How to Take Design Criticism Like You're Not Taking Design Criticism

In a former life, I was a lowly editorial assistant at Clarkson Potter—had they given me a spelling test, they’d never have given me the job. Anyway, being an editorial assistant meant that I went to book jacket meetings, where senior editors complained that pictures of chocolate cake weren’t sexy enough. Mary Sarah Quinn (that’s the flash site I did for her eleven years ago—unbelievably still online) was the creative director and ran the meetings. While editors lobbed opinions like moron grenades, causing designers to self-implode and skulk below the conference table, Mary Sarah had a way to move forward firmly and—whether the situation deserved it or not—respectively. It was an awesome thing to watch. Here she was, a multi-awarding winning designer and typographer, at the top of the industry, but she played it calm and cool, all Navy seal in hostile combat. She seriously could have wasted anyone in the room and she would’ve been right.

In my frustrations and failures over the years of being on the wrong end of moron grenades, I’ve thought back to those jacket meetings. Even this week I stumbled through a bad review and figured it was time to write down what I had learned but haven’t always practiced. Or rarely practiced. After a decade of doing this, you’d think I’d got it by now.

Bear and Grin It

If things start to get rough, keeping the tone of the meeting positive keeps the pace moving. A quicker meeting is the difference between ripping off the bandaid and slowly pealing it away, one bloody, oozy, scabby sore spot at a time. You’ll probably have to force the grin out. So do it. Remember, they’re paying you. It can help to repeat back what they’re saying (save the sarcasm), even when you don’t agree, and ask questions about what doesn’t work for them. You might be even able to swing them back to your side. If you have a reason you made a choice, and you very well should, this is your chance. But don’t push too hard. Hear it, work it out, and if needed, grin through it.

Repeat and Rinse

When the conversation is getting stalled, repeat any changes requested and discussed, e.g. “Okay, so we’ve talked about the color and the stroke width here, and before that was making the logo bigger; so let’s move to the footer.” This does three things: it shows you’ve been listening to their comments; it concludes the current discussion; it gives you control over the conversation. The good clients want your opinion, even when they have their own. They’ve come to you to lead them down this road. So lead them—with confidence, not arrogance. Clients want to trust you, especially when you disagree with their opinion. Having control of the conversation will put them at ease, and honestly, make it more likely you can move their opinion closer to your own. The bad clients, well, there’s really nothing you can do about them. Bad clients look to you as an extension of themselves. In the end, neither of you is going to be happy. So add the purple glow and hopefully the pay is good. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to sniff out bad clients before you even get to this stage.

If They’re Right, Tell Them

Stanley Kubrick used to tell his cast and crew, “There are no bad ideas. Only better ones.” Now if Stanley was to come up with an idea—and his would surely have been better than yours—you’d say, “Of course! It’s brilliant.” But that same idea might come from the intern in the meeting, who’s only other comment has been slurping a Jamba Juice. Guess what? It’s still a better idea. So acknowledge it. Confidence isn’t knowing when you’re right, it’s knowing when someone else is. Again, the client is looking to you to lead with the best idea, whether or not it’s your own.

Time Soothes All Egos

When it feels bad, remind yourself, it’s going to feel better. Every designer has gone through bad reviews. It’s part of the gig. Some of us go into a corner and crumple. Some of us are disgusted by the lack of taste in this world and use lots of expletives to express it—no matter who’s around. I’m the latter. But the truth is, after an hour, whether I end up agreeing with the changes or not, I just feel better about the whole situation. It happens every time. I won’t say I always feel okay about the design, but at least I’m able to get my head back down and work. I have to admit—with the good clients—the design always improves.

Design with Your Heart, Lead with Your Head

I wish there was a Matrix-like, kung-fu-download to the brain where having a sensible and tempered reaction to a bad review would be something I just did rather than have to strive for. I feel passionate about the work I do and that passion doesn’t easily turn off. But being a designer isn’t just making the thing, it’s also communicating the idea to your client. Being a controlled, confident leader doesn’t show lack of zeal or belief in your work, it shows maturity.

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