What does it mean to “need improvement”?

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Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

When I was just starting out in design, the phrase “needs improvement” always had a weight attached to it. Upon hearing it applied to my work, I felt judged, unworthy, and less-than. It wasn’t until I started using this phrase as a speaker that I started to understand the sentiment behind “needs improvement”. It can be a positive, encouraging perspective on a piece of work.

I used to wonder why people couldn’t just express negativity. Sometimes ideas just aren’t good, and I didn’t understand why that wasn’t said plainly. It felt like a game of professionalism to find the nicest way to say something negative, and I found the game exhausting. Saying “needs improvement” felt like a hollow euphemism. Wouldn’t it be better to just let go of ideas not worth keeping? And if ideas “needed improvement”, then didn’t make them not worth keeping? This is how I used to interpret the idea behind this phrase, and it did me no favors.

But as I watch my work and my students’ work improve, I’m realizing the validity and accuracy of “needs improvement”. It means exactly what it says: that this idea has potential and needs a bit more work to become useful or valuable. Give it more time, attention, and effort, and it’ll likely start performing as desired. This is how I interpret this phrase now, and it feels hopeful.

There are parts of my design practice that still need improvement, but with this interpretation, it’s much easier to see those areas as opportunities to rise to challenges. To view those areas as undesirable would be to deny their potential — and to deny my own. So instead, I see them for what they are: opportunities to improve.

There are many well-worn phrases with sometimes muddled meanings. Which ones have you found specific, useful meanings for?

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