Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

6 tips for Critiquing Creative work for your Business

Not every workplace has a creative team, and a lot of the “we need this today” work ends up on the task list of whoever has the most skill on Canva, or the most followers on Instagram. This doesn’t mean that their work shouldn’t follow the design process and go through a review and critique phase. With these 6 tips you’ll be ready to provide feedback like a creative director.

1. State the obvious, what do you see?

The first step seems a bit redundant but it’s actually one of the most important components to good feedback and that is describing what you see. Don’t wait for the creator to tell you what they intended with the design, instead just start making observations out loud. Think about phrasing your observations as statements:

  • I’m looking at a couple enjoying ice cream at a park downtown.
  • I can see a large square shape in the corner with smaller squares scattered around the rest of the piece.
  • This is a portrait of a woman and she is sad.

Try not to infer meaning from what you are seeing. This step is all about letting the creator know that you are critiquing the same thing. At this step you might hear them say things like “Actually, that’s supposed to be a dolphin” in which case you have found your first piece of feedback right there.

2. Now remove the “I”

From here on, stop using yourself as a metric in your critique. Although it was useful when stating what you could see at first glance, it’s far too subjective to hold any value going forward with your feedback. It can also cause some tension between you and your employee/co-worker because they may feel, and they often should, that this piece isn’t meant for you, or that you are making their work a personal thing.

Going forward, try to drop all of our common sentence lead-ins like “I feel like…” and “Well to me…” and instead just start strong with “This is…” and “The colour is…”

3. Look for the focal point

Every photograph, drawing, poster, personalized letter and thumbnail needs to have a strong focal point. This is the dominant feature of the piece that draws the eye continually. Sometimes this requires you to “flip” the work or rotate it to look at it from another angle. Once you know where the focal point is, or where it’s supposed to be, look for any elements that are competing with the focal point. Common examples of this are:

  • Lines or arrows leading away from the point
  • Elements that are bigger or higher contrast to the focal point
  • Eyes — especially eyes looking at the viewer

Point out these competing elements using phrasing like “These eyes are taking the focus away from the title of the concert.”

4. Comment on colour, shape, type, layout

This is where you start to apply your design knowledge, but don’t worry, these are all things you look for subconsciously. It’s a good idea to start looking for these 4 things in your day to day life too; on billboards, social media posts, magazine ads, or websites. To get you started with the basics, here are some easy points to reference:

Colour

The most important thing to look for here is contrast of value. That means using light colours on dark colours. If you notice that the heading used on the poster is too close in value to the background, point it out. Not only does strong contrast make a more accessible piece, but it helps draw the eye to important information. You may suggest lowering the contrast on a competing focal point to push it into the background.

Shape

Here you want to try and break things down into their basic forms. If you are looking at a person and think of them as a silhouette, is the shape interesting? Maybe a photo where the model has their hands outreached would create a more dynamic shape that speaks to the vibrant colours and tilted layout. You’ll also want to look for consistency of shape. Are there a bunch of circles in the background with very blocky letters up front? Maybe changing the shapes to rectangles will unite the piece and pull it together under one style.

Type

The world of Typography is very deep and so much can be said to it. At the basic level we are looking for what we call “Type Hierarchy”. This is the difference between the heading levels and paragraphs. Start by looking for the biggest type (or heaviest) and call this the highest level. Is it the most important content? If we are looking at an event poster, we want to highlight the date, time, cost of entry, maybe the speakers or bands? Discuss which points are the most important and then align them to the highest level of type.

Layout

It may sound rigid or counter intuitive to creativity but almost all work should fall into some kind of grid. This means that type is aligned where it needs to be, there is enough and similar spacing between elements and that margins are providing enough “white space” to give the viewer’s eye a break from all of the high contrast information you’re dishing out. Think about whether having the type in a box at the bottom of the piece with a large isolated photo might increase the legibility of the content without taking away from the amazing and expensive photo you’re using.

5. Bring it back to the target audience

This is where you get to put things back into the context of marketing and value to your company. Since you have a well thought out brand strategy and guidebook, use it. Refer to your target audience and person and ask the creator to explain how this piece applies to them, not yourself. Use what you know about your audience to predict how this work will trigger them and whether or not they will feel like it applies to their situation.

Persona

Callout your persona by name and use phrases like “Because Jessica really likes TikTok, these bright neon colours are going to draw her attention. The 80’s are a big part of her identity. We should look at using a typeface that has that same feel and really lean into the decade, maybe Courier New?”

6. Make a suggestion that reflects one of your previous steps

This is the hard part, you have hopefully made some notes, gone through the steps, and are now ready to reply with an email, video call, or the elusive in-person meeting. How are you going to phrase your suggestions into actionable items that are objective, useful and promote healthy dialogue for future critiques?

  • Start by reviewing the brief. Don’t forget that the creator had to interpret an idea during a meeting and turn it into something tangible. Stay casual
    “So, we are looking at the poster for next months employee BBQ”
  • Start by saying everything that is working well.
    “The colours here are really on point, this BBQ is supposed to feel like a beach vacation and the bright saturated colours give the event a sense of fun!”
  • Point out any issues you have seen as statements, keeping yourself and the creator out of it.
    “This arrow is pointing to the word hamburger and that draws a lot of attention away from the date and “paid time off” which are more important pieces of information”
  • Always explain why this is an issue and never use the “I think” as a metric. Bring it back to statements.
    “There isn’t enough contrast between the Title and the photograph, this is going to make it hard for our audience to read. If you aren’t sure, we’ve started using a colour contrast checking tool online that I can link to you, it’s helped me out a lot.”
  • Continue down your list, if you have a lot try alternating between what is working well and what may need to be changed.
  • Always end with an affirmation that everything is moving in the right direction as cliche as that sounds.

Be Fearless

Everyone involved in a critique knows how awkward it is and until you have practiced it hundreds of times there will always be a level of discomfort in initiating the feedback process. Don’t be afraid of it. Anything you are creating for your business’ marketing is meant to be viewed and critiqued by many people, and having a little art direction will only make the inevitable facebook comments easier to understand.

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