Critique & Dance

How often are we encouraged to dedicate ourselves to create something with the expressed intent of inviting others to pick it apart—all while we take it in, neither to be disheartened nor to take it personally?

For designers, this is an honored tradition. Inherent and integral to the creative pursuit: the critique.

Critique is a venerable space where a dance between a sender and receiver occurs. A pact is formed upon entering this space—both acknowledging the responsibility of the role, as each will eventually be the opposite. Mastering both the performance of delivering insight, as well as of enduring criticism, is as much an art as it is a skill to be honed.

The agreement to enter critique must be mutual. If there isn’t joint understanding, then negative feedback is merely unwarranted, unsolicited, and deconstructive commentary.

When criticism is improperly handed out, it can render doubt or fear; causing paralysis, or worse, stifling the creative pursuit. If, as Steven Pressfield says, “the best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration,” then deflating creativity by attacking one’s person is an encroachment on the sanctity of the dance.

Learning how to provide feedback that is both critical and constructive is an immensely difficult skill. Delivering criticism with finesse requires us to be emotionally sensitive and introspective—ready and willing to continually improve how it is framed and communicated. The goal is not to build something up by trying to take it down—tough love does not exist in critique. The work should always be pushed forward, not set back. The critic should never mistake cynicism as criticism and should always ask questions more than deliver solutions.

The receiver has responsibilities as well. Tremendous strength of character is needed to not take failure (or success for that matter) personally. The fear of rejection is an evolutionary instinct that has been planted within us over millennia. The threat of being ostracized by our tribe not only meant isolation but death. The fear of negative feedback is both psychological and biological. Knowing that we are not our work, standing apart from it, is a skill that requires practice.

Voluntarily exposing ourselves to criticism means we must learn to frame our intent, describe our goal, give context to our ideas, and do so in a concise and cogent manner. This is a performance after all. We need to provide context beyond what the critic can see while expecting to get criticism on what can only be seen.

The dance of critique is an exercise in trust-building. Feedback can be taken with a grain of salt, but if believed as appropriate criticism, the receiver will have the confidence in knowing that the criticism is meant to lead toward better work. Just as we must gain the trust of our partner to elegantly dip them at the end of the dance, trust must be earned in critique.

Honor critique, learn to dance.

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