Avoiding Self-Deprecation in Design Critiques

Undervaluing your work will hurt more than it will shield you

Will Scharlott
May 21, 2019 · 5 min read
Images courtesy of the author

Presenting your design work is an opportunity to share and convince an audience of the rigor of your thinking and the application of your ideas. Whether it’s informal, with team members gathered around your desk, or formal, with company executives around a polished conference table, a presentation is your time to take center stage and share your thinking.

Too often, designers will begin their presentation by saying something like:

  • “I just threw these slides together. Sorry in advance if they aren’t ready.”

There’s a time and place for self-deprecation—belittling or undervaluing yourself in a way that’s excessively modest—and design critique isn’t that place. Saying these kinds of phrases can be tempting; they break the ice and help relieve nerves before presenting designs you’ve been tirelessly working on. At the same time, these statements devalue your work before you show it, biasing your audience to have low expectations.

Self-deprecation can quickly turn into a habitual defense mechanism. If used too frequently, it can eventually hinder your ability to receive tough critiques and prevent people from giving you their honest, unbiased opinions.

Self-deprecation shields you from tough critiques

All designers need a continuous stream of tough feedback throughout an iterative design process. Leaving a critique thinking, “Everyone loved that. I don’t need to work on anything,” likely indicates that your critiques aren’t being facilitated to yield strong feedback or your feedback givers aren’t openly sharing their thoughts. Within a healthy environment of sharing, your feedback givers can help you identify problem areas to invest your time.

By proclaiming a version of “this isn’t good” before you present, you create a shield between yourself and your incoming feedback. You’re drawing a line in the sand for the feedback you’re willing to receive: “I already know this isn’t good, so you don’t have to say it.”

If you’re unable to openly show work without announcing that it’s bad, you won’t be able to fully hear and process the feedback you receive. Distancing yourself from tough feedback doesn’t make it less true. Karen Leland, author of The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand says:

If the self-deprecation is an attempt to gain favor through false humility, it’s a manipulation which other people pick up on — and that can be damaging to our personal brand.

Avoid being the person who always has an excuse as to why their work isn’t great. Hearing tough feedback requires vulnerability and trust in yourself to manage it accordingly.

Self-deprecation informs bias

An audience may not admit it, but the way you present your work contributes to the assessment of your work’s value. Whether it’s your syntax, body language, or attire, signals like these are intrinsically linked to the value of your work.

Psychology researcher Albert Mehrabian proposes that when forming an opinion of someone’s favorability, 55% of the opinion is a result of body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and only 7% is the spoken word. While there’s debate around these specific numbers, the operative takeaway is that what you say likely has less impact on a listener than how you say it. Therefore, consider how you can maximize the 7% of impact your words have in your presentation. If the words you say have that little impact on your favorability, you likely don’t want to waste them on a verbal assassination of the work you’re presenting.

In the world outside a design critique, you won’t be able to instruct someone how to interpret what they’re seeing. You won’t be able to say, “This isn’t my best work, so just ignore what’s not working.” Real viewers will make their own judgments based on their knowledge and the information you give them via your designs. Mirror this situation in your critiques by sharing feedback sans preamble and/or viewing instructions. Instead of telling people how to view your work, let the work speak for itself and collect reactions accordingly.

Let your audience bring their concerns to you. Matters they raise may contradict your own expectations. Let your audience do the heavy lifting of identifying your design opportunities. They may surprise you.

Structure your introduction to avoid subjectivity

There will always be uncertainty or doubt in your design process. This is okay. The difference between self-deprecation, which hurts your credibility, and earnest transparency is your tone and willingness to openly collect feedback.

There’s a big difference between “I have no idea what I’m doing” and “There are parts of my solution that have areas of opportunity. I want to share my thinking and get your thoughts.”

As an alternative to self-deprecation, invest your energy into framing your presentation. Framing can help you stick to objective statements and present your problem with structure and intentionality.

Framing can help your audience understand your challenges, what resources you’re working with, your limitations, and how you’re working through the given problem. Without providing these guardrails, your audience won’t be able to properly give you the information you need to move forward.

When framing, imagine you’re responding to questions that start with who, what, why, when, or how: What are you trying to solve? Why is this a problem? Who does this problem affect? By answering questions in this way, you can think in terms of filling in blanks rather than rambling with exposition that can quickly turn to self-deprecation.

Four main areas can provide your audience with enough general background before you present your work. While these areas may not apply to all projects, you can adapt them to fit your project’s specific needs.

1. Context

The circumstances that frame the reason for your work.

  • What are you trying to solve?

2. Scope

The perimeters that frame the project’s limitations.

  • What are the technical limitations?

3. Timeline

The duration of the project.

  • What’s the overall timeline?

4. Feedback

The response to your work.

  • What feedback are you looking for during this critique?

By framing your project’s information into these points, you can focus your time on giving an audience the information they need to move forward.

References

Leland, Karen. The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand. Entrepreneur Press, 2016.

Mehrabian, Albert. Silent Messages: A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language). 1981.

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