Feel the burn. Dealing with creative criticism.

Author:
05.07.2017

The Adam Buxton podcast is brilliant for loads of reasons (the people he interviews, his dog, the songs, the home-made sponsorships adverts). But one of the most interesting is his exploration – to an almost obsessive level – of creative criticism. And this isn’t ‘criticism’ in the literary sense, it’s criticism in the personal sense; how you react when someone comments on something you’ve done, and says negative things about it. As a comedian and public figure, he is often discussing the subject in a very specific context of what criticism is to him (e.g. ‘You’re not funny!’, ‘Joe is better than you’), but part of the reason it’s so riveting to listen to, and the reason why it’s not tedious for him to discuss it with virtually everyone and anyone he has on his podcast, is simply that it’s such a universal issue. Everyone, at some point or another, will know what it’s like to have something you have created to have been judged poorly by somebody.

In a creative agency (and most workplaces really to various extents) creative criticism is part of the everyday; a healthy and necessary part of doing good work. And it is, no doubt. But just because a rational part of you knows that, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to find a way to manage the emotional side. I mean, in the vast majority of cases you will have done your best and, as such, what you are presenting reflects your judgement, your thinking and, most delicately, your talent.

From a personal perspective, it’s the biggest single challenge of working within a creative team. My default (and generally unproductive) response to criticism is to get angry. Not in a ARRRRRRGH I’M GOING TO SMASH SOMETHING MADE OF GLASS IMMEDIATELY shouty way, but in a silent seethe. This, by the way, might be noiseless, but I’m sure takes a grim toll on my face (cue familiar nods from people at ilk reading this).  I’m not sure this reaction is any more mature than the former, but at least it means you’re less likely to be escorted from the premises. I then rely on another fundamental tenet of my personality – the terror of ‘making a scene’ – to ensure that I get through the situation without making my furious and embarrassing lack of emotional maturity any more obvious than my clenched, red face already has.

Of course, the ‘type’ of criticism can make a big difference. I think it’s pretty hard sometimes to draw a clear division between what is deemed ‘constructive’ and what is simply subjective (often just comes down to how it is phrased and who’s said it), but I often find the most difficult feedback to be stuff that hits a ‘creative’ nerve.  For example, I don’t think I know anyone who would be overly troubled by a criticism that said an idea or piece of work was ‘too crazy’ or ‘too ambitious’ (though of course, you might disagree with the analysis). But hearing someone say that your work was boring, or hackneyed, or tedious would be infinitely worse. That would be something you would be thinking about when you went home that night; something to bore into you at 3am on an it’s-too-hot-to-sleep summer night.  Less emotionally, but equally frustrating, is receiving criticism that you already worried you might get – a direction or decision you took and which has influenced what you’ve done, but which is now being severely questioned. On one hand you’re desperate and impatient to show that this was something you thought about long and hard; on the other you are seeing the flaws in your thinking being gradually unpicked before your eyes (and often in some sort of public forum).  

But then that’s the game – and it works precisely because of this discrepancy between the emotionally invested and the critically dispassionate. To those critiquing, the work is just work; but to the creator, it’s a part of them. For a completely melodramatic analogy (which, I’m sure you’ll agree, this blog has been woefully short of), it’s as if you were to reluctantly extract an organ from your person, before laying it on a table surrounded by scalpel-wielding medical professionals and hoping they’ll be frugal with the incisions. Many very sane, wise and rational people would say that the true trick is to better disassociate yourself with the work you do – and essentially try and be part of the critique, rather than simply the subject. The thinking is sound – and I certainly don’t disagree with the idea that empathy always helps. Trouble is, how do you dissociate and still do the best work you can?  For me, putting yourself into the work – the very same reason why hearing criticism can be so painful – is, perversely, the best way to ensure you are doing the best work.

So, what is the answer to dealing with creative criticism? How do you still give all you can while still keeping your shit together when someone decides it’s not good enough? Well, as you might have gathered from how this blog is going, I’m not really sure there is one – there’s certainly not a catch-all rule. However, from a personal perspective, there are a few things that can make things a bit easier when it happens; tempering the potent emotional cocktail you may otherwise have to force down your whimpering gullet.

The first is context. Regardless of how close I am to the work that I’ve done, it’s more than likely that there is someone who has built an understanding of the brief that’s at least as rounded as mine (and often, more so). They may not have spent three hours agonising on the best word to use in a product description, or five perfecting a line-weight (one for the designers there – probably reads like a dad trying to describe what grime sounds like), but they have also spent significant time thinking about what the creative needs to be. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily be right in their criticism of creative, but it does mean they have the right to criticise. Unless you work with dickheads (and I don’t) chances are, they’re saying something worth hearing. But when you’re too busy trying to deal with the gorilla pummelling the inside of your skull with ego-rage, it can be pretty difficult to listen. However, if I can manage to view it in the context it is meant, it makes it a lot easier for the rational part of me to win the internal battle.

The second is a one of those clichés that just happens to be true (not that it makes it any less annoying for it). If you didn’t feel the burn of creative criticism, of someone really shitting all over that idea you’ve been cultivating for days, then nor would you feel the deep satisfaction and validation when someone – colleague or client – sees or reads something you’ve worked hard for and says, with unmistakable sincerity, ‘That’s. Bloody. Great”. Naturally, those moments are rare, but they are made all the sweeter for having felt the disappointment of all those times when no-one did. I suppose what I’m getting at is that, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, getting creative criticism is a privilege of being a creative in a creative industry – where someone actually pays you to have ideas. Admittedly, it’s a painful privilege, but it’s also one of the most precious there is, so, at the risk of sounding like too much of a bleeding heart, it genuinely does need to be cherished. Even if, heaven forbid, someone tells you your blogs are tedious, self-involved nonsense that no-one ever bothers to read anyway.