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Ways to deal with design criticism

It's not easy to deal with criticism. Here's some advice on how to handle design criticism.

This article originally appeared as a Design and Usability Tactics e-newsletter.

By Jim Kukral

One of the hardest aspects of being a Web designer is learning how to handle criticism. And, since you're at a professional level, the bar is raised, and the criticism only seems to be faster and more furious.

Face it; you're going to get criticized eventually (probably even a lot when you're starting out). So prepare for it by asking yourself these questions:

  • How will I handle the criticism?
  • Can I learn, and even draw strength, from the criticism?

It's better to be prepared for criticism; otherwise, you may act in a manner or make a mistake that you'll regret. Avoid that from happening by following these suggestions for dealing with design criticism, and learning how to be prepared to explain yourself.

How to act

One of the biggest mistakes most designers make is reacting negatively and defensively to design criticism. We'll set the scene.

You're in a meeting with the client, your company president, and your boss (the creative director). Your boss hasn't had a chance to view your designs, but she has faith that you did a good job and are ready to present.

You finish your presentation and the client says, "In general, I like it overall, but a few things bother me. For example, the yellow you use just doesn't seem right; the image of the truck is last year's model; and I think it would look better with the navigation on the bottom of the page."

Take a deep breathe. . . relax.

If you haven't learned this already, you should know that the customer is always right. Well, at least they need to think that. So, how are you going to handle yourself when they're all staring at you, waiting for an answer?

Don't act defensive or appear annoyed
Comments like "You're crazy!" or "That's your opinion" aren't going to help. Instead, try to take a calm and interested approach. Remember from the very beginning that it's wise to pick your battles.

What to say
"Yes, I see what you mean," or, "I understand what you're saying," are good responses. You must remember that the client pays you; therefore, they do have a say in what they're buying. That's why it's important that you make sure you ease their concerns.

What to do
First, you should outline their criticisms one by one, so you can address them individually. Point by point, ask the clients to amplify the criticism again in more detail. This is the only way to truly understand what they mean. Oftentimes, clients won't be able to express themselves and may abandon the criticism altogether.

Explain yourself
Next, explain yourself accordingly. If you know that you cannot convince the client about a particular issue, abandon it and move on. But if you believe you can persuade them, go ahead and explain the reasoning behind your design choice. Most of the time, if you explain it properly, the client will agree with you.

It's hard for designers to realize that they aren't always right. But, realistically, it's impossible to produce perfect designs for every situation, especially when you're working with different types of industries and across many projects.

Mastering a plan to handle design criticisms will save you from losing your cool, or your job, and put you in control of your choices.

Jim Kukral has spent the last seven years working in the trenches of Web design, development, and usability for Fortune 500 clients as well as mom-and-pop companies.

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