Criticism? Feedback? Don’t ask people what they think


Being a graphic artist, author and speaker has meant that I’ve been enjoying more freedom than most when it comes to my daily routines and variety of work. But there is a great downside, one that most people don’t often have to deal with day to day and that is direct criticism of one’s creative work.

If you’re doing a process job and you get criticised, certainly it can hurt, but it’s easier to see that you got the process wrong. Perhaps you rushed it, did something in the wrong order or missed something out. Perhaps it was the weather’s fault or the customer’s. It’s easy to point the blame partially at something else. You didn’t get the sale? It wasn’t quite right anyway, there are loads of factors involved and you’ll no doubt do better next time when luck and better conditions are on your side.

This isn’t the same with a task that uses your creativity more directly. If you’ve designed something, drawn something, written something or made something, you’ve put part of your soul into it. And then for someone to come along and say “it’s not really working for me” or “I don’t like it” or the killer, “can you just…”. It’s horrible. It’s an affront upon your very being. Your reason for existence has been attacked. Your humanity and personality, your very soul has been deemed worthless, or worse, average.

No wonder it’s a powerful reason not to do anything. It’s just too risky being creative. We’re just not naturally built to take that sort of criticism. No wonder people devolve such responsibilities and avoid putting their naked soul on display where it can be jeered at and tormented.

The award winning writer Issac Asimov said that when he handed his manuscript to the editor it was, as far as he was concerned, totally finished and sacred. He refused to change one word, not one comma. That didn’t mean that it was perfect by any means but he just couldn’t face someone else getting into his artistry and messing with it. He couldn’t bare it. J. R. R . Tolkien was similar. He was the author, the artist. What could these other people know about it? How dare they suggest this wonderful world that he had summoned into existence be made better by some external reader, some punter, someone who hadn’t created one line of text in their lives.

If these giants of literature can’t take it, it’s no surprise we can’t. There are of course ways of giving feedback that doesn’t hurt or offend (and it’s not ‘constructive criticism’ by the way), but we’ll save that for another time. Here I want to deal with the receiving end.

First of all we need to get used to telling people to, well, clear off. Poking their noses in, who do they think they are? We need to get control back of our creativity and re-establish that it has value in itself no matter what anyone else thinks. If the value of your art is dependent on other people’s opinion you’ll either stop creating altogether or begin a downward spiral of depression and low self worth that can, like in the case of so many artists; painters, musicians, singers and writers, end in death.

The genius scientist, artist, musician and safe-cracker Richard Feynman was told so many times, “what do you care what other people think?” that he used it as the title of his book. He didn’t care what people thought of him so he felt free to indulge in his crazy ideas and experiments that earned him the Nobel Prize. Please note this is not saying we shouldn’t care about people. I’m saying we shouldn’t care too much what they think about us, or at least shouldn’t worry about it to a point that disables us from operating. We shouldn’t second guess our moves to accommodate what other people might think of what we’re doing.

Then must first re-establish the joy of the act of creation, no matter what the discipline we work in, as an end in itself, separate from whether people will like it or whether we can sell it. Monetising our creativity is important but that has to come second. If you don’t enjoy and feel free to create what you create without thinking someone is breathing over your shoulder, you will stop doing it.

With my design clients over the years and especially with my author clients, some have a tendency to doubt their work and feel the need for peer review (and often stranger review) to the work before it is competed. Some authors post the draft cover or the title of the book on their Friendface sites. Why do they do this?

If it’s to say, ‘hey, my new book is coming out soon, get ready, it’s going to be great’ that’s a good thing. If it’s ‘what do you think, please give me some reassurance because I’m not confident’ it’s a bad thing.

If it’s an impasse of ‘I can’t decide between A and B, please help me decide’ for example than that can be useful. But asking people ‘what do you think?’ allows a load of pig ignorant, out of context irrelevant people to offer their destructive comments, which they think, erroneously, are actually helpful.

How dare you! I hear you say. These are my friends! Well, I love my mum but I’m not going to ask her what she thinks of my book cover. What does she know about it book cover design? She’s not even in the target market. She’s certainly not going to buy a copy. I bet your friends won’t be buying a copy either. They’ll probably expect one for free. After all, they contributed to the book didn’t they, by telling you you’d done it wrong and needed their help to get it right. That deserves a copy doesn’t it. They probably won’t read it though.

There’s room for market research. It can be very important. But is has to be done scientifically with controls in place, with a sizable target market or all you’ll get is random, worthless opinions.

The opinions that you get from so-called friends are never offered in a caring way either. (They think they are, but they’re not). This is because most people are not trained in offering feedback. They simply fluff up their feathers, proud and empowered that they’ve been asked to give their opinion on something and then look hard to see what it is about your work that they can hate. They don’t realise that their opinion is always subjective. “I don’t like blue. Blue is the wrong colour to use” and phrases like that are worded in a global way, as if their subjectivity is objectively true under all conditions. This is wrong. All phrases that are offered that take a global form should be ignored.

Anyone who offers the phrase “I’m being devil’s advocate here” can get right out of town. The one thing that’s worse than an irrelevant opinion is someone irrelevant offering their guess on what someone else, who doesn’t event exist, may think.

It’s lovely when people say, “I love it!”. But that too is irrelevant and should be ignored. We should not need our friends, associates or strangers opinions to validate our creative work. No-one contacts the film company to say “love the new Harry Potter film poster”. No-one even contacts the author of a book and says “saw your book in the bookshop. Love the cover. Haven’t bought it or read it. But love the cover”. How offensive is that? It’s out of context, that’s why. The cover or the poster isn’t there to be validated on it’s own. It’s integral to the wider work and can only be judged in that context.

What happens when you get all these conflicting irrelevant, out of context opinions is that you freeze. You can’t move forwards or backwards. You lose all power. Do you you change it, scrap it, give up? Doing nothing is the only option. Perhaps time will make decisions easier to make. Perhaps the pain of criticism will go away. It will not, and it does not.

This all adds delay and perhaps a greater failure of the work not being finished at all. What a disservice to the real target market (who so far haven’t even seen the work) and now will never get it, or get it late in a watered down state.

Thank you ‘friends’. Thanks for wasting my time and letting us all down.

But it’s not their fault. It’s our fault for not having faith in our convictions. It’s our fault for not believing in our ideas.

If you have specific doubts about the creation, ask the relevant trusted expert a specific question. But never ever ask anyone “what do you think?” because until that moment they didn’t think anything. Now you’ve given them a knife and said, “see how deep you can cut”.

Instead, present your works to your network as a done deal. Say, “Here it is, my new book, available in September. I’m taking advance orders now”. See how many of them buy it. There’s YOUR feedback on whether you’ve got the right target market.

If there is something wrong, like a spelling mistake and someone points it out, that’s fine. That’s useful to know. It’s not an opinion, it’s an objective fact. But imagine someone saying, “I see you new book is coming out. I’d love to buy it but I can’t because it’s got blue on it”. Now it’s clearer that the person who says that is a moron. But of course no-one will say that because no-one in your network is a moron.

Unless of course you allow them to be.

More on criticism here: “Using the C-word in business”

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