Feedback. The Creativity Killer.

Image that has the text Feedback. The Creativity Killer.

If you don’t deal with bad feedback it can disrupt, slowly corrode, and in the end, kill your creativity. If you’ve ever said "Yes, I can change that" and know deep down inside of you a little bit of your creative soul died, then this article is for you. We’ll tackle negative feedback and learn how to combat it. You’ll discover the 12 ways to manage feedback and keep your creativity alive.

Designerus Thickus Skinus

They say the designer’s skin is several layers thicker than most other humans. There is a reason for this mutation: clients, managers, co-workers … Ok, basically anyone with an opinion. I don’t think there are many other professions where any person off the street thinks they might know better than the actual professional does. I would hesitate to tell a surgeon how she should initiate the first cut, or tell the airplane pilot that I think he should move to another altitude for faster travel. But heck if I haven’t had someone walk past my desk and offer unsolicited tips on how I could improve a design I am working on.

Design doesn’t just happen

Most people have a hard time articulating why they like or dislike things. They believe it’s a sort of random reasoning. They know what they like and that’s that. To them design and creativity is just an unexplainable feeling.

What they don’t realize is the experience of a website or interaction is interpreted by the brain in a very specific way. We are born wired to like and dislike certain things. There is a science and logic behind design. Just take a look at the natural world around us. It seems random in its beauty, yet we find that some of the reason behind it has a lot to do with the Golden Ratio.

Image of a shell showing the Golden Ratio in biology.

Design impacts our lives, especially if executed poorly. Today’s designs are online banks, car dashboards, medical equipment, and much more. Someone skilled and experienced should be heavily involved in decisions made in creating them.

Know your feedback

Feedback falls into two silos: Propels Creativity and Kills Creativity. Ok, fairly obvious. What’s more important are the motivations of the people offering it. The motivations of people can overlap, so it’s not always a black and white situation.

Propels Creativity

  • Collaborative: The person giving this feedback is genuinely interested in making the end product better. They are team focused and driven by being a part of creating something great.They know what they don’t know, and they allow the experienced person to do what they do best.

  • Informative: This is an experienced professional who respects others, listens to ideas, and wants to explore more than just their own ideas. Their feedback is truly constructive. They encourage and educate others to help them grow. This feedback also makes the final product great.

Kills Creativity

  • Egocentric: This person believes that their opinion has more weight because their experience or rank means more than your experience and/or rank. They will take credit for ideas until something goes wrong, then it’s all you.

  • Uninformed: This person feels they know enough to make important decisions based on something like reading an article or working with a designer in the past. They know enough to be dangerous. Some might offer an opinion just because they were asked or only speak up to justify their value as a team member.

  • Influenced: This person has motivations that relate only to the world they live in. It might be a marketer who only is concerned with a brand guide being followed to the “t”. The user experience might be secondary or quickly drop completely off the list, as they get distracted with unimportant details.

12 Ways to Manage Feedback

1. The Blank Page

Every creative person starts in the exact same place: The blank page. As a designer you create something out of nothing. So when you first get that feedback, ask yourself this: Where were they when the page was blank? It’s easy to give an opinion, but not without something there to critique. Take pride in what you offer and realize how important you are in the process.

2. Anticipate

Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. By approaching it from another angle you might find some real issues you can address before you put it in front of anyone. After that, seek out someone that you trust the opinion of and that will give you unbiased feedback. Knowing what might be brought up makes it easier to talk past it. You are in control of the feedback.

3. Know your Stuff

Great design resources (like Six Revisions) are plentiful online and there is always the library. Both of which are free. Take some time to dive deeper into design theory and user experience (UX) methodologies. With UX the best practices and user discovery are all you need to make your work impermeable to poor feedback. Let the research shine. It’s harder to argue with the facts.

4. Power of Three

Every designer goes through many different ideas as they pull together initial concepts. The number that you come up with each time depends on many things including budget and deadlines. Whatever you decide to present, it’s good to assemble a range: A conservative option, a "forward-thinking" or "edgy" option, and an in-between option (a combination of other two). You can guide the decision more by knowing most people go to the middle option.

