Killer Trait for Vis Experts #3: Be Brave: Seek Criticism and Be Ready to Trash your Masterpiece.

BraveSo, let me recapitulate what we have discussed so far in terms of Killer Traits (KT) (on a side note: this involuntarily became a series, but that’s the beauty of blogging, isn’t it?)

In KT#1 I explained that you need to keep a sense of urgency in terms of crafting a first draft. And that’s because you simply cannot pretend to hold a visualization in your head. Sketches on paper might help, but there’s nothing like having it in front of you on your screen.

In KT#2 I proposed a second skill to counterbalance the first one: exploring several alternatives before focusing on one. I argued that this is the only way to achieve “graphical excellence” (as Tufte would call it).

Now KT#3 is another complement to the previous ones. And a fundamental one! Always actively seeking criticism for your work and, as a corollary, being ready to dump your own work when necessary.

That’s damn tough folks!!! I can tell you, it always hurts when you have to expose yourself to the criticism of others and even more when you have to accept that something is not good enough, especially when it comes from your brain!

But let me say more, because it is more complicated than you think.


These are very delicate killer traits because you can easily end up misusing them. The whole point is to find the right balance between two trade-offs.

Trade-off 1: Listening to what people say vs. Do what you think is right.
This is hard because while it is very necessary to get feedback from people you trust it is also very important to filter what you get and put it in the context of what you think. Who do you trust more yourself or your beloved colleagues?

Trade-off 2: Be ready to trash your stuff vs. Persist until you get the best out of it.
This is maybe even harder because excellence often come form avoiding the discouragement that difficulties bring when you are crafting a new design. But sometimes your solution doesn’t work and the sooner you accept it the better.

Oh folks! The more I think about it the more I realize how this delicate balance is at the core of our job. It’s hard and, again, there is nothing like a ready-made formula to use.


There are a lot of open questions.

  • How do you find good criticism?
  • And what is good criticism by the way?
  • How do you incorporate the suggestions you get back into your work? Of course you need to filter them.
  • How do you deal with the feeling of failure once you realize your work doesn’t work?

I’d be very happy to hear your experiences.

My own experience

I can only say few things from my own experience. You get the best criticism from people you trust a lot. I have for instance a number of great colleagues and I consider myself very lucky for that. There are three advantages for having such a luxury: (1) when you ask to your trusted colleagues you feel you are in a safe environment; (2) since the environment is safe they tend to give very honest feedback; (3) I can take their criticism very seriously.

Recently I also joined the big big world of blogging and twitter and this is also a fantastic resource. Even if I still have to understand how to get the same level of trust and the same feeling of being home.

As for the difficulty of dumping your masterpiece I cannot tell much, this is really something you have to consider on a case-by-case manner. But there is one single very important skill that can really help: do not identify yourself with your own work. I realize I am getting very psychological and I don’t want to steal the job to anyone, I don’t pretend to give any lesson in this domain. Anyway, I personally noticed that the more detached I am from my work the more I can accept failures. And this is in my humble opinion a great great tool for your mind.

And you? Where do you find good criticism? And how do you turn criticism into a great resource?

3 thoughts on “Killer Trait for Vis Experts #3: Be Brave: Seek Criticism and Be Ready to Trash your Masterpiece.

  1. Jan Willem Tulp

    great post again, and again I agree with you, this is absolutely another killer trait!

    My experience: I also test with close friends and family, who are not necessarily visualization experts, but the can give excellent feedback. Especially if you watch what their first reaction is to something you’ve created: do they work or understand it intuitively, or do they have no idea what they’re looking at. They can provide valuable feedback and suggestions.

    I also test with some friends who are more experienced with visualization, and their feedback is usually different, more detailed, since they also generally have knowledge of visualization theory.

    Although I do appreciate both kinds of feedback just as much, I do evaluate them differently (depending on the feedback of course). I tend to translate the first kind of feedback (non-visualization experts) to my own (theoretical) knowledge of visualization. So if someone says: “I would use red instead of blue”, I try to find out what the reason is why they say so. And the color may not be the issue at all, but some other aspect of the visualization. But in this case I really have to use my own visualization knowledge to come up with creative ideas to overcome this kind of feedback.

    Now when experienced visualization friends give feedback, they are more likely to have a thorough knowledge of visualization, so there can be more of a discussion at an equal level, where we both reference theoretical aspects, visualizations we’ve seen somewhere else, etc.

    I have to emphasize though that this distinction is of course not always the case, and I do value both kinds of feedback just as much! But it may be different how I deal with this feedback based on the experience and knowledge of the person who gives the feedback.

    Is this your experience as well?

  2. Shahed

    First off, incredible series you’ve got here and a great blog as well.

    I get my feedback the same way that Jan has described above, a combination of commentary from non-visual folks and technical critique from experts. It does work very well.

    Although I think being self-critical throughout the project is essential before you present it for feedback. A couple of projects that received good reception came about after I had dumped earlier iterations which had more time invested in it than the final.

    As you’ve said, this is a per case basis, but I personally rank this killer trait above the other two.

    1. Enrico Post author

      Thanks dear Jan for sharing so much on every killer trait! I am wondering if you have more to suggest?

      Thanks Shahed for your compliments and for sharing your story as well.

      I am learning from you guys, thanks a lot. I must confess I never gave such a relevance to showing my stuff to non-visual folks but I agree that this might be considered in some cases the final test. This of course also depends on what kind of audience is your final target. I tend to work for people with very specialized goals (e.g., biologists) but again I think there is always space for such a test.


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