Why do you build me up Buttercup…

… just to let me down.
What is the emotional etiquette for transitory online critiques?


I spend time on online forums offering critiques of graphic design work. My comments here relate specifically to that environment. Most of the work comes from students, amateurs or those just beginning their careers. I got feedback the other day that gave me pause. Someone whose work I had critiqued wrote: “Thanks again for taking the time to send me feedback… just a heads up though, looking through your past posts, you’re a super negative person.” I have not received that particular note before. To be fair my feedback is quick to the point, even blunt, but is offered with encouragement and clear suggestions for improvement. When the work or effort is exceptional I am quick to point that out. I sent a response and explained I believed my comments were only “negative” in the sense that I was commenting on errors or things that could benefit from a change. I also offered that considering the setting, my time was best spent pointing out areas that needed help as opposed those to that were successful and working. He wrote me back, still struggling with the distinction between “negative” and constructive criticism, evidenced by his use of the epithet “Negative Nancy,” but left me with one additional thought. He ended with: “You have to build people up sometimes.”

You have to build people up sometimes. My first thought was don’t be ridiculous. We are in an online graphic design forum. I am not your friend, parent or even instructor. This is not a class where we develop a dialogue and a relationship. I am a stranger commenting on your design work. Do you imagine your boss or clients will “build you up.” Are you suggesting that besides helping you improve your work I should also make you feel good about it? This is antithetical to how I was trained back in the day. I received affirmation only when the work truly warranted it, and then rather begrudgingly. Praise was a hard-earned reward, you wore it like a medal. Well this was before smelting, so not a medal exactly, but you get the idea.

Why do I spend time writing design critiques for strangers on the interweb? The answer is easy, I want to help people be better designers, to think better, to make better things. So what if now, part of a successful critique includes interjecting supplemental praise and using platitudes I used to believe unnecessary. I am not convinced it is the correct course, but if people need it and leads to growth, I am willing to give it a go. It brings up all sorts of questions. Am I over-reacting? Is there a ratio to follow of “negative” to “positive” feedback? Is there a danger in too much manufactured praise? Am I a Negative Nancy? Is praising effort alone good enough? I don’t have many answers, but I am thankful to be challenged and happy to reconsider things. Whether or not online forums are the correct space for it, the bare truth of the comment continues to resonate, sometimes people do need to be built up.