The Critique: Friend or Foe?

This GDC is going to be interesting. I have been to GDC in 2005 and 2007 and both times I was on the opposite side of the wall that I have now stepped over. The first time, I was an observer at a carnival. A sophomore in college with no clue what I was getting myself into. I threw myself into the fire and hoped for the best. To say the least, it was mind blowing and walked away severely giddy.I knew I had chosen the right profession, but I still had no clue what I was doing.

Last year I chose to go back, but for a job which I didn’t get. It instead was a huge learning experience as to what employers were looking for and how I was viewed by companies with me coming straight out of college. Or, in my case, almost out of college but still having a graduation date to hurdle. My portfolio got kudos and was ripped apart and spit on, but that is all part of the experience.

Up until the point where you graduate and find a job (and really even after you are employed), GDC is an invaluable experience to get your work reviewed by industry professionals. These are the people that know what it takes to get into the industry. This is their lives.

Now here are some pointers on how to handle a critique. This is coming from classroom experience and my minimal conference experience (only 3 under my belt), but most of these have been told to me. I like to share, and if you have any more feel free to add.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you approach a job booth or are asking for a portfolio critique. (Note: These aren’t points on what to say or how to make small talk, but just how to take a review graciously.)

  • Listen – This really should be the main focus. Sometimes the best advice can be received if you just take the time to listen. Brenda Brathwaite had a great post on her blog about how to react when you meet someone famous, or whos work you deeply respect.
  • Ask Questions – You want to improve and the best way is to ask how to do something better. It is pretty flattering when someone asks for your opinion, and usually the advice is worth while, but of course wait until they are done talking and keep it to clarification until the end. You don’t want them to lose their thought process.
  • Say Thank You! – This one comes in close second to listen. Keep in mind that the person you are talking to is very busy and is taking time to talk to you. Thank them up and down, but don’t start worshiping them. You might scare them and gain a restraining order. Even if they don’t think highly of your work you will still come across as a professional. It is surprising where good manners can get you. They might like you later.
  • Bad Review? – It hurts, and by hurts I mean it is like getting punched in the stomach and stomped on. Most of the time you won’t get a private review – it’s pretty rare that there are separate rooms in the booth for this. Most likely you will be standing next to someone who is trying to listen in and use the feedback you’re receiving to their benefit. Last year I experienced a negative review with others watching. I walked up to a company I wanted to work for and tried my best to get a portfolio review on the spot but was unable due to technical difficulties on their end. So, I was gracious for the try and handed them a copy of my reel and resume and walked away. My laptop was in my hotel room so I brought it the next day and asked for feedback and… I got feedback.I was ripped up one side and down the other. My ego was shattered and I did not want to approach anyone else to tell me what a crummy job I did. Now this was something I was trained to be able to handle, because I went to art school and this happens pretty often. It is one thing to receive this from your peers and another to receive it from someone you want a job from. Either way it hurts and most likely I deserved it to some extent.
    • Keep in mind that this is one of the great perks of being an artist and a bane. You have to deal with it.
    • Don’t break into tears. This should go without saying. It just makes things awkward.
    • Take what they are saying with a grain of salt. What they are saying isn’t fact. It is their opinion and everyone is going to say something different. Also, what employers are looking for is constantly changing. Technology is always changing. It happens. But this is the industry you chose and you must keep up.
    • Don’t argue. Listen. In the future you may run into this person again with a better portfolio. You don’t want them to remember you as the person who argued with them for an hour at GDC last year.
    • One of the best pieces of advice I got from an industry professional (about portfolios) is to remember that this is your portfolio, not theirs. This is something that you have put your sweat and blood into and it shows a lot about who you are. Ideally, you will make a different reel for every company you submit to, but at GDC that is crazy. Maybe for your top picks have some personalized ones ready but for the majority you are going to show what you find to be your best work. Though if you are getting recurring comments on your reel, you may want to rethink the topic in question.

Portfolio critiques can be painful, but are a necessity if you wish to improve your work. You have to take the plunge and they do get easier with time. I promise.

If you are looking for information on networking at a conference, read Darius Kazemi’s series on networking on his blog Tiny Subversions. He says it way better than I could and he has the experience to boot.