Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Taking Critique

Taking Critique

Helpful Tips on Being Punched in the Stomach

Criticism is a necessary evil for growth. We all get it, and we all unfortunately need it. And though it is a subject that has been touched on quite well, I thought it would still be good to share some tidbits that have helped me deal with getting critiqued in the past. Hmm. I mean, these tidbits have helped in the past — not that I traveled back in time to hear criticism. I'd have more important things to do than get critiqued if I went back in time. I could brush all those spots on my teeth that eventually turned into cavities.

Ahem. Getting back to the subject...

Ask the right people

If you're creating emotional, introspective art with intellectual insight into expressionist statements, don't expect your next-door neighbor who came over to borrow your plunger to have criticism as valuable as your former teacher, or your fellow artists. Find people you trust to give you criticism; and remember that any critique is only an opinion — meaning some people just won't have the background to pick up what you're putting down, because they don't have the same experiences as yourself.

Feel the Pain Until You Don't

When you're first learning to take criticism, it can be very painful to hear. While it's important to be able to emotionally invest yourself in art to make it meaningful, it's also important to learn how to disengage yourself from it. When someone is offering criticism about your art, try to remain calm and objective. Imagine you're looking at someone else's work.

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Never, never, never lash out at someone offering criticism, good or bad. A volatile reaction can only look unprofessional, and hurt your chances for future, legitimate criticisms.

Defend Your Choices

After the critic has said their piece, make sure you attempt to defend your choices. You had reasons for putting the piece together the way you did. Perhaps there were certain restrictions offered by the client. Perhaps there's inherent properties of the medium that make things turn out the way they did. Politely share the reasoning behind what you did. And if you didn't really have much reasoning behind anything... well... perhaps you shouldn't have made that choice after all.

Everything in Moderation

Don't "take on" more sessions than you can handle. While critique is important to your growth, and you'll need a thicker skin as you get more successful, you need to protect your motivation; and a mountain of criticism might throw you off course for a longer period than is healthy. Try and ask for criticism from trusted resources, and take it in manageable bites.1

Maintain Trust in Yourself

You cannot successfully create for the long-term if your own opinion doesn't have the most weight. Make sure your opinion has the highest percentage in the decision-making process, and always make sure that if you're deviating from your instincts, it's for a very convincing argument. You cannot create honest artwork unless you're confident in your choices, and you cannot gain confidence in your choices if you're letting someone else make them.2


1 Be aware of your own "Inner Critic". My Inner Critic tends to reduce me to a whimpering mass if I spend too much time dwelling on other artist's work for "inspiration". A couple years ago I cut back on excessive portfolio surfing, and it's made it easier for me to stay focused on creating work of my own.

2 This is related to another important aspect of staying motivated to create (at least in terms of personal work). Make the choices in your art that make you happy, and don't create for an audience. Put the art you want out there, and let the audience that likes it find YOU.

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Helpful, good advice, as I'm currently completely out of creative confidence...

oh yeah...FIRST!^^


Hey! First-place should boost your confidence!

Shaun Inman

Is that gangly bully Mojo in a man-suit? Nice read Kevin, couldn't agree more with the second footnote.


Naw... Mojo's man-suit looks like Sean Connery. He gets more chicks that way.

I almost feel the footnotes are the two points I wanted to make the most. I should have written this backwards!

s. zeilenga

Hmmm... strangely enough, I really did get jumped and punched (multiple times) in the stomach last night. The attackers made off with my digital camera and my pride. It was not a fun experience.

(now that I think about it, one of the men did look a bit like a mis-shapen Sean Connery. Can you check if Mojo has a new camera around?)


