret. It’s not a special entitled society. To exclude people is to exclude yourself.

    As a society it seems customary to rip people to shreds over the negative. Somehow this is acceptable and ok. There is a strange self gratification that some people get from doing so. Some just do not know better, or have been taught bad manners.

    That, to me, is not acceptable. How is it helpful to rip on someone, then after the ripping, expect them to do a good job?

    I don’t say baby the person, but be a strong, positive, guiding force that that person will feel comfortable trusting. Once that person is comfortable, they can be productive, and are more willing to grow and learn.

  47. Hello, I’m Paige, and I’m currently in my second year of art school. Honestly, I feel constructive criticism is a very vital component to an artist or anyone trying to learn anything, ever.

    Since there is so much you can do to a blank illustrator document or paper, there are so many variables to where you can go with which mood you are trying for for yourself, a client, or anonymous viewers.

    As a person who is trying to grow, I starve for critiques. I want someone who has no attachment to the piece to find the flaws I had overlooked due to personal creation. Even if they are harsh, it’s valuable to accept flaws in a piece- along with flaws in yourself- then grow up and fix your mistakes. You can’t tell someone their piece is complete garbage, that is purely discouraging: especially since there are always something good about a piece, similar to people themselves.

    Not to mention, once we leave the schooling world, we more than likely won’t have such an opportunity for people to stick with us and help us improve. Instead- especially when dealing with clients- people will just drop you and find someone else who they believe can do the job better than you.

    Why would you try to say growing is not necessary?

  48. Excuse me, I didn’t take time to read past comments, so I apologize if I have restated any other comments or came off ignorant.

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