A Guide for Giving & Receiving Constructive Criticism

The biggest thing to remember when giving and receiving constructive criticism is that we are all on the same team. Everyone is trying to achieve the same goal. If I succeed, you succeed, we all succeed.

Tips for giving constructive criticism:

Don’t react immediately

When you are looking at the work for the first time, you may be surprised at the choices the creative person made. You may instantly hate it and start to get angry with the person who created it for making something you don’t like. Breathe. Take a look at it for about 10 minutes and put it away. The next day (if you’re able to wait that long) revisit the piece and write down your criticisms. Make sure you are completely calm and have distanced yourself from the subject matter as much as possible before discussing it with the person who made it.

Be specific about the things you don’t like

This is key, and something that every art student has to learn in school during “critiques.” If there is something you like or don’t like about a painting, you have to explain why. Right down to the nitty gritty details. If a professor called on you and asked you what you thought of another student’s work and you said, “it’s nice,” instant ‘F’ on that critique day. What you want to say is things like “I think this piece is successful because the light draws the eye straight to the woman’s hand and then down to her shoulder to focus on the birthmark.” And if you don’t like something, why don’t you like it? Ask yourself, burrow down to the source of it: “I’m concerned that this logo is very complex, if we were to scale it down, we’d lose some of that rich detail.” Take your feelings out of it.

Try to make them realize the error on their own

They will be much more interested in having a discussion with you about the piece than you just spouting off what you don’t like about it and what they need to fix. Remember, they’ve thought about this a lot before coming to you; they did not just throw something together willy nilly with no regard to how it will come out. That being said, creative people tend to get very close to their work and are sometimes unable to see the big picture. That’s where you come in. Take a step back with them and look at it together, say things like: “What if we did this?” “How can we make this stand out more?” “Do you think adding an element here would be distracting?” Asking questions like this will be a much more FRIENDLY way to bring about the issues of the piece. Most likely the creative person will see what you are feeling if the two of you discuss it. Be prepared for them to try to talk their way out of it. If this happens, suggest that they make a version with that change and you guys can come back to it later, before it’s put into production. It may also be helpful to bring in a third-party at that stage.

Bring up a new idea that makes their work obsolete

If they are really gung-ho about this idea, but you see flaws in it, instead of tearing their idea down, suggest a new idea that’s better. This is a very non-confrontational way of getting them to reroute. “What if we did this instead?” Example, “We should make this horse pink.” You: “Or … what if we made them brown?” Example, “We should go take a picture of horses.” You: “Or … we could use a stock photo of horses and then we wouldn’t have to go all the way out there.” Example: “We should go buy margaritas” “Or … I could go get the margarita mix I have in the pantry and we can make our own.”

Don’t insult them, don’t give orders

You can get your point across without making the person feel bad for the work they did. After all, they are only trying to please you. Example: “Gee, you must not know anything about color theory.” A better approach would be to say: “These colors look a little off, can we try a different palette?” Also, Suggest edits, new versions, continued efforts but don’t order anything. Don’t say things like “go change this, do this, fix this … etc.” The creative person will be more willing to do what you’re asking if it doesn’t sound like an order. Orders make a creative person feel like you don’t care what they think.

If you have a hard time saying critical things, use the sandwich effect

Positive criticism / negative criticism / positive criticism. Example: “You really understood the creative brief, however I think we’re missing the _________, but everything else is definitely in there, good job.”

Take “you” out of it

Never say “you.” Instead of saying, “You did this wrong,” focus on what is wrong. Example: “I believe that this won’t appeal to the target audience.”

Tips for receiving constructive criticism:

Listen to them completely, don’t interrupt

Usually, people just want to be heard. They want to know that their opinions matter. Sometimes, you will take what they say into consideration and other times you won’t, depending on who they are and what your company structure is like. However, you should always listen to what they have to say, even if it’s heinous. DO NOT INTERRUPT THEM with things like “well I only did that because…X Y Z” Do not justify your choices for the things they are criticizing. This will just frustrate them and make them feel like you’re not listening. Hear them out, and when they are done, ONLY THEN you can provide your take, your input, your reasoning and attempt to come to an agreement on the next steps.

Ask questions, but only to find out more information

Not passive aggressive questions like “well what do you want from me?” A lot of people don’t know how to give constructive criticism, so you’ll hear feedback that doesn’t make any sense and isn’t specific enough ALL THE TIME. For example: “I just … don’t like it” or “I think it’s too … blah.” This is such a joke in the design/advertising community that there are entire websites devoted to “visualizing” bad client and/or coworker feedback. So if you run into this situation, and the person giving the criticism is being vague, ask questions to get to the bottom of what they want to see changed. Do they really hate the whole thing or is it really just that font that was used for the headline? Do they really think it’s blah? Or was it the wording choice in the first paragraph, second sentence?

Don’t take things personally

If they are saying hurtful things like “well you’re an idiot for picking that photo,” know that it’s not about you, it’s about them and their inability to communicate effectively. What they really want to say is: “To me that photo isn’t very appealing, perhaps we could try a couple different versions and see how they test?”

Sometimes, just nod, say OK and walk away

If you have a client/boss/coworker who tends to get heated sometimes, it might be best to just agree to make the changes, and let it be. That being said, if you know that those changes are wrong or will damage the work, come back the next day with a well thought out reasoning for going in a different direction. Remember, it’s not about who is right and who is wrong; it’s about coming to the best solution for the work. Another tactic is to do what the client/coworker/boss is asking for and compare it to the original work as well as a third, hybrid piece and have people in the office give their feedback on which is best. Seeing them side-by-side might help the person giving the criticism to see things differently.

EXAMPLE CONVERSATION:

Nicole: “Hey Person X, what do you think of this blog post I just wrote?”

Person X: “Great approach! I thought it was nice that you took the frame of “a guide” instead of “ways to give constructive criticism” which is the norm.

Nicole: “Thanks! I didn’t want it to come off as preachy.”

Person X: “After reading through it, the last paragraph comes off as a little preachy. What do you think?”

Nicole: “I can definitely see that, let me try reworking it and I’ll send it back to you.”

*note: whether or not I felt the last paragraph was preachy, I am going to rework it and see if that problem can’t be solved. If one person thought it, others might. And besides, the person I asked is just trying to be helpful, not start a war. Listen, work, show, listen, work show. And repeat.

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