How to Take Criticism

From a talk I gave to the employees of Vine (RIP) on July 7, 2016 in New York City.


To talk about taking criticism, we first have to talk about why we’re here.

We’re here because we design things. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in what we do, we forget we’re designing for people. We forget how what we make adds to an already crowded world.

 Multiple iPads for Seamless, Grubhub, Amazon, Foodkick, Uber Food hang on the wall of a restaurant, where a service worker takes orders.

Multiple iPads for Seamless, Grubhub, Amazon, Foodkick, Uber Food hang on the wall of a restaurant, where a service worker takes orders.

We forget that we can’t make things perfect. 

 Two balloons, stuck on the ceiling of the Oculus.

Two balloons, stuck on the ceiling of the Oculus.

We forget that we will never, ever, ever fully predict how people will use the things we make.

 
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We get insular.

So when we release new products or ideas, harsh criticism can be shocking and emotionally devastating. Opinions can feel like objects thrown at you. And for a lot of companies that release updates or redesigns, they’re not prepared for the reaction.

If you were on Twitter when the new Instagram redesign dropped, it did not go well. And wow, the jokes.

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“Looks like something you press on a dreary day in an ad then Pitbull’s there and everyone’s drinking Dr. Pepper.” 

We have a long, collective history of dunking on brands when they attempt a redesign (these reactions are all from social media btw).

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“Now their logo is just as ill-fitting as their jeans.”

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“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.” 


 

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“I don't hate the new Clippers logo per se but that tattooist Groupon money might have been better applied somewhere else.”

These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.

They are jokes.

They only benefit the joker.

And I mean, I like jokes. A lot. Here’s one.

Here’s another.

But don’t confuse self-serving jokes with meaningful criticism.

How-the-new-Instagram-logo-was-made-392mQiu.gif

This Instagram gif is very good. Whoever made this did a great job. But for the people who work at Instagram, it’s not helpful or meaningful.

The worst part is, sometimes, managers and bosses see these jokes and take them seriously. In some cases, it leads them to revert to their previous design. If I were giving this talk to a room full of CEOs, I would title it ‘Stop Letting Trolls Call the Shots.’


I firmly believe you can be a critic while being kind and open-hearted.

I don’t even care if that sounds naive.

Most people think the number one goal of a critic is to judge whether work is good or bad.

They are wrong. #imo

The number one goal of a critic should be to make things better. That’s it. None of this binary good/bad stuff. Lots of people would disagree with me on this. Like maybe these guys:

 Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, film critics and former hosts of  At the Movies.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, film critics and former hosts of At the Movies.

Criticism only succeeds when everyone wants things to be better. The moment you sniff out that a critic’s goal is not to help you make things better, BOY BYE.

How do you know if they don’t want to make things better? You know when a troll is a troll. They reveal it through their lack of curiosity about your work. 

Leading up to an Apple event, I once saw a prominent tech writer and critic tweet, “Can’t wait for another boring design from Jony Ive.” 

Why wouldn’t you want Jony Ive to do the best he can? Why wouldn’t you want the next iPhone to be the best thing of all time? Why wouldn’t you want everything to be amazing? It might not be, but give it a minute. As a critic, if I’m not open to the possibility of my mind being blown, what’s the point?

Here’s a critic who wants things to be better:

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Mary-Alice Pomputius doesn't go anywhere without her dog. She keeps a personal blog of all the pet relief areas in airports. I love this blog. Don’t ask me how I found it, I couldn’t even tell you. I don’t even have a dog.

The author writes thoroughly about her experience. She questions the choices made by airport management. And she makes suggestions for how the airport could improve. Turns out there are a lot of airports that want to make things better too. Many have approached her to act as a consultant to improve their pet areas.

To be a good critic, you don't have to start a blog or write essays. But you must stay curious and look for ways to make things better.


Anyone can give criticism.

“It’s a free country, man.” 

Universities teach you how to give criticism. They’ve been doing it for centuries. They supply all sorts of texts so that you can cough up fancy words and names to support your argument.

But the thing is, no one teaches you how to take criticism. This is ridiculous. It’s like teaching construction workers about nuts and not bolts.

As it turns out, it’s really hard to teach people how to take criticism.

That’s because everyone is human and naturally defensive and very sensitive and we all have a secret emotional space where we’re in a constant state of LOL/#RIP and we’re all maybe dying a little inside but that’s okay here’s a gif of cat dressed as a pirate.

cat-pirate-costume.gif

Usually, when we face criticism, we concern ourselves with one question:

Is my work good or bad?

You’ve got to stop asking yourself this. It is torturous. It will make you sad.

