Constructive Criticism: Don’t Ask Your Friends

How many times have you been in a challenging project that pushes your personal boundaries, puts you out of your comfort zone, and you just need someone to step in to offer helpful criticism? I’ve been there too many times to remember. It’s at moments like this that we’ll often turn to friends or family for “constructive criticism” – but inevitably the feedback you receive isn’t what you were looking for, and you wonder why. Even worse, the whole interaction probably ignited an argument between you and your friend. In this post I dive into why criticism from friends (or family) hardly ever works, and how to spot the rare instance where taking feedback from friends can work.

The Value of A Good Critic

Why shouldn’t our friends be able to offer us great criticism on that next [packaging / marketing / design / strategy] project? Almost every day, we’re offered free criticism – from our clients, bosses, co-workers, and even random people on the street sometimes. We’re fooled by this to think criticism is unsolicited and cheap. But it shouldn’t be. What if you were writing a new business plan, and I offered to have Warren Buffett read it and offer you feedback? What would that be worth? It’s worth a ton because he happens to be incredibly good at evaluating businesses – and there’s the value. Now let’s say you’re designing a web page and I offered the exact same thing – Warren Buffett will critique your web design because he happens to be a friend of yours. What’s that worth? Less than nothing – Warren Buffett doesn’t do web design, and just because he’s a friend doesn’t add value. So what makes a good critic, and more importantly, when does criticism by a friend actually make sense?

Find Your Expert

Instead of turning to a friend, find someone who does whatever you’re working on. Designing a logo? Talk to the girl who has designed hundreds of logos, even if she isn’t a friend. It’s time to start making friends with her. If it sounds difficult, it’s because it is – great criticism is hard to find. Sometimes in my projects, I have literally no idea who to turn to for advice – so I just have to be my own critic. Sometimes, though, the stars align and you happen to have a friend or family member who is an expert in what you’re stuck on. This is about the only time it makes sense to approach them for feedback, but beware – those are dangerous waters. First, if they weren’t your friend, but instead Warren Buffett again, you’d treat him with deference and take his criticism happily. Do the same with whatever friend you approach. If you think they’re a good enough expert to ask for their feedback, then you should accept it with humility. If you don’t think they’re…quite…the expert, but hey they’re your friend and it’s free, then save both of you the time and just don’t ask them to criticize you.

The Falsehood of “Everyone is a Customer”

I used to think this all the time, and I now hear it all the time: “I’m designing a [website / product / etc], and asking everyone’s input. I know you’re not an expert in this, but you’re the person I’m marketing to, so you’re just as good a critic as anyone.” This is a perfectly logical argument, but it simply doesn’t work because people aren’t able to offer their view as subconsciously acting consumers – they’re offering their conscious criticism, which loops us right back to the beginning of the article – it’s worthless input. If you’re not sold on this idea, I have a few examples to illustrate the point. When you’re wandering the isles of a store, are you a consumer, or a critic? You’re (hopefully) a consumer – you’re evaluating things emotionally and by sound, touch, taste, smell, and vision. When a friend comes up to you with a brand new package design and says “What do you think?” – that all goes right out the door. You’re not a consumer in this setting, so you can’t offer accurate feedback – you’re logically evaluating the package in a way you never would in the store. If the “everyone is a customer, so everyone’s a good critic” argument stood up, then we wouldn’t have marketers or product designers – just hoards of consumers running companies. Go find your expert, or learn how to be great at evaluating your own work objectively instead.

Changing your mindset towards criticism will bring focus and intensity to your projects like you’ve never experienced before – and make your friendships better (bonus)! I’ve been through it, and it’s a tough switch to make – it’s great having friends for advice – but some advice is definitely best left to the experts. Good luck!


  1. good advice!