Most designers can see that ego is the enemy of excellence—in others if not in ourselves. It undermines collaboration, erodes client trust, and bogs us down in deep ruts. A sense of self-preservation and scarcity permeates many design practices—individual and collective—and can result in a crippling fear of criticism. But herein lies the paradox: if our ego can convince us that the pain of bearing hard things isn’t worth the strength that comes from it, we will never be excellent. We will be comfortable and mediocre.
It starts early. We emerge from school with a warped view of our own abilities and the role of a designer in the world. (Try asking a recent design school graduate for a working definition of design sometime… then fix yourself a strong drink.) As tenderfeet, we are woefully unprepared to engage in real critique. But as we move into our careers, the particular project requirements, client drama, and team dynamics that seem so important in the beginning take their rightful place within the larger tapestry of vocation. We uncover our true work. We take a few knocks and see that they strengthen our weak places. We want more.
To mix metaphors by way of an essay adapted from his new book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” David Brooks puts it this way:
If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.
It is at this moment of maturation—of molting, really—that creative professionals ought to actively seek out new and deliberate criticism. Any honest mentor will tell you: It’s impossible to truly see ourselves, much less our work, without inviting challenge and reflecting on how we appear to others. That’s really hard, which helps explain why so many smart people are trying to figure it out.
There’s the feel-good Brené Brown way of thinking about powerful vulnerability (see also: group therapy). There’s the hard-core Ray Dalio way of thinking about radical transparency (see also: cage match). And when it comes to self-improvement, these approaches certainly have their merits. But, they can also become problematically personal and require a ton of buy-in to gain traction within a team.
In practice, when we’ve tried to graft these aspirational dynamics into critical dialogue, it winds up placing the whole burden on the person offering the critique. Unfortunately, this has the immediate effect of stifling real candor, particularly within diverse teams, because it stacks the deck against the critic. This singular focus on giving criticism side steps what is often the deeper cultural issue. The difference between a gift and a gut-punch is in the eye of the beholder. We’d be far better off if we train ourselves to receive criticism well.
”The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
— Muhammad Ali
Being told that we’re wrong and our work is failing always feels like a low blow at first. If we haven’t trained for it, it can not only damage our ego, but also our courage, our openness, and (most terribly) our relationships. For working designers, part of our contribution — that second mountain Brooks describes — might be recovering and practicing a better framework for critique. With the right focus and discipline, we can actively receive critical feedback as belonging to three categories, each with their own criteria and trustworthiness.
Natural criticism deals with formal aesthetic principles and time-tested objections regarding craftsmanship. The criteria doesn’t change. We can see it in the form of an oak tree or a nautilus. We can hear it in every story and song passed down from our ancestors. Often to the immature designer, this sense can seem like instinct, but we must push for accompanying reason and articulation. A devotion to this form of criticism creates a body of work that is consistent.
Wisdom suggests that we should trust this sort of criticism, as it is the most objective. Critical responses grounded in durable human ideas about beauty are universal and timeless. We can speak in terms of balance, rhythm, pattern, emphasis, contrast, unity, and movement. We can offer thoughtful reactions to music and prose, photography, poetry and architecture. We can become students of meaning making—of gestalt.
We also don’t need much, if any, context to offer this kind of critique. It’s accessible and impersonal. Returning again to design schools, students should be stewed in this category. There should be much wailing and gnashing of teeth each time a would-be designer mutters that it just doesn’t feel like it’s working. We must work to understand and articulate our own instincts and make them useful to others.
And as the ones seeking and receiving criticism, we can learn to lead the conversation toward this category—often moving from subjective reactions to legitimate concerns and ideas for how to address them.
The cultural category of criticism deals with the places and people for whom we are designing. Its scope is broad, and it should always be evaluated within the tension between empathy and accuracy. The criteria changes, but slowly. A thousand inside jokes, a million familiar gestures. Shared memories, shared metaphors. It is collective but not universal, and designers should be sensitive to the particular contours of culture at any scale. A devotion to this form of criticism creates a body of work that is appropriate.
The color red means something different in Moscow than it does in Montreal and something even different in Shanghai. That word takes on a completely different meaning when used in a journal for arborists, as opposed to Methodists. The corporate cultures at two otherwise similar clients might vary wildly.
This category also encompasses what I would call vernacular design. It contains the field of semiotics—understanding signs and symbols. Different places and people have a way of responding very differently to design decisions. Effectively navigating this category requires research and patience, as cultural critique is rooted in intelligence and knowledge. But, as with all things involving journalism and demography, it can be very subjective.
When receiving cultural criticism, it can be useful to unpack the biases inherent in the group, the process, and even the content. It can also be useful to discount critique that comes through a legitimate cultural frame, but not the relevant one. There may be a surprisingly strong distaste for a particular style of photo, icon or turn of phrase, but if it comes from someone who isn’t entrenched in the intended audience’s culture, it is fair to be skeptical. Locating criticism within the cultural category allows us to discern what needs to change for the actual people we’re serving.
Lastly, criticism in the fashionable category deals with a specific moment in time. Rather than a cultural context, it narrows focus on the individual recipients of a design solution. The criteria changes rapidly and unpredictably. Much of style and ornament may best be understood within this way. A sweeping generalization in the cultural category becomes crucially specific. It’s not just green, it’s a particular Pantone swatch and varnish. It’s not merely a humanist sans serif typeface, it’s a particular weight from a particular foundry with particular letter-spacing. A devotion to this form of criticism creates a body of work that is distinct.
We must orient our work in relationship to the contemporary without becoming slaves to it. The fashionable category is the most subjective of the three, and quite often hinges on the personal preferences of the designer. The critical function, perhaps, is to ensure that we are aware of the fashion whether or not we choose to appropriate it.
As designers grow and cultivate a personal style of our own, we should become more comfortable criticizing the work of others from within our framework without expecting them to do what we would. This category takes feelings seriously and embraces the fleeting emotional capacities of design. Something new piques our curiosity. It quickens our pulse. It’s okay to advocate for that.
And on the receiving side, this category gives us a place for the critique of I just feel like I’ve been seeing a ton of this lately or this looks a lot like that other thing you did. Those criticisms may have merit. Commonness could blunt distinctiveness. Repetition might be a rut. But ultimately, these are questions of fashion. And as designers, we must always weigh temporal tastes against the duration and function of the project at hand.
I suspect that what I’m calling cultural criticism is always, at root, a response to a natural order and that the fashionable category is always dancing across the broader culture. They can only exist together—a dense feedback loop for the world-class designer.
But for training purposes, at least while we get these ravaging egos in check, consider naming and sorting inbound critique into clear categories. And next time you bring an idea to your colleagues, your investors, a teacher or a mentor, be open to their candid criticism. Lean into it. We can take a breath, see it clearly for what it is, and come away stronger.