Critique is Critical — 5 Ways to Get Better at Accepting and Applying Design Feedback

I’m all too familiar with the prickly monster that explodes out your eyeballs when you’ve been working on a design for three days and someone says anything other than, “Wow!”

Some may call that knee jerk defensiveness ‘creative passion’, but the truth is, without fostering your ability to receive feedback graciously, you’re limiting your path to improvement and success. Not to worry, you’re not alone.

Your feedback defenses are likely triggered for the following reasons:

  • Mindset: Sharing work in order to receive validation is very different from sharing work to receive constructive feedback. Make sure that you have prepared to open yourself up perspectives different from your own.
  • Insecurity: One of the reasons we may dread critique is that we know there are issues with our work. Fearing the inevitable comments and difficult questions that will come out of a feedback session is sure to fuel that defense monster living under your ribcage.
  • Respect: It can be very difficult to accept feedback from someone whose opinion you do not respect. Lack of respect can be born of a few situations; a person may not be qualified to provide helpful criticism; a person may not be giving the work proper attention and so their advice is repetitive; a person may be a total know-it-all who is basically ruining your life on the daily.
  • Timing: There is a right time and a wrong time for feedback. If you’re in the process of powering through an idea, it’s best to complete your thoughts and allow time for your own critique before inviting someone else to have a look. Don’t permit yourself to be derailed until you’re at a stopping point.

Identifying what triggers your defensiveness is the first step to learning how you can invite feedback head on and use it as a tool to create your best work. Now, to business! Below are 5 kickstart ideas, learned the hard & bloody way, to help you become more receptive to feedback:

1. Learn to self protect

This may seem counter-intuitive, but knowing when is NOT the right time to receive feedback is extremely important. Inviting too many unqualified minds into your work before you’ve fully resolved your own ideas can be confusing and disruptive. Take your work all the way through to a stopping point. This doesn’t mean you should wait until the end of the project when the final pixel is polished to ask for a second opinion, it just means that you should finish your thought before inviting more brains into the mix.

2. Be confident in your imperfections

No one is perfect. Every single thing that has ever been created could be improved upon. If each person who looks at your work doesn’t find one small thing to improve or remark upon, then they haven’t looked closely enough. Challenge the people looking at your work to find improvements.

If you are a newer designer, it can be easy to feel let down by imperfections. What I hope you can take to heart is that making mistakes does not invalidate you. If you can get your mistakes caught and fixed before they go out to your clients and customers, then you have done your job brilliantly.

3. Dig in deeper to find out ‘Why’

Just because Bobby thinks your buttons should be blue instead of green doesn’t mean you need to change the buttons to be blue. If you probe a little deeper you may learn that Bobby likes blue because he is red-green colorblind, like 8% of your users. What might first be perceived as ‘unhelpful’ feedback, may be perfectly well founded when you ask the simple question ‘why’.

Learning to ask questions helps to improve your relationship with your evaluators. When you seek to fully understand feedback, you show a level of respect toward the team member or client who is working with you which tends to create a feeling of goodwill toward you. In reverse, your questions will better help you understand the perspective and challenges that another person is facing and how this shapes the type of feedback they provide to you. Respect and trust begin to build in this space of understanding and empathy.

4. Become a curator

It took me a few years to realize that I didn’t need to act upon every piece of feedback I was given. Some feedback has a higher value than other feedback. Listening to ideas that you disagree with is extremely valuable, and learning how to curate the ideas worth contemplating further will help build your comfort with inviting in feedback. It’s important to choose when not to act upon a suggestion.

Remember to always listen graciously. Even if you chose not to act upon an idea or suggestion this time, the person who provided you the feedback may have insights that you will need to save your project next time. Especially with clients, you always want your evaluator to feel their ideas were heard and considered.

5. Learn to communicate what you need

If you’re working on a full page layout, but you only want comments on a single block, or just the typographic hierarchy, or only the order of content on the page, then make sure this is clear to your critics. It’s your job to focus the feedback session to be productive.

If what you really need is for a fellow designer to say, “The layout looks great! You’re going to kill it in that presentation!” because you’re feeling a bit uncertain and the presentation is in 3 minutes…then ask for a hype man! In that moment, positive feedback is POWERFUL and if you aren’t clear about what you need, you might be inviting a complete ego bust 3 minutes before your big pitch.

Like any skill you’ve ever worked at, accepting feedback gets easier with practice and a determined mind. Never give up.