Freelance State of Mind: Which criticism should you listen to?

In his column this month Ben Tallon looks at criticism and thinks about when to listen to it and when to block it out.

We’ve all been in that particular relationship, where you made a well meaning comment about whatever it was, only to see your loved one turn on their heel and walk away, taking mortal, if only temporary offence.

There are not many weeks go by when I don’t witness some creative person I know temporarily wounded by a criticism or rejection.  Unfortunately, these two swaggering super-villains are also the biggest sources of resolve and personal development for those who can learn from them.

But there are ways to deliver and receive criticism. It’s essential that we learn how to choose our moments and words carefully if we see an opportunity that we believe will strengthen the creative output of another. Honing our filters so that they are sharp enough to recognise and reject the lazy swipes, while taking in the useful feedback is not easy.

The email read: “Constructive criticism”

Last week, it dawned on me that I had not checked the email account I set up specifically for my Arrest All Mimics creative innovation podcast. One email awaiting me came in from a guy who had discovered my show and the subject bar read ‘constructive criticism.’ I distracted myself with a cup of tea, procrastinating on what this might be and whether I even wanted to read it at all.

I did and as I nervously took it in, a mixture of emotions assailed me. First, the introduction and compliments, then the inevitable BUT… The slow tide of hurt, mutating into giant waves of anger, crashing against the walls of my gut. Breathe…

Let me first say, my anger was unjustified. My pride was grazed, but for no other reason than the fact that I am a fragile creative and someone had told me something that seemed negative on the surface.

A great interviewer doesn’t interrupt their guest

The listener wanted to point out to me that any great interviewer does not interrupt their guest. I however, did and he explained why this was not a good thing. My initial anger rose because in my mind, the conversational nature of my show is a very conscious decision to allow the listener to feel like this could be a conversation overheard in the pub. Here he was trying to compromise this, telling me it was wrong. How dare he?! Yet, the rage was replaced by a large sigh and leaning back in my studio chair, I started to laugh. My mother loves to talk. I love to talk, maybe too much. I am wildly passionate about creativity and couldn’t it be feasible that he has a valid point?

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I set about editing my next episode with the observation in mind. On several occasions, I jumped in too soon to match my guest’s point with a story of my own. I edited it out. My sharing of experiences in the industry did not necessarily weaken the show, but with my overstretched tales clipped, what I had left was a much crisper podcast and a valuable interviewing technique in hand.

Frankness can invaluable

The guy was right and quite simply, his willingness to tell me where I was going wrong was invaluable. I am new to this broadcasting business and such input is crucial.

One of my recent guests, Sheffield-based designer and illustrator Lisa Maltby created a series of typographic illustrations depicting needless and often rude comments she’d received from art-directors and other professionals. Such gems as ‘Put on a shorter skirt and you’ll get more business’ stood out and not only did Lisa assign the comment to the ‘get angry and move on’ bin, but she flipped the whole thing, creating a magnificent project that earned her fans and industry press alike. Hear the episode here.

We as designers and artists exist in an industry built on opinion, but by learning to gently deliver and invite and act upon positive criticism, we will develop far faster. Learning to differentiate between the positive and the needless assessments of our work is essential to avoid confusion when navigating an information-saturated world made bigger and all the more confusing by technological advances.

Ben Tallon is a Design Week columnist, illustrator, art director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons.

He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.

You can follow him on Twitter at @bentallon and see his portfolio at http://bentallon.com.

You can read his Freelance State of Mind columns here.

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  • David Busbridge February 6, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Great article Ben, but… only kidding 🙂 So good to confirm it’s not just me who dwells on these things for perhaps a bit too long.

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