Rob Weychert

A good read, Kevin, but I think that second footnote could use a caveat or footnote of its own. Depending on what kind of stuff you're creating, and especially if you're doing client work, considering an audience can be a very important thing. Most clients need to target specific sorts of people, and you can't expect them to have a lot of faith in an audience that doesn't exist yet.


s. zeilenga - wow... I'm sorry to hear that :/

rob - Good point, Rob! I was writing this from the point of view of illustrating, but when it comes to designing for a client you're absolutely right. I've modified the end bit to hopefully be a bit more specific...


Re: footnote 1 - Guilty as charged.
I have a strange relationship with others' folio sites. I scoot off to the great discoveries on Drawn and then think
'Wow's that's Great, I'm really inpsired now.",
closely followed by
"Where did the last 2 hours go?"
and finishing with
"Damn, I have so far to go."


Remember to, if you are giving a critique, make sure it is asked for, otherwise it might not be well received.

Coming from a design school background, I'm used to giving and taking criticism, but sometimes your family members don't want to be ripped a new one over every thing they create and make.


Your final (pre-footnote) point of maintaining trust in yourself is a key one to me. I recall something Greg Storey wrote a little while back when he reflected on turning 35. - He mentioned, "There is no secret sauce to what I have done with one exception, I never stop working on my confidence." Seems like an innocent enough comment but it hit me square between the eyes. All too often we depend upon others to define us or our work . And as Cameron Moll (re: Greg's post) remarked, there's no better tranquilizer for fear than confidence.
Phew! That's a whole lot of quotes and links for one comment.


Most succinct and awesome. I will be sharing this with my Intro to Design classes.

And by stomach do you by chance mean nads? 'Cause that dude looks like he's being abu ghraib'd.


thanks for the helpful advice.


Mearso - Haha - yeah... happens to everyone every once in a while ;)

Monkeyinabox - "Mom... this is really the crappiest card anyone ever made me. I mean... what pantone is this?"

BigA - Wow - those were both good reads - thanks BigA!

Testmonkey - You know... he kind of does. I suppose you should interpret it depending on how critiques make you personally feel...

Shane - :D


wow... very true, and very noteworthy advice. criticism is so hard, but it can be so helpful, too. i used to be terrible at accepting criticism, but i've gotten better over the years... and in the end, i've learned to follow your last statement in many respects. sometimes it's okay if we disagree with others. i write how i want to write in the voice that comes naturally, and while a lot of criticism has made me better... some of it threatened to erase my voice and the facets that made my writing mine

thanks for this :)


after all we should not forget one thing:

you will always be loved if you're doing something good, but never be hated if the audience doesn't like to much.

Captain Purple

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" helps a lot during a critique, too. Calmly explaining your thoughts (either giving or receiving) helps to keep minds open.

"Don't be mean. We don't have to be mean becasue, remember, no matter where you go, there you are." - Buckaroo Banzai


So... now exactly how long do wait for that audience to find me before I throw myself under a tram?

Seriously, good advice there. Kudos.


Martha - Good observation! I think many disagreements in a critique arise from conflicting personal preferences. And if you think about it, the unique collection of personal preferences you develop help form your style...

Sarah - Hmmm - interesting.. but I'm not sure I'm following...

Captain - Good advice! Nothing turns a critique into fisticuffs faster than a few poorly phrased insults...

Anaglyph - Haha... nice ;)

His Royal Majesty

Ahh, a great read.

But... Can't you write something with the same splendid quality about how to get motivation to do something that can get critizised? As I tend to sleep through the winter. It is so cold and dark up here in the north (sweden) where I reside.


Hmmm - that's not a bad idea for an article. But off the top of my head, for me the best way to stay motivated in winter is to get warm. I totally lose the desire to draw when I'm cold.

I'm pretty much shut up in my office with the door closed and the space heater on from November to March.


Most useful advice. Especially on the portfolio surfing. Perchance that is the reason for my drop in productivity lately.


