Blog Critics Frankenstein Poster

Don't Hate On Your Critics

Designers’ resistance to feedback is elitist, irresponsible, and keeping us from doing our best work.

For the briefest of moments, “fake news” actually meant something—a piece of deliberate misinformation dressed up to look legit—but was almost immediately appropriated to mean “any news I don’t like.”

While the absurdity of “fake news” seems especially suited to today’s political climate, deflecting unfavorable information by discrediting the source is nothing new. In religious wars, the subject of these ad hominem attacks are heretics. Critics of repressive governments are dismissed as subversives. And in popular culture, these boogeymen go by another familiar name: haters.

A well-known designer recently tweeted:

If you have 7 ppl [sic] who like what you do and 3 who hate it, focus on the 7. Don’t waste your time convincing those 3 while risking to lose 7.

Now, no one loves twirling on a hater more than me, but conflating haters and critics is a mistake. This is a particularly dangerous fallacy for designers to fall into because doing our job well hinges on our ability to get and work with feedback. And negative feedback, which may look like hateration, is often the most valuable.

Thought leaders can’t clock me nowadays. Source: Giphy

Negative feedback identifies gaps between the intent of your design and the execution. If you dismiss anyone who doesn’t like what you do as a hater, you’re potentially overlooking serious flaws in your work. If the three haters above are actually responding to a weakness in your design and you ignore them, you’re only being 70% of the designer you could be.

There are real haters out there—folks who build themselves up by bring others down, chronic complainers, and trolls—but you can’t tell a hater from a critic by whether or not they like your work. Nor can you judge the validity of a critique by source or tone alone.

Good feedback can come from anywhere. Coworkers, clients, users, and the public may all have insights that can help you improve your design. Too often designers dismiss valuable criticism because the person giving it “is not a designer.” This is elitism disguised as expertise. Most of us aren’t designing for designers, so why would theirs be the only criticism we welcome?

The key to making decisions about what criticism to act upon is to keep an open mind so you’re making them with the best information possible.

Some designers would argue against the “public” as a source of valid feedback, but this is defensive and shortsighted. It’s true: the further you get from the people closest to a design—the team creating it, the client commissioning it, the people using it—the less you know about the purpose and constraints of the design and the needs of its intended audience. This can get in the way of useful criticism. While we have seen good designs tanked by uninformed public reaction and armchair design quarterbacking, let’s not throw the good feedback out with bathwater.

There are two reasons to welcome feedback from unexpected places. First, the line between a non-user and a future user can be a thin one. While it’s true we can’t please everyone, we should remember that some of the people offering us criticism do so because they want to like our work. They may want to use our website, download our app, or share our poster series; but we may have overlooked something in our design preventing them from doing so. Arbitrary distinctions between “who this is for” and the public are against our own purposes of growing our audiences (or user base if you’re chasing those VC dollars).

Which brings us to our second reason for being open to feedback from anywhere: in today’s highly designed world, who is affected by a design is not limited to who it is “for.” I don’t need to use Uber (phew) to have a stake in their use of public infrastructure, flirtation with local laws, or how they vet and treat their drivers. Whether or not you book vacation housing through Airbnb, you are still affected by how it operates in your neighborhood. The wider reaching our design is, the more we have to be receptive to public comment on it.

Listen to this person’s feedback on your train’s brake system, even if they haven’t bought a ticket. Source: Giphy

So how do you weed out useful feedback from “hate” if not based on the source or how much they like your work? One common filter people use to dismiss negative feedback is tone: judging the quality of the criticism by the niceness with which it is delivered. Tone policing is an effective ego defense, but not a reliable method of screening feedback.

Tone policing is frequently used to negate negative feedback from women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and people living with disabilities—folks underrepresented in design and tech—especially on issues of inclusion. When they point out a design excludes them or is offensive or inaccessible, they’re often told that for their feedback to be taken seriously, it needs to be delivered respectfully. (This, despite the fact that the initial exclusion, offense, or inaccessibility is itself a sign of disrespect to these communities.)

Tone policing is an effective ego defense, but not a reliable method of screening feedback.

This is where designers’ resistance to feedback is most obscene. When our designs needlessly exclude already marginalized groups, we should be grateful to those who point it out. The onus is on designers to make sure our designs work without discriminating—and fix them when they don’t. That’s part of the job. The burden is not on the discriminated against to refine the sugar we’d prefer coating our criticism.

The “hater” in question has probably tried to give you their feedback politely…and been ignored. Source: Giphy

The most reliable way to judge the quality of feedback is the content of the feedback.

Is the feedback on the design and not persons behind it? Good feedback isn’t personal (and shouldn’t be taken as such). If someone’s negative feedback consistently escalates to abusive personal attacks, whatever kernels of truth in it aren’t worth your mental health. Sometimes, however, it’s worth examining a heated critique to see if it’s really a personal attack on you or an intense personal reaction on the part of the critic. For example, are they really accusing you of being a thoughtless asshole, or are they saying your design is unintentionally alienating communities they care strongly about? (The answer may be both.)

The wider reaching our design is, the more we have to be receptive to public comment on it.

Is it centered on an understanding of what the design should be doing and where it’s succeeding or falling short? Good feedback shares the same basic qualities—goal-oriented, evaluative, timely, and actionable—no matter its source. If someone’s definition of success for your design is different from yours, their feedback may not be relevant. Although, if a large number of people misunderstand the intent of your design, that may be useful information in its own right.

Does the critic know what they’re talking about? If someone is commenting on the “UX” of a design, is that a topic they have experience in or is it a buzzword they’ve picked up? (Fellow designers are the guiltiest of throwing out “UX” as a hand wave reason to change something they just don’t like.) If they’re telling you what features your design should have or how they should function, ask yourself how well they represent or understand the intended (or potential) audiences. While source alone shouldn’t be used as an excuse to dismiss feedback outright, it can and should be used to weight it.

Even if feedback passes all of these tests, you may still choose not to act on it, and that’s okay! Feedback—even good feedback—is not a marching order. Feedback needs to be balanced against resources, competing priorities, and the potential value of incorporating it. Making decisions about what criticism to act upon is the responsibility of the designer. The key is to keep an open mind so you’re making those decisions with the best information possible.