6 tips for taking creative criticism

With just five days left of intensive two-week creative workshop Modual 2016, groups of students at the University of the Arts London are busy tackling self-initiated briefs to make positive social change.

Each day from now on will end with students pitching to a range of industry experts, from social innovation investors to advertising executives as well as art and design journalists.

This super fast-paced pitch-refine-repeat process was designed by Fred Deakin – creative veteran and current chair for Interactive Digital Arts at UAL – to give students a taste of the often hectic schedule and tight deadlines of working in the creative industries.

Having already taken students through a packed curriculum of creative advice (if you missed it, check out the pearls of wisdom from day 01, day 02 and day 03), Deakin took to the stage again today to ready students for the onslaught of expert opinion.

He shared some important advice on using criticism as fuel for your creative process. Here are some of Deakin’s top tips…

01. Get opinions early

Us creatives can be pretty delicate when it comes to our work and ideas. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time when we let others in on our latest pet project we’re hoping to be showered with praise, dubbed a ‘genius’ and carried off into creative superstardom on a wave of positivity.

This need for positive reinforcement can all-to-often cause us to lock ourselves away in our studios, polishing and polishing our ideas until we feel ready to unleash them onto the world.

This tendency can, however, set us up for a fall. If you’ve spent weeks polishing an idea in secret, you’re in for shock if someone you respect isn’t as impressed by the idea as you are when you finally stump for the big reveal.

By actively seeking outside perspective soon after ideas emerge – casting our ‘darlings’ into the cold light of day early on – we can save ourselves a lot of time and pain later, when we come to the realisation we’ve been polishing a turd.

As much as we might, deep down, want to impress with our ideas, we should remember we can actually develop our thinking rapidly and radically with a few simple conversations.

02. Listen hard

It’s easy to go into defensive mode when we open up our ideas to the scrutiny of others. When feedback starts flying at you, there’s a natural creative reaction to put your mind into overdrive with rebuttals that will keep the concept alive.

But by letting your mind think up a response, you’re not really allowing it to listen. There’s little use in asking for input, if you’re not going to take it in.

Instead of priming yourself for debate, really listen to what is being said without thinking about what that means for you or the idea – you can mull that over later.

03. Don’t take it personally

Just because someone doesn’t like your idea, doesn’t make you a failure. In fact, most successful innovators came up with a lot of ‘wrong’ ideas before they hit on the game-changer.

The trick is to not to get too down about negative feedback, and rather use it as impetuous to push yourself and your ideas further.

04. Don’t take it as gospel

An opinion on your work is just that: an opinion. Whilst we should be as open as possible to the feedback we’re getting, we don’t have to take it all as the God-given truth when it comes to developing your work later.

It’s helpful to take what you hear with a creative pinch of salt. See the input as research rather than an instruction. On reflection, you’ll likely find some of the feedback useful and some that takes you in a direction you don’t want to go in. This is your work: listen hard to the feedback and decide what makes sense to you.

05. Adjust and repeat

The real power of actively seeking feedback is that it gives you a chance to reflect and course-correct before it gets too late. Each phase of listening to others should be followed by a phase of reflection and recalibration. This is your opportunity to push your ideas further.

When you’ve incorporated the valuable feedback there’s only one thing left to do. Go and get more feedback, and repeat the whole damn process again!

Putting it into practice

Students on the Modual workshop presented their initial ideas to Glen Mehn, partner at social innovation investor Bethnal Green Ventures.

Whilst impressed with the wide variety of ideas developed in such a short time, Mehn had some great feedback for the teams to hear – even if it meant going back to the drawing board.

All 13 project teams had a great vision to share, but a common theme in the feedback was a lack of specificity in terms of who the projects are being developed for. 

For example, one group shared their ambition to help people capture memories that would otherwise be lost; and another gave a presentation on their idea to help people who can’t afford travel experiences to support other cultures with a subscription service to small craft items from around the world.

Using Mehn’s feedback to be more specific about who their services are for, the teams have been given a new direction to refine their ideas further – all in time for the next round of feedback tomorrow.

Keep up with the action

Fred Deakin’s workshop is running from 5-15 January. Stay tuned for more tips and tricks on raising your creative game in 2016.

To hear more about the workshop and to see how students from UAL are progressing with improving their collaboration skills, check out the Modal: 2016 website, Twitter and Instagram.

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