On the chin

No one likes criticism, from colleagues or professional critics. Yet interpreted calmly, it can be a spur to better work. Easy to say, difficult to do, admits Jim Davies

Estate agents and tax inspectors give them a run for their money, but critics are well down the list of the world’s most popular of creatures. One-time angry young man John Osborne got it about right when he said, ‘Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs’.

So why the steaming resentment? After all, they’re only doing their job.

Partly, it’s their meanness of spirit, their tendency to pick at every tiny flaw, a career based on smart-arsed negativity and spite. Even when they’re in raptures, there’s always that one poisonous proviso.

Critics are also despised for their presumption. Who are they to pass judgement? To sit there on their bloated backsides and dismissively point their thumbs downward?

Then, of course, there’s the main reason. The unavoidable fact that no one enjoys criticism, however warranted, and no matter where it comes from. It’s a personal sleight, a puncturing of the ego, an attack on one’s best efforts. Art and literature is blessed with more than its fair share of sensitive souls, ready to take umbrage at the drop of a less-than-superlative adjective.

And design, it would appear, is not too far behind. The recent set-to around the 2012 Olympics logo in the letters page of this magazine shows how gossamer-skinned we are.

Is it harder to take public criticism from your peers than a professional opinion-monger? Probably. There’s a slight sense of betrayal to contend with. You can’t protest that they don’t know what they’re talking about. The voice of a peer carries more weight. But we all ought to be able to deal with criticism constructively, and particularly when it comes from a qualified source.

Taking it on the chin and understanding why your designs attract flak can work in your favour. But first you need to be able separate yourself from your work. To realise that what you’re dealing with here is just a passing opinion, rather a than a disfiguring mark of shame that brands you for the rest of your life. Chances are, that even if the comment is unfair, exaggerated or misinformed, there’s a germ of truth in it, and perhaps that’s why it touches a nerve.

The best policy is not to get wound up or even to ignore criticism, but use it as a spur to more accomplished work. On no account should you retreat into your shell and shy away from ideas that go against the grain or challenge the status quo. Playing it safe leads only to mediocrity and predictability. Outstanding design requires confidence and risk-taking – you need to stick your neck out to achieve anything. And while an outstretched neck may occasionally make you fall flat on your face, that’s a chance worth taking.

If you feel the need to dole out criticism yourself, do so judiciously. It’s a small industry and what goes around comes around. Remember that a finished design often reveals only half of the story.

Capricious, design-dabbling clients, confused briefs, dodgy printing, impossible deadlines, last-minute changes, corporate politics, technical hitches – all these obstacles can beset many a promising project, leaving the end-result frustratingly short of what it might have been.

But if you have something to say, don’t hesitate to say it. Debate and opinion provide the essential fuel for ideas and progress. If there’s one thing worse than criticism, it’s backslapping.

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