Poor Stan! He is getting punched in the gut by "bald Rob." I think this scene probably happened in many our minds though...
next time, draw ME punching Stan in the gut!!


and then the punch: bones bruising, flesh flashing out rainbows of pure, honest pain. the tinny drone of patsy cline's "back in baby's arms" over the truckstop's bathroom speakers, the pervasive aroma of stale piss, the cologne machine, and urinal mints. that sound that flourescent tubes make.

"welcome to flavor country," one of them said.

the other just smiled dumb and spit a wad of tobacco juice on the floor.

yeah, flavor country.

diane witman

Great article. But I have one question and maybe you could all help me out a bit. My employer who is also the AE for the clients is constantly throwing his opinions into the matter. He is not speaking on behalf of the client (which he should be) he is using his personal taste (which is a bit off). And each time I follow his directions it sets me back because the client doesn't understand why we took the direction we did (which is his direction). So, do I :

A) Continue to persuade him that I know what's better because I didn't go to school for Graphic Design for nothing.

B) Just grit my teeth and listen and let the client tell him he was wrong

C) Find some happy-middle ground by educating about the principles of design and the reason behind each and every design

Any advice, anyone?


Benjamin - It's weird... I find that I need to surf to see what's out there, but it's also guaranteed that I will lose my self-esteem for 3-4 hours afterward... maybe the entire day. So I've had to strike a fine balance.

Niff - Haha - I don't think Stan would tolerate a punch to the gut like that. That would surely earned the antagonist a "Santa Maria Throat Punch".

4point44 - Oh... dear... critiques sound painful for you...

Diane - Yeah, that's always a tough situation. I used to have a similar problem at my old job, where the upper management had distinct design opinions that were dangerous. Like... "Hey - I like this design here, let's rip it off!" dangerous.

The best defense is probably a conglomerate of the three. Chiefly, you should begin trying to have a sound reason not to make the changes he suggests, and sound reasons to back up your decisions.

In terms of developing sound reasons, the key is trying to keep the design minimal, and user-focused. If something is on the page, it's either there to balance another element, aid usability, aid the message or support the brand. Anything that's not necessary, doesn't belong.

This will help in 1) Educating him, and 2) Proving to him that you are more qualified to design than he.

Another repercussion, is that when he adds elements, and you try to reason him out of it, and then the client dislikes what he added, that should hopefully reinforce in his mind that his decisions, not yours, caused the trouble.

Unfortunately, he can be the kind of person who does not like taking advice, and does not believe they should ever try to learn anything from an employee. The kind of person who meddles because they really want to design, or a perfectionist who believes that they can't possibly have wayward instincts. In which case, your only choice is gritting your teeth. And finding a new job.

Ross Boardman

If the client screams and cries make the logo twice the size.


Is that from the "Real-World Rhymes For Children" book I've heard so much about?

diane witman

"The kind of person who meddles because they really want to design, or a perfectionist who believes that they can't possibly have wayward instincts. In which case, your only choice is gritting your teeth. And finding a new job."

I think you've hit the nail on the head, I had another taste of this bad medicine today. Oh dear.


Long time listener - first time caller - love your show! Thanks for another great topic!

I think we've all been in the boat with Diane - it only gets worse when your designing internal materials for that same boss. I was once told, "Make it look just like Target - I like that look!" I quit shortly after that and stopped at Target on the way home for a Coke and a pack of Magic the Gathering cards (yeah I'll admit to that).

AND with regards to self criticism - I'm glad you added footnote1. Familiarizing yourself with other people's work is a good way to stay current, but obsessing about your possible inadequacies will fry you up and serve you with a side of depression. One's worst enemy is usually one's self... unless you're a superhero... then your worst enemy is probably a mad scientist or another superhero gone bad.

Understanding what really motivates you to "do what it is that you like to do" is often the best way to put criticism into perspective - and distribute it more effectively when you're called upon to do so.


Diane - Sorry to hear that :( But chin-up - there's plenty of other jobs out there!

BT - Good insight! It's definitely important to try and hold on to the things that motivate you to work...

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