The Benefits of a Thicker Skin

David Airey recently asked the question as to whether an all-positive feedback style system is better for design learning than the more typical critical appraisal. I think this question begs to be asked and discussed more in our libre corner of the design world.

While I make no attempt to be all-knowing or all-seeing, it seems to me that we in the libre end of design are pretty much all-positive all-the-time. I think this hurts us. Now, I’m not talking in the sense of beginner skill-building. I don’t for example think it’s at all useful to say “Hey Mr. Newbie Artist, that first attempt sucks, go home” – I’ve created enough suckage in my short time here to have left long ago if that were the case – However, when we’re talking about the more mature stages of design, and trying to push things ahead, I think a sharp tongued honest appraisal beats a syrupy praise-fest any day of the week.

How many times have you read something like “if you’ve got nothing positive to say, don’t say it at all.”? Or even more likely, “if you don’t like it, shut up or show something better”. Both aggravating and both missing the point. I think we have to grow some thicker skin and learn to pluck the wisdom where it presents itself, whether it comes served on a silver platter or as a quick swat across the chops.

I’ve been lucky over the past year or so to have someone who feels fairly free (I can only guess at this really) to tell me when he thinks what I’m doing sucks. There are a few reasons I think I’m lucky:

1. I respect the person, his work, his experience and knowledge.
2. I value, in fact, depend on his honesty when it comes to criticizing my work.
3. He is able to tell me why he thinks it sucks. It could be total bullshit in my mind, but it’s important he tells me his thought process.

You’re lucky if you’re faced with all three. However I’m pretty sure everyone who has ever created anything and made it public either has met up with, or will meet up with criticism and none of the above. Even faced with that, strive to pick up something of value from it. But heck, if it’s not there, it’s not there.

I’ve also come to realize a few things:

1. Praise feels good, but doesn’t help you progress much.

2. Getting criticized can hurt. But taken in the right frame of mind, it can push you ahead and make you think. Regardless of whether you change anything or not, it is valuable to think.

3. It’s your art, your design. You don’t have to pay attention to any of it. Though if you’re eager to learn and progress like me, you will.

I think we need more honest valuable criticism in libre design. If it can be bathed in sweetness and light, then great. But I think at this point beggars can’t be choosers. Give your criticism honestly. Make it valuable. And if you’re on the receiving end, fight off that urge to launch into defense mode, explore a little first. Get a discussion going. It will either improve your work or force you to figure out more specifically why you’re happy with it the way it is. There’s no downside to that is there?

3 thoughts on “The Benefits of a Thicker Skin

  1. Pretty much yes. Though I wouldn’t talk about growing a thicker skin. It’s rather a more goal-oriented, reflective mindset. Not taking things personal (have to improve there, myself), as long as you deal with criticism of the work, not an outright attack.

    Regarding “if you don’t like it, shut up or show something better”, this can be valid if you’re not even able or willing to point out what the issue is. But if a cabinetmaker builds a crooked cabinet, you should feel free to point that out, no matter if you can or can’t build a straight cabinet.

  2. If I show someone something that I think is decent, I WANT criticism. I often get frustrated when people say, “oh, I think it’s great like that”–if I want affirmation, I’d just TELL you I did something good, I wouldn’t show it to you.

    I want criticism because I know at a certain point, I get myopic about my own work. I can’t tell if it’s good or bad and need an outside perspective.

    If someone comes along and says, “oh, well, I think I see what you’re doing–here’s how I think you can do it better,” it gives me a lot of perspective (regardless of whether or not I agree with them) on my work, and to be honest, helps me get my mind around what exactly it is that I’m trying to communicate (which is often my biggest problem–I know there’s something I’m trying to communicate, but in the first couple drafts, I’m rarely sure what exactly that thing is–getting criticism does two things in that regard:

    1. It forces me to articulate that thing in a different medium and to think it through more.
    2. It gives me some perspective on how well I’m communicating that thing–when I see how someone reacts to my work, I get some insight into whether or not I’m achieving my goals.

    End tangent).

    Nebulous praise is worthless.

    “Do. Not. Want.” sucks, too.

    Good criticism, replete with helpful suggestions, from people whose work you trust–that’s golden.

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