A little advice for myself, as I begin my career all over again:
Be critical, but never cynical.
What’s the difference? I think it’s objectivism and optimism.
To be critical, you must be honest, always honest with yourself, and with your peers. Good criticism is about asking questions, and then pushing hard to answer them completely, without letting personal prejudices influence those answers (but I hate purple!). You have to be able to gracefully, humbly, admit when you’ve failed. That’s being objective. You must put yourself aside, and understand the project’s goals—including user goals, business goals, aesthetic goals, and technical goals. Empathy comes into play here too, because you have to understand the motivations for each stakeholder, and then diplomatically balance all those needs as you go through the process of making.
That’s all well and good—most of us can agree that objectivity and empathy are key ingredients to any successful design process. What separates the good from the great is optimism.
Being critical—seeing what isn’t working—is the easy part. Anyone can tell you what’s wrong with something you’ve made. Smacking something down, without offering any suggestions for what might make it more successful might not (always) be mean-spirited, but it’s rarely productive. The hard part is being proactive in improving whatever it is that you’re working on. That’s where the optimism comes in, because as designers and critics, we have to believe that what we’re working on can be improved in some way.
Optimism comes into play in another way, too. As designers on the receiving end of criticism, we have to be optimistic about the intentions of our critics. As I said above, negative criticism usually isn’t mean-spirited, especially when it comes from people who may not possess the vocabulary to help them describe what isn’t working. We have to trust that when criticism is offered, our critics genuinely want to improve the work, and that the criticism isn’t personal. As designers, we have an obligation to the work to probe criticism that isn’t fully formed, to try to pull out specifics.
As a designer (and a person), I sometimes struggle with objectivity, humility, and optimism. Who doesn’t? But the advice above is a good reminder to let our sharp eyes and opinions stay sharp, so long as we don’t slip into cynical negativity.