5. Taking it Personally

Designers become more than attached to their work; They take it to personally. If someone rips down a design, part of him or her is torn too. As a designer you need to think about the bigger picture. It’s important to forward design as an industry. At the touch points in your day-to-day life you represent all other designers. Create great work that meets the needs of the end users or customers and don’t push your own creative agenda. Take the feedback as directed at the work, not yourself. If at some point in the process you have one version you know might not work for this exact project, then work on it for yourself and file it away.

6. Find the Value

Even the harshest words have a source. Your job as a designer is to figure out what that is and if it really has a value. Take a look at the motivations of the person giving the feedback and at its relationship to the whole. Where does it fall? Is it propelling the project to greatness or derailing it and causing frustration? Based on this you either ignore it or add it into the next iteration.

7. Truth and Consequences

Let me tell you the truth: Clients (internal or external) will always be a pain. They give feedback that calls for major changes in near impossible time frames. I agree that it’s not fair. Don’t let your life turn into a "Kinko’s" where everything is expected to be turned around in a few hours and you are never able to spend the needed time to get it right.

The best approach is "Yes, I can do that" to everything. But like any decision it comes with a consequence. Something like: "It will cause the deadline to move back a lot." It really works because you didn’t have to say "no". But, you just gave them a big reason to have to reconsider their unreasonable request.

8. Young at Heart

Luke Skywalker

Luke: "Got ‘im! I got ‘im!"

Han Solo: "Great, kid. Don’t get cocky."

–from Star Wars

Walking into a job fresh from school everyone wants to prove their worth and think they know exactly what solutions are needed. The best advice I can offer is: Shut-up. Listen. Be humble. You just might learn everything you need to help launch yourself off into a successful career. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to be heard, but you have to earn it. Feedback in the early years gives you experience and growth. One thing to take away from that time is don’t let the rules and having your ideas shot down over the years stifle your creativity later on. Stay young at heart.

9. Push Back

They hired you for your expertise. So give them your feedback! Ask them the reasons behind their decisions to gain some insight into their motivations. Sometimes (Ok, most times) there are very vague requirements and you are throwing out ideas blindly hoping to get it right. They might not even know what’s best and are looking for leadership.

You can drive the process. Get the answers you need. You can’t be afraid to speak up. If you do give feedback you have to back this up though. It can’t just be because you "feel" it’s right. You need to validate it. Things like user research and any other information from discovery or best practices are good.

10. Don’t Break the Rules

The same rules apply to you. Don’t be a design snob and say that no one understands your genius on something you can’t back up. If the work you produced doesn’t tie into the project goals, or if you are simply being trumped on a decision, try to do your best to move on. Find other outlets to let your creativity reign freely. In fact, this is something that you should do to explore new ideas and stay fresh as a designer. There are things clients or co-workers might not appreciate. Other places like the design community might be better.

11. Quiet Confidence

There is a fine line between confident and egocentric. The motives are very different though. You know what you are doing. You are an expert in design. The experience that you have is valuable to clients (whether they know it or not). You shouldn’t try to prove yourself. You should however try to create great work and believe in it. People will always criticize, but you need to be confident and hold true to the vision for the project. If that confidence is based on wanting to create the right thing for the project, not just to prove you are "awesome", then you will find success.

12. Show Me the Happiness

Quit

If you are stuck in an infinite loop of degrading feedback that is killing your creativity and burning you out, it might be time to move on. This could be due to a manager or the clients you have to interact with on a daily basis. Quitting should be the last resort after you have tried to deal with things head on and given it as much time as possible.

If you think about it in terms of the other professions I brought up earlier, it becomes a bit stronger. If a surgeon or pilot were continually asked to significantly limit their performance and that they were always wrong, it would not only be frustrating, but a danger to the patients and passengers.

From personal experience I can say there are better clients and better employers out there. Given, no place is perfect, but you deserve to be happy and create great work.

Make Feedback Work for You

How you deal with feedback is what really matters. I hope these tips help.

"Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing"

Aristotle

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About the Author

Francisco Inchauste is a web and interaction designer whose work you can find over at his online presence – Finch. By day, he works as a UX specialist for Universal Mind. He’s written for O’Reilly’s InsideRIA about User Experience and RIA’s. Connect with him on Twitter.