Feedback. The Creativity Killer.

Jun 17 2009 by Francisco Inchauste | 46 Comments

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.

46 Comments

Doubledown Tandino

June 17th, 2009

Great opinion, I appreciate this article.

One major thing I feel that’s been left out is regarding “the ego”
… I feel that one’s ego is truly how one receives and interprets feedback.
This article is written as if the creator needs to keep their ego intact. And to me, trying to maintain a sense of ego is the creativity killer, and feedback should be the drive to create.

My advice is to put your ego away if you really want to find success or happiness. The 1 step: check your ego , can eliminate many of the 12 steps.

Gabe

June 17th, 2009

Thanks for the awesome article. Dealing with criticism has been one of the hardest things for me to learn working as a web developer. It requires constantly re-focusing myself, it never seems to get easier. Hopefully I can use some of these points to make my skin thicker. I have gotten better at not just skipping straight to point #12 on the list, but with my personality this aspect of my job will always be a challenge.

Basma

June 17th, 2009

I want to thank you so very very much for your advice.
You wont believe how spot on your article is! And during this phase of my life, it’s borderline freaky! for me to come across it that is. No seriously, I needed that talk. Yes it felt that you were talking to me personally.

Many thanks. Waiting for more!

Basma

cbuck

June 17th, 2009

Excellent.

Victor Abadio

June 17th, 2009

Great article!
Good to know my opinion about certain points of design is shared.

Maggy

June 17th, 2009

Great article! Dealing with criticism is not easy, but your tips will certainly improve it for me. Many thanks.
Cheers, Maggy

Kate

June 17th, 2009

Thanks for a wonderful article. I have been suffering with this exact topic this week and I was nice to hear some tips from an outside source. As a first year designer it is often hard to feel like you are getting your creativity out there without dozens of harsh feedback. I hope this finds it to other designers in need of a little self confidence.

Anne

June 17th, 2009

This is a great article – thanks! Appreciate the advice. It’s hard to stay focused on the reality of a situation when faced with negative feedback, especially when you have put much into a design and the client decides near the end of the project that they want something that is nearly impossible to implement given the project deadline. Definitely going to use your advice.

Josh

June 17th, 2009

Excellent article. And it really hits home for me. I often have to remind myself to take a step back and not to take my work too seriously. It’s easy to think that everything will fall apart if things aren’t done “just right.” And as someone who ALWAYS wants things done “just right,” it causes me a lot of frustration in the workplace. The key for me was in learning (and I am still learning) how to pick my battles.

Brad

June 17th, 2009

Great article! Confidence is key (not arrogance/ego) if the pilot loses confidence the plane crashes. I’ve been in the “infinite loop of degrading feedback” and I had to leave. (I should note I was the 3rd person in a year and a half to leave this position) Under constant attack, the designer has to maintain their values, pride and confidence as a designer and as a person.

About the article, in my opinion, ego does unfortunately get in the way of many designers but I don’t feel ego alone negates any of the points made in this article given my previous experience.

Tony Chester

June 17th, 2009

I somewhat agree with item 4: The Power of Three. It makes sense but with my experience, I’ve found that if you supply multiple options, the client sometimes chooses the least desirable design. This in turn causes you grief and kills your morale.

WIlliam Rackley

June 17th, 2009

Great article! =)

Around the studio, we’ve always referred to many of the ‘let it go, move on’ points you had as ‘developing artistic detachment’.

Designers facing some of these challenges would do well to remember that the design isn’t their only child. Most likely, every design after that on will be an improvement.

Enjel

June 17th, 2009

I can totally relate to this. I’m a designer for 8 years. And as I have observed, most of the time people do not know what they want.

Thanks for bringing this up. This helped a lot.

hvdesigns

June 17th, 2009

great article, some really usefull tips.

many thanks

Mike Cuesta

June 17th, 2009

Great post! Being a good designer is not only a matter of creating great work, but being able to work with various stakeholders to successfully deliver the project.

Linda

June 17th, 2009

Great article that can be applied to art and business as well. Thanks!

Mondo Jay

June 17th, 2009


Dugg! Great article with great advice,
love the Aristotle quote too…

Joe

June 17th, 2009

great advice for designers of all kinds.

Susanne

June 17th, 2009

Many thanks for a wonderful article.

I find the hardest people to keep happy are your peers and your managers. Clients who are consulted to in the correct manner always feel part of the decision making process – your peers, your managers are the ones who make things harder – they regularly act on what would be best for your business or department and not your clients and their users!

