What can design school teach us about criticism?

Criticisms are rampant in our lives.  

They come in many forms; feedback, advice, if I were you, why don’t you… comments from people we like and some we don’t.  

Even though the purpose of those negative feedback is meant for positive intentions as encouragement and improvement (aka constructive criticism), they seldom feel positive.  

Over the years of being an architect and running an architecture practice, I had my share of criticisms from various people: consultants, contractors, and clients.

These criticisms had a variety of categories in my deficiencies: working method, communication style…even with my “less than ideal” email response rates.  

However, the most stinging criticism has always been about my design work. Receiving negative feedback on design work is painful.

Recently, I witnessed the same negative emotional state from someone other than myself: a student at the school I teach.

I saw one student crying in the hallway while talking about the negative feedback she received after her project presentation. 

It reminded me of the time I was an architecture student struggling through the up’s/down (many downs) of design classes.  

Like the crying student, I, along with many of my classmates, our happiness (or, more like, unhappiness) entirely depended on our projects. More specifically, the feedback we received after presenting our work.  

All of us were trying to decipher how we did by looking for words like good, well done, and interesting….In our professors’ cryptic and esoteric style of comments.  

Seeing the crying student and remembering some of my gloomy architecture school days, it occurred to me that criticism had an entirely different level of significance in the design field.  

Why does receiving criticism in our design work feel much worse than in other areas of life?

Design work is personal.

The expression nothing personal; it is just business does not ease the pain of the creative work process. Everything is personal in creative work: design, writing, music, art….

All these works are the expressions of their creators and represent who we are as a person: thoughts, opinions, value systems etc.

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How we think, develop our ideas, and create from those processes are deeply personal.

It is impossible to separate ourselves from our creations; our creations are us.

With this deep entanglement of work and our identities, it is only natural for strong reactions to someone’s assessment of our work, especially negative ones.

Teaching design students give me a unique perspective I did not have as a student years ago. I recognize the rollercoaster of emotions students go through in pursuing design education.  

I recently learned from one of my students that she did not want to take the suggestions I had given her. Her reason for not taking the advice is that if she were to take it, that would mean the project would not be “hers.”

I was impressed with both her honesty and conviction. It was clear that the underlying principle she was following for her project was that she wanted to come up with her “original” idea without outside influence (me).

We designers have encountered this” my original design ideas” phenomenon often. With the wisdom of getting old and the hindsight advantage, I learned to recognize my original ideas were not that original over time.

Those ideas have been talked about or even executed by other designers in the past.  

My “original idea” turned out to be someone else’s earlier idea:)

Professors are human beings too.

The subjective field, like design without clear guidelines, and metrics, is complex.

It is even more complicated when it comes to evaluating someone else’s design work. 

Trying to judge students’ work with open/fair positions is a constant juggling act.

Am I using the same criteria I used in student A’s work to student B’s? Am I missing the main point of student C’s work because I’m more interested in student D’s design topic? Have I missed anything in the face of grade submission deadlines?

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There are many questions…even more, conflicting emotions in judging students’ personal work.

Design is like our coffee preferences.

For some, the perfect cup of coffee would be lots of sugar/milk; for others, it would be the die-hard black coffee with nothing in it. How can we say one is better than the others?  

Like many coffee options, design work has many components: the designer’s values, experience, skill sets, background… Their work is the accumulation of many of those personal things combined.  

Evaluating students’ work is a challenging process for many professors…including yours truly.

Trying to understand someone else’s design is like trying to be the creator. We can try..but the outcome would be less than satisfactory. 

It is YOUR project

Then what can you do as creators?

Like all essential things in life, it requires decisions, and you are the only one who can make them. Without these, there are no actions to take, nothing to work on, nothing to produce or improve…at the end, nothing. Zero.

Working on a creative project requires this critical step: making YOUR decisions.

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It is much easier to stay in the research stage of the project in the name of working.

Constantly “googling” to find the correct answers to our design struggles makes us feel we are making signs of progress in our project.  

However, even with an incredible amount of research, without your decisions and subsequent executions about how you will use that information, they would not help with YOUR project.  

Taking the initiative to decide on your project is uncomfortable. 

There are many what if’s involved in this critical process.

What if it’s the wrong design approach? What if I am selecting an inept topic to focus on? What if my professors do not like the work…and I end up with a low grade for the course?

What if…indeed.

In the midst of these many what-if questions, continuing with research work rather than making decisions and tackling those would be unfruitful.  

However, that is precisely how one stays in a forever project research cave.

The expression, it is better to move backward than being stationary sums up the situation and the sentiment perfectly.

Ultimately, it is YOUR project, and you are the only one who decides how to move through the painful, convoluted creative process.

Final Thought

There would be many criticisms in one’s design career. 

Navigating through your school projects would be the first and mandatory(?) step in preparing for the arduous journey ahead.

The good news is that you would get better at handling those criticisms with many experiences along the way. The bad news is that those criticisms would keep coming even after leaving the school:-)

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 
Life Outside of Design Studio and has been updated for accuracy and completeness.

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