Instead, focus on this question: What is the next step I can take to make my work better? And then, focus all your efforts on taking criticism that helps you answer that question.


I used to work for the New York City government. It was the best, hardest, most rewarding, most nightmare-ish job I’ve ever had.

I worked in an office of 1,400 people. My 12-person design and communication team was often referred to as, “The weird art kids.” 

The people that I delivered presentations to each day weren’t designers or coders. They were accountants, lawyers, and secretaries. They grew up in Trinidad, Pakistan, Queens, and Estonia. And by working with non-designers, I learned some very important lessons.

Most people still don’t understand what designers and tech people do.

And therefore, most people are scared of what designers and tech people do.

They won’t ever let on that they’re freaked out. But they are. You’ll know this because they’ll call you things like, “The weird art kid.” They’ll look at you like you’re selling snake oil.

The criticism and feedback you get from other people is often propelled by this fear.

But fortunately, it’s called taking criticism for a reason. You get to choose whether or not to take it. And this choice is what we need to practice. 

There are some things you can do when facing criticism. One of those things is to stop and ask yourself:

“Is this helpful or not helpful?” 

Is this person saying something that’s helping you move forward or not? I’m about to give you an example of putting that in use. But first. Another problem. 

When giving feedback or criticism, people rarely say what they mean. We’re just complicated like that. We’re humans. For example, when someone asks you how you’re doing, you often respond, “Fine,” when you really want to yell, “THE WORLD IS A GARBAGE FIRE SO I’M REAL BAD.”

To understand criticism is to be a translator. Not only do we have to ask ourselves in the moment, “Is this helpful or not helpful,” we must also listen to the person, then try to understand what they truly mean.

This isn’t easy. And not everyone’s brain is wired for this.

At my government job, my creative team had one of those clients who was definitely always right. In a meeting, while scrolling through a website, a logo my team made for this client appeared on the screen. Our client stopped everything, pointed to the logo, and he looked at me and said:

“What do you think of this?”

At this point, I turned on my mental translator. I knew this client well enough to know he wasn't feeling particularly positive about the logo. And perhaps, he just needed someone to listen.

So, I asked the client, what he thought about the logo. 


What they say:

“I just don't like it.”

What they mean:

“I'm afraid my ideas will sound stupid.”

 


Talking about subjective stuff like design is hard. It's deeply personal. It can make you feel exposed. When people say the don’t like something, without any further explanation, what they often mean is: “I’m afraid my explanation will sound stupid.” 

So now, I’m asking myself—is this helpful? If I go back to my team and tell them the client just doesn't like it, will it improve our work? Nope. In fact, it will just make my team angry. So something very important to do at this point: Stay curious. 

So I press him. I say, “Can you tell me what it is that you don’t like?” Then he says the most classic line ever.


What they mean:

“This thing you’ve made doesn’t resonate with me at all and I’m afraid I’m missing something.” 

What they say:

“It looks like something my three-year-old could’ve done.”


“It looks like something my three-year-old could’ve done.”

Interpreting this gets slippery, but there’s an underlying subtext to this common response. And that’s, “This thing you’ve made doesn’t resonate with me at all and I’m afraid I’m missing something.”

You know that thing I said about people fearing designers? That plays a major role here. People are always suspicious of designers. Even designers are suspicious of designers. 

Is this helpful feedback? If I take that feedback to my designers, their online portfolios will suddenly be up-to-date as they look for new jobs. 

So, I asked our client for specific things he didn’t like. After some thought, he responded.

“It’s just the primary colors. I don’t like them. They feel juvenile to me.” 

Finally. Finally? Finally! Is this helpful? Yes. I can work with this. My design team can use this feedback to inform their future color choices.

I’m not saying translation is a science. I’m not always sure what people truly mean. But the process of taking criticism is about empathy. It’s about imagining how others think and feel, and using that to guide your curiosity without inciting your own defensiveness. 

Taking criticism is often described metaphorically as standing in front of a firing squad. Being a helpless target. But it's not. It's an empowering practice. It requires just as much work as giving criticism.

Taking criticism is the search for actionable feedback.


No one loves taking criticism.

It can make you feel frustrated.

And small.

 

But I’m going to tell you a secret. One that critics won’t tell you.

You have as much power as your harshest critic.

That’s because you hold the power to decide whether or not to take someone’s criticism. 

We have the privilege to make things for people that can improve their lives. And by listening to others we can figure out the next step to making everything better.


tl;dr

How to Take Criticism

  1. Ask yourself: Is this helpful or not helpful?
  2. Translate.
  3. Stay curious.
  4. Hang in there until you receive actionable feedback.