The useful art of dealing with critique

A family member is studying design at present and is taking on the daunting task of being critiqued by her tutors and peers. It’s something we all go through if we are in the creative fields and while it may seem daunting, critique can be one of the most beneficial experiences for your practice.

I’ve had a lot of experience as both a designer and an artist; in school and out in the unforgiving ‘real world’. I can say with all sincerity that despite being quite a sensitive and anxious individual I have found a way to see critique as an entirely beneficial experience at least 90% of the time.

Design and art are a bit different in the way critique functions and how to approach it, as are the critiques received in school and those garnered out in the commercial world, but at their core, it’s the same.

At art/design school the sole function of critique is to help you improve your work.
Tutors and peers should be looking at your work, unpacking it, analysing it’s function and posing questions to you that challenge the choices you have made and push you to look further. It doesn’t matter how much they personally might like the work, how good they think it is, they aren’t there to praise you and give you warm fuzzies. They are there to challenge you for the benefit of your work. If they don’t do this you won’t progress and you may as well not be there.

In the design industry the function of critique is to make sure the design you are creating works for the client’s needs (even if the client is yourself!)
The critique you receive working in a design agency is likely to come from two different sources; from a creative director or other senior designer, or directly from the client. The experience of critique as a designer can be quite harsh, but what you need to remember is that the work is being done for the client, not for you. You are using your skills to create something that fulfils their requirements, whatever those may be. With that in mind you can see the critique as being whether the work you have created meets the required brief, not whether it is ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ design. Of course all designers would prefer to create beautiful design they can be proud of, but sometimes a brief will call for something that you personally find a bit ugly, and that is all part and parcel of the interesting challenges of being a commercial designer.

As an artist, critique allows you to understand how your work is perceived by others.
This is the trickiest one because it can be quite random and at times someone will come up with a critique that makes you think “How the hell did they see that??” The temptation is to pull out the old faithful “They just don’t understand it” but that’s not helpful to you as an artist. The more useful way to address critique of your art work is to try to analyse WHY they saw it that way – Is that interpretation ok with you? If you feel it’s a negative thing for the work, what are you going to change? Is there something that you’re missing that causes others to have this interpretation?
Of course you can always dismiss comments as not being very relevant, but they will all provide you with insight. It’s likely that the critique coming from people within the art world will be more useful to you than that from your family and friends, but take all of it as potentially valuable learning.

The most useful thing you can do is to separate yourself from the the work.
Even start referring to it as THE work rather than MY work. This will help you to make decisions and take critique for the benefit of the work rather than taking it upon yourself as an individual. Any critique you receive is not a critique of you as a person, it’s a critique of the work (unless in the unlikely event that the person giving it is a real dick who wants to hurt you, but in over 20 years I’ve never experienced this.)

Be accepting of the fact that not everyone will like the work you make and that this is a good thing.
There are going to be plenty of people who don’t like the art you produce or the design you come up with. So what. If everyone liked everything you create it’s going to have to be pretty bland and it’s certainly not going to break any new ground. This is far more important for art than design, as design is generally being created for someone else, still there are going to be plenty of people who hate any given design work.
With an art practice, I think it’s worth aiming to have some people who absolutely love your work, some who really hate it and at least get a nice big portion who think it’s interesting and of artistic value, even if it’s not their cup of tea. Well, that’s what I’m aiming for anyway.

Try to keep focus on the fact that critiques you receive are not personal, they are not attacks on you.
Unless someone is seriously aiming to be horrible (unlikely) the critiques are either
1) to enable you to improve the work
2) to help you make it fit it’s required use
3) to give you valuable information about the way others see the work
Or all three!

Image: “Friendly Critics” (1882) Charles Martin Hardie

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