Dealing with Design Critiques

Ask For Specific Feedback

One way of managing negative critiques is to avoid them in the first place. By giving your employer a structured approach for assessing your work, you can sidestep evaluations based simply on the whim and tastes of an individual.

Even Chris Spooner, an extraordinary designer and celebrated blogger who has been featured in industry-leading publications like .NET magazine and Web Designer magazine, isn’t a stranger to negative feedback from his clients.

"Avoid the words ‘What do you think?’" Chris Spooner advised. "As designers we don’t want to get into personal opinions, we want to make something that works for a particular audience or succeeds in solving a certain problem. Asking what a client thinks opens up a whole can of wiggly worms and can quickly result in ‘I don’t like blue’ type responses that are completely unrelated to the purpose of the design you’re working on."

Instead, he suggests tailoring your questions toward the goal of the project with pointed and narrow questions such as, "Does the blue relate to the 12-16 year old male target audience?"

Develop a Tough Skin

It is hard to hear that the design we slaved on for a long period of time is not good enough. There will be a few rare moments when you present your work to your clients and they are wholly satisfied with it — but for the most part, you will have to concede to the fact that you will always receive negative criticism.

"Sometimes you may feel like everything you are designing is being rejected or torn apart," said Eric Vasquez, a designer and artist whose work has been presented in Advanced Photoshop Magazine and The Art of Fashion Art Exhibit. "I have done work for some people and had them say some outright negative things about my work, before I was even finished!"

"In the end, I think this type of criticism is necessary because it helps you develop that tough skin," Vasquez asserted. "It is important to stay focused, get as much information as possible, and really listen to your client so that you can deliver."

Conduct Yourself Professionally and Keep Your Cool

When soliciting feedback, it’s imperative to remain professional, no matter how the client responds. It’s also helpful to not be too attached to your work.

When presenting your piece to your boss, be confident, provide your expert opinion, and outline the purpose and intent of your design choices.

Grace Smith, a freelance graphic and web designer (whose work has been featured in Computer Arts magazine) and highly respected design blogger, shared, "I always make the distinction between personal and professional, which I feel has made me both a better designer and person."

"When receiving criticism, I keep my defensive reaction in check and remember that how I respond to criticism says a lot about me as a person," Smith shared. "I’ve found that presenting a concept to the client with a detailed explanation, the more understanding the client has of the overall design. This usually means I receive less of a negative gut reaction and more constructive feedback."

Don’t Take it Personally

When we receive negative feedback about our work, sometimes it feels as though it is also a criticism about our design tastes, style, and vision. But it is imperative to keep in mind that design is subjective.

Jan Cavan, a graphic designer, web designer and invited speaker at the Future of Web Design, advised, "Never take it personally. Don’t take things to heart because it’s not good for you."

Ms. Cavan shared an experience she had with her design critics: "I’ve received screaming emails saying’my design is too flashy, citing a design they liked, which was a 90’s-looking site that was square and flat. It was inevitable to feel frustrated."

Stand Up for Your Design Choices

If you believe that the negative feedback you are getting is unwarranted, keep in mind that you are the professional. You were hired because of your expertise and experience.

Justify your reasons for doing something a certain way if you feel strongly about the particular aspect of your work that is being critiqued. If the critique is about the color scheme, for example, share your logic as to why you selected the color combinations. If you are having a difficult time explaining it, or if your design choice was arbitrary, then your client may be right.

"I try to find out exactly what they don’t like about the piece," said Simona Pfreundner, a German graphic designer and illustrator transplanted to Montreal, Canada. "If I feel strongly that the piece is good, I’ll try to explain the design to the client."

  • Yes when dealing with critique from others you have to be ready for the worst and best. Some people hold back and others don’t so what ever happens lets just hope it makes you stronger.

    Great article Jacob.

  • These are all excellent pieces of advice, and techniques that I’m sure many of us have used over the years. Numbers 1 and 4 are probably the most important ones in my experience. It is always best to get specific feedback vice the informal “What do you think?”.

  • Great article. I guess with experience, the more designs you do, the more criticism you receive – positive and negative, makes you thicker skinned, certainly better at asking questions and more corporate minded. It’s difficult sometimes when you’ve injected so much passion into a design only to find you’ve missed the mark from the customers perspective! I absolutely agree with you – don’t take it personally and try to get the customer round to your way of thinking.

  • “Stand up for your design choices.”

    I consistently run into the client who’s “always right” and my design winds up looking like a 5th grader did it. When argued, I get thrown the ol’ “I’m paying you. I think I should have the final say” bomb.

    so frustrating.

  • I think as the design professional, I feel that you should have the final say as well. From my own personal experience, that type of attitude was very common in low-budget projects. Design projects that are priced at the market rate go smoother — it’s because when someone is paying you a decent wage, they understand your value and expertise.

  • I think standing up for your work and explaining why you have made certain choices in your design work is another good tip. It’s hard when there are too many cooks in the kitchen and everybody has something that they want to tweak or change. Very frustrating indeed…

    Great article nonetheless!

  • Speaking of too many cooks in the kitchen, we just published How to Navigate Design by Committee on Six Revisions today.

  • I think it is important to go into “critique awareness” mode and really step back from the project. While my work is being critiqued, I pretend that the work is not mine and that I am looking at it for the first time. When that distance is made, I don’t take things personally and am able to listen to their comments without getting frustrated.

    After all of their points have been made, I look at them and decide whether I should make an adjustment or stick to my guns. However, if I disagree, and their opinion is a make or break point… then I put my guns in my holster. I need to eat!

    I enjoy these articles on design concepts and ideas in addition to the tutorials. Hope to see more in the future.

  • Nice — that’s an excellent strategy; I’ve never thought of looking at it that way.

    And we hope we can see your tutorial published here soon too Jack!

  • I could have done with this article a few weeks ago! Sometimes it really is hard to just sit there while your designs are slated – but it really does help in making you have a tougher skin, as Eric said. Great article – it’s nice to have some insights from some top designers on this subject as well.

  • Thanks for posting this – I need to hear this. Nice work Jacob.

  • One of the best tools for design critiques that I learned in design school was that we were never allowed to use the word “like.” We couldn’t say we “liked” someones work, we had to state why it was good or bad, and what could be done to improve it. When you remove subjective words from the conversation and focus on the objective goals of the work, the crit is more successful because the designers are taking it less personally.

  • John, thank you for your wonderful advice.

  • I am in the middle of it as we speak! Tutorial writing is way more time consuming than I expected 😉 Very fun though.

  • Jeancarlo Zelaya

    I currently work at a Sign Shop, it’s alot different from my impression of the way I thought the industry ran from reading so many articles and websites related to the graphic design industry as I love design, but it’s a different industry, it’s the sign industry.

    The attitude at the sign shop is just do what the client asks and get the design approved as fast as possible. When I can I do try to guide the client but that’s against the philosophy where I work which is “Get it done, do the changes requested, get it approved fast”
    I don’t have much of a say. But in the future I don’t plan on having a job that runs the way it’s running now.

  • @Jeancarlo Zelaya: As a person who’s done both freelance and in-house, I want to first say that you’re not alone in all the things you’ve said. You want to just get it done, but at the same time, eventually you want to end up in a situation where design takes a front seat towards speed and appeasement.

  • Great article, Jacob.

    I love the honest statement: “If you are having a difficult time explaining it, or if your design choice was arbitrary, then your client may be right.”

  • Thanks Louis! But I can’t take most of the credit since most of the advice come from the designers featured in this piece — I just pieced them together and helped narrate their story.