A phrase I find useful in tense situations is:

“If I were a user visiting your site then…”

…”I may find this difficult to understand”
…”I may be confused with this”
…”I would benefit from”
etc etc…

typesett

June 17th, 2009

I like the subject matter but I really don’t like the negative headline. Feedback can be a Creativity boon too. Anyway, it was good, thanks!

Anna

June 17th, 2009

I hear ya, I’m dealing with clients asking for some ridiculous changes, but I’m hangin in there and this article helps :)

Stijn

June 17th, 2009

Spot on. But is the surgeon female because the pilot isn’t? ;-)

Vikas

June 17th, 2009

Man.. rocking article
One needs to face feedback and its quite tough to stay with feedback which is not constructive.

“Young at Heart”… love the way you have put it.

Rames

June 18th, 2009

great article! Thanks alot! Very useful!

Fazai38

June 18th, 2009

I’m facing this now. It’s great that this article come at a very good timing.

Great Article.

Wder

June 18th, 2009

Great article, reminds me at an article over on smashing magazine about the same issue. Those articles are great because they tell the truth and they tell it out of the heart of everyone here, but as always: Noone of those who should read this article will ever do it: PR-Manager and Product-Managers telling you at the start: Yeah, I keep it up to you. coz I can’t do this design thing. When you show them your first sketch: Oh, nice, really, but may we can put the logo four pixel larger and two pixel to left…?

Thanx again!

Brett

June 18th, 2009

wow, thank you! As a print shop designer there are constant rounds of “Critisism” and “Feedback” its nice to know others feel that same way when our designs get torn and shredded by clients and managers.

Matt

June 18th, 2009

That’s more like a manual as how to be client-friendly :)
Top-notch stuff, keep it up guyz!

Paul Radich

June 18th, 2009

Great read. Thanks! One of the hardest part of my job is dealing with how clients react to what they don’t understand. And keeping my self from dumbing down every design to prevent this.

fahrulazmi

June 18th, 2009

Love this article. Every single designer should read and practice it.

Mike

June 18th, 2009

The one thing that never changed in the forty years I spent in the software development business is that clients always comment mostly on what is wrong or on what they don’t like. You learn to separate the useful comments from the useless ones, But whether a client respects you or not often has little to do with your work, and has more to do with their basic attitudes towards people and life. Trying to change it is like trying to change someone’s religious or political beliefs.

Jenny Simon

June 18th, 2009

What a great article!!! Also great for visual artists who have to deal with this issue on a daily basis. Thanks.

Jennifer

June 18th, 2009

Thanks for the excellent article (and reminders). As one of two designers, we often feel reduced to minion status because of the approval process our work is put through. We need to remember that we are the experts!

Joe

June 18th, 2009

This is great. I literally checked my rss feeds for an article about feedback, and saw this post. I’ve been working on my site and finally have somethig I think I can live with. I would enjoy any propelling feedback anyone could give me right now.

Imokon

June 18th, 2009

Not even going to get started on Kinko’s…

It’s a great refresher read though, Kudos!

Tim Smith

June 18th, 2009

What a great article! I identify with it soo much. Thanks for the great points.

Robert Anthony

June 19th, 2009

Vary good article, this was a timely find as I am considering a job change due to reasons listed. Thanks.

Anna Rzewnicki

June 19th, 2009

Great article, and perfect timing! will be adding this blog to my must-read list!

mrsize

June 19th, 2009

Great article ! i’m actually in the situation you talk about. Maybe i will translate this article in french, if you give me the permission ? ;)

John

June 19th, 2009

Great points. We’ve all been there. Feedback can be so draining. I’ve found one great solution for combatting creative erosion is to have a personal project, a creative outlet where no one is telling you what colors to use or how large to make the type. This helped me tons in learning to put client projects in perspective.

Carl Turner

June 21st, 2009

Great article. The line about “Kinko’s” made me laugh because it’s so painfully on the mark.

Ska Macanan

June 23rd, 2009

Thank you very much for this article.

mkjones

June 23rd, 2009

These are great tips.

I bet the guy who did the London 2012 Logo felt like a real douche when it was first unveiled. I hope he reads this and finds some relief.

Even if it is a terrible piece of work.

Kenny Lai

July 2nd, 2009

Feedback is great but you need to gauge the validity and popularity as well. You can’t take every feedback and implement or think about it – some will be impossible to implement. I am working with http://www.letsfixthis.com that is in its infancy but I feel is a rising star. I can see both the feedback and the “popularity” of that feedback so i know what I should be working on.

Marco

February 25th, 2011

Best article ever!

reading this it’s like taking a deep breath.
And calm down.

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