How To Avoid the Downward Spiral of Toxic Criticism

Through my journey as a designer I have had some great uplifts and pitfalls along with notable successes and failures. Back in the day, when I use to be part of the everyday 9 – 5 grind of the corporate world, there were also some brief periods of unemployment. In attempts not to have gaps in my resume, I took an internship position with a small five man agency. I filled in for the in-house graphic designer that went on vacation to Colombia for a month.The owner was very clear about his uncertainty of my skills, regardless of me showing him my current portfolio. Safe to say, he wasn’t impressed but willing to take a chance, allowing me to fill in for the absent graphic designer.

I mostly performed mundane task, nothing too deep or advanced. Until my third weekend there, a client needed a quick day turnaround on an informational folder for a LEED certified building. I was called by the owner early Saturday morning asking if I can come in to put this together in Illustrator. He followed up with the statement “This a good chance to show me what you can do.” Wait a minute… did this dude just straight up challenge me?! At that time, I was a young guy with a bit more attitude. I was not going to let this dude punk me. I told him “Make sure the coffee is hot when I get there.”

I got there and sat down with the client in front of the computer and went immediately to work. Everything was going well for the most part, the client liked the direction. The owner decided to sit down with us, he soon started to interject. Questioning my layout, the needless extra steps to facilitate a design and some other things I cannot remember. But now the client picked up this same doubt as well and their original views regarding the direction altered.Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind “constructive criticism” especially when it makes me a better designer. But not “toxic criticism”, in which you are negatively manipulating the creative environment towards your personal dissatisfaction.

At that point I already lost the client. Although I tried my best to get him back, my decisions continued to be constantly questioned and the client now seeks only the owner’s opinion. Inquiring, “Do you think that’s a good idea placing that there?” or “Should we make that another bullet point?” It was frustrating, to the point I couldn’t think straight anymore as I moved the same text box back and forth several times. I just didn’t know what to do anymore. The owner asked me to get up as he decided to sit down and finish the informational folder. I was so angry but a valuable lesson can be learned from this “Successful Failure.”

  1. Never undermine a fellow creative/ employee in front of a client. It damages the agency/company/brands image. Instead, pull your fellow creative to the side and have a open discussion about the situation, at a designated time. You want to listen to them and make sure the advice you are offering addresses their needs.
  2. There is a fine line between normal criticism and toxic criticism. Remember, toxic criticism spreads from person to person like wildfire. It makes for a negative work environment that does not foster creativity.
  3. Stand up for yourself professionally and respectfully by expressing your design choices. If the toxic criticism starts imposing on your day to day life, like affecting your mood outside of work, consider looking for another job.

Have you been on the receiving end of toxic criticism? Let us know in the comments below.

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