How to Make Hard Feedback Pay Off

How to Make Hard Feedback Pay Off

Ashley Szukalski
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Nothing prepares you for the reality of receiving negative feedback. In one of my first design classes, I watched in horror as a fellow student had his work ripped in two for the first time in front of all of us. Shortly afterwards, he quit the course.

Feedback is a tricky thing. There’s always going to be differing opinions of right and wrong, and even if it’s explained to you in a calm, clear voice, it can sting like nothing else. But getting feedback on your work is the only way you'll grow. It forces you to rationalize your thinking and creative decision-making, and teaches you to swallow your pride.

I learned the hard way: A few years ago, I designed my first typeface called Emotiv. It was a concept for a messaging app that would help people express their emotions through language (instead of emojis).

Eager to get my work out there, I decided to send a sample to a very well-respected typographer whose work I greatly admired. Given this individual’s reputation (and my lack of experience) I was reluctant to share at first, but with encouragement from friends, I sent it along with an explanation of how it came to be, not really expecting a response.

A few days passed, and much to my surprise, an incredibly lengthy reply fell into my inbox and hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the toughest feedback I’d ever received. Alignment issues, inconsistencies, readability problems, the email went on and on. It felt like my career was ending before it even had a chance to begin. We designers consider our creations extensions of ourselves—meaning that we take the pain of feedback personally.

While I can't offer up permanent thick skin, I have come up with 4 mindset shifts that will help you get—and give—negative feedback in a constructive way:

1. Introduce constraints

The least helpful feedback goes something like, “Hmmm, I’m not sure I like this.” We all have personal tastes, but there is no build-off point from that—no way to develop and improve. Instead, ask the person giving you feedback to be constructive, give their rationale, and ask as many questions as they’d like, rather than give you a gut reaction.

2. Tag team

Rather than putting yourself on the receiving end, get involved in the process. Imagine that the work being critiqued isn’t yours and offer your own thoughts. That will help you stay focused on the work itself. Plus, by making the feedback process more of a collaborative effort, you can understand the work from new angles to make it better together.

3. Be Spock

Do your best to take your emotions out of the equation. Instead of hanging on every negative word, look for unbiased points that will help you better define and execute the work. Even if the person giving you feedback is using words like “I like...”, or “I don’t like…”, those words aren’t aimed at you—they’re aimed at uncovering the fundamental thinking or execution behind the work.

4. Don’t ask for the answer

When the feedback process unearths a problem with your work, it’s tempting to simply ask for a clear solution to the problem. But that won’t push you to go further and explore other possibilities. Solving the problem yourself gives you another opportunity to learn and grow your skills.

Looking back, I now see now that the typographer who crushed me was actually providing a great service. (Honestly, you could tell someone they are terrible at something in considerably fewer words.)

I’d made the same mistake my fellow design student had made in that first class—I reacted as if it was a personal attack on me as a designer. But that feedback prodded me to become much more critical about my own work, studying details that others might not notice, with an eye toward readability and alignment.

Getting negative feedback can hurt. You pour your time and effort into creating something, and with the swiftest of comments, it gets cut down. But receiving it not only makes your work better, it makes you better... especially at giving feedback.

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Ashley Szukalski
Interaction Design Lead
Ashley is an Interaction Design Lead at IDEO Tokyo. When he’s not busy practicing his Japanese, he’s telling stories through pictures (and sometimes with words too!).
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