Feedback is a tough thing to navigate, regardless of who it comes from. At work, especially in the creative industries, you get feedback fairly often, usually either from your boss or from your client. And it can be hard to know what to do with that information, largely because there’s a complicated dynamic going on in the relationship (i.e. money). They’re paying you the money so what they say goes, right? But what if they don’t know what they’re talking about? What if they’re wearing a pink shirt with an orange tie and have just told you they’re not happy with the colour scheme you’ve suggested, not that that’s ever happened to me? I’m going to talk about what to do with that unexploded bomb your boss just dropped on your desk and how to get through the fallout more or less unscathed. Let’s begin!

I’ll tackle the client side first. I find feedback from clients, whether it’s good or bad, tends to be more specific because you’re working with them on just the one project. So even if it’s something like, “Hey Ali, what the hell is the deal with that pop up box on the homepage? Are you trying to make me go blind?”, at least you know what their actual beef is. They don’t like the pop up box. At this point, I tend to go through a range of emotions, starting with feeling defensive. What do they even know anyway? I poured my heart into that pop up box! Screw them! That then turns in to feeling defeated, then confused and angry, then back to defensive. Then I make myself a coffee and decide this client and I need to have a conversation. Usually something about brass tacks, and our need to get down to them.

It’s really, really important that you, as a design professional, have a conversation with your client (quite often not a design professional). Client feedback can range from anything like “That should be a darker shade of red” to the dreaded, “I don’t like it. I just don’t like it.” (Laura Kalbag has a great column on A List Apart on dealing with that, here). In each case, you need to at least ask them why they want to make those changes, and why they think it would be better than the previous version. Their answers might surprise you and, even if you disagree with them, it will give you a good insight in to what their personal vision of the project looks like. Taking my example of the pop up box, it could be that they just don’t understand why that functionality is needed, or that they feel like the design in general is off-brand or something. Either way, you need to know, so always ask questions first. Don’t just think “Okay, they don’t like the pop up box, I’ll just put that message on the homepage somewhere, ho hum”. Getting feedback should always be a conversation. Sometimes a pretty frustrating conversation, but I find it helpful to keep in mind two things: One, they are the reason you have a job. And two, they’re likely going to be spending a lot more time with this product than you are. If you’re building a website for someone, that’s going to be the face of their brand for months or years to come, long after you’ve moved on to your next job. So try to be patient and calm and respectful, talk to them about their expectations, even if you want to choke them.

The feedback you get from your boss can often be less specific, which is harder to process so, again, important to start a conversation with them. When your boss tells you that they’re not happy with something you’re doing, it’s very easy to quickly get defensive and try give them excuses. I’m not sure why exactly that is, maybe it’s just that we’re usually pretty keen to not have our boss unhappy with us so any information that we think will swing their opinion, they need to know. But I think that approach is usually pretty ineffective. Firstly because, as I‘ve said in previous columns, nobody wants to hear excuses, and secondly because you need to hear what your boss is telling you. Even if they’re wrong, the fact is your boss has this opinion and you need to keep an open mind and talk to them about it. Nothing ever got resolved in a constructive way by someone immediately brushing off what a person is telling them, so hear your boss out and really listen hard. It could just be a case of different personalities. Once, in my first job, I got asked to take over project managing part of a magazine production and I was so effing excited. This was basically my dream job and I was doing it, man! Then, in my personal review later that month my boss told me she was disappointed I didn’t seem more excited about that opportunity. What?? Turns out I have a fairly serious case of resting bitch face, and even though I was dying of happiness coming in to work every day, people around me thought I wanted to be anywhere other than there. So yea, talk to your boss. You never know what’s going on in their head, you need to take their feedback and start peeling off the layers.

If it’s something more serious – like, along the lines of “I’m really not happy with your performance, you need to get it together etc etc” – having that talk is still important but make sure you ask for specifics. What are you doing that they don’t like, what can you do to improve, and within what time frame. If you can, get something in writing. Yes, it’s scary and uncomfortable but if your job is actually on the line there needs to be a plan put in place that you can follow, instead of just swinging in the dark and hoping for the best.

I hope this has been helpful, and remember that it takes a long time to build up a thicker skin when it comes to hearing harsh words at work. I still take things personally a lot of the time, and in some cases that’s just unavoidable. Try to check your ego at the door when you come in to work, and keep in mind that you, your client and your boss are all working towards something together. They’re helping you out by telling you what they do and don’t like, and you’re helping them out by being responsive to that. If nothing else, you’ve at least learned something that you didn’t know before.