As a recent entrant into design school I have become all too familiar with critical feedback sessions, which are rather terrifying (for me, at least) but integral to many university courses – especially the creative ones. The thing about critical feedback is that often it can just be really disheartening and fairly harsh, but the question is: is that, well, useful? What format should criticism take? How, in the long run, will it become more useful to us, whether we’re in industry or just learning to be?
It’s fairly clear that we all need constructive advice and criticism to improve. That’s just how the world works; if you don’t find the flaws in something and criticise them, that thing won’t improve. If we didn’t try to improve things, then we wouldn’t be nearly at the stage of design and technology that we’re at now. Criticism is important and we need it for improvement and development, but is there a way of giving critical feedback that’s more effective than others? Surely so.
A lot of the time, people don’t react well to negative feedback, it’s just in our nature to not particularly enjoy being criticised for something that we’ve worked on or put effort into. This, I suppose, is probably one of the reasons that artsy interviews can be so terrifying. Compiling a portfolio of all of your recent work only to have a professional look at it and judge you based on what you’ve created is… not fun, to say the least. Critical feedback sessions – at least where I study – are a bit like that, except with the addition of your fellow classmates staring and judging as well, albeit often silently while the pros do their work – or their tearing to shreds of your work, as it were. But ultimately that’s how industry works, even though it’s intimidating and it’s not going to be easy to present creative ideas to people you may not have met more than once or twice. There is nothing more frustrating than projecting ideas onto people and them just going, “Nah…”.
Now, I find that there are two main ways of getting critiqued: the hard way, which is where people don’t tell you how you could improve but rather what’s wrong with your ideas and plans, and the “this is what’s wrong and this is where you could go from here” way, which I reckon is easier as well as more methodical and logical. But, as with most things, I think that the harder “I’m going to tear your product to shreds” way is more useful. Let me explain.
The former type of criticism is that which I receive most often now that I’ve actually become a ‘proper’ design student. They essentially tell you why you’re crap and leave it there, moving onto the next victim. At first, this is pretty heartbreaking and hard. But in real life there won’t be someone who tells you where to go, how to improve, and what to change: that’s what you have to figure out. By essentially being horrible, the criticism you get will probably help you more than it does hinder you. Or at least, it will in the long run. I feel that even though the latter is a much gentler way of getting people used to having their work criticised, ultimately it’s not as useful. With the other way, people learn how to think and use their brain – and to be able to criticise your own work and improve it, at least to some extent, is a skill that not many people will ever have.
So yes, ultimately I think that the horrible tearing to shreds of your work by someone you barely know is probably more useful than being edged gently into the world of criticism. It toughens you up and gives you the skill of exercising a tired and frustrated mind. Sometimes we have to struggle to get it right, and struggle we shall. After all, some arguably iconic designers like James Dyson created literally thousands of prototypes before putting their first machine into production. Along the way, Dyson learned about self-criticism and improvement, and that won’t have been spoon-fed to him. Very independent learning can often be the way forward and I think that, especially for aspiring designers, it really is.