Insights on how commentary should be done in design social platforms.

As a designer, I tend to visit Behance and Dribbble quite often in search of inspiration. After browsing a few projects, the same thing always strikes me: the comments are bullshit. With the exception of a few purposeful insights, what I see is a few thousand different ways to say “amazing” in a more or less correct English, with an overload of exclamation points. You must’ve noticed that, too. Otherwise, websites like this one wouldn’t exist.

It’s unfortunately obvious that the social activity on these sites is part of a strategy. People strive to get a few more visits on their profile. If you comment, say, 50 random projects that you don’t even really care about, you can hope to get a few hits from your careless commenting. How many times we see something like this:

One of the dumbest marketing techniques of the last years. Incorrect spelling on the house.

This developing trend is damaging our community more than we think. Paul Adams at Intercom already wrote a really, really interesting article about how we are destroying the values of design. As if there aren’t enough people already distrusting our profession, we are constantly diminishing ourselves. Do we really want to keep going like this? I hope not. Even though there’s nothing we can do to fight this arguable marketing habit, some people might still be persuaded to use the comments for a more positive end.

The reason for the misuse of those tools could lie in their implicit simplicity. Commenting has become easier and faster than ever — on some websites you don’t even have to Sign In or have a confirmed profile — which is a great thing for the freedom of expression, but also a method apt to lower the standards of quality to unforeseen depths. Hidden behind our screens we are prone to write anything that comes to our mind, which, unfortunately, is bullshit most of the time.

Perhaps the simplicity of the tool led directly to its abuse. Maybe we didn’t stop to consider what a proper comment should be before starting commenting everything we could get our hands — or keyboards — on. I also used sterile comments sometimes, before actually starting to think about the sense of what I was doing. I think and hope that everyone of us should and could contribute to spreading and fueling knowledge, but we just don’t know how to do this, thinking that “amazing bru” is the future of feedback. But it’s not.

Comments are an incredibly powerful tool. They are one of the most complex forms of feedback, that allows both the sender and the receiver to reason and learn. In most of the social networks we use nowadays, comments are backed up by another tool: Appreciations. These two features have been created for different purposes and must therefore be used in different ways. The appreciation — or like — gives an univocal message: I like what I see. It’s the simplest way of showing your opinion without mince words.

On the other side, a comment is something more complex. It doesn’t have to be univocal. It must have personality, say something. I like to think of it as a simplified version of the Peer Review method used in modern research. Wikipedia describes this as

the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility.

We are, under any circumstance, peers. It should be our duty and interest to write comments that “maintain standards of quality, improve performance and provide credibility”. Based on this definition, I consider a comment good if it fits in one of the following categories.

  • Constructive Criticism
    Whether you like it or not, criticism is good. It helps understanding our errors and getting better. In order for the criticism to be constructive, there must be an explanation supporting the opinion. “Looks like shit” is not constructive. “Looks like shit because …” is slightly rude but constructive.
  • Constructive Appreciation
    In the same way, we should corroborate our positive feedback. It’s not enough to say “that looks great”. We have appreciations to indirectly say that something looks great. In order to be constructive, we could point out the elements we liked the most, or something we deemed of great value. This would help the designer discover his strengths. By the way, it’s a great exercise to find what works especially well in a design. When you see something that looks good, you might want to spend a while to understand why.
  • Comparison &Linking
    It rarely happens that a project or a concept comes out of the blue. Most of what we do and design is an evolution of a previous or similar form. There are thousand of projects out there, so a proper way to comment could be linking or showing something of similar value, another approach to the same concept.
  • Helps & Hints
    There are always people better than us out there, and with far more experience. Some of those people could (and should) feel the urge to give us insights on what we do, proposing alternative solutions that could fix something we made in an unproper way.
  • Mixes
    Any combination of the previous categories works as well. Consider though that in order to be assimilated — hence put to good use — the information should be delivered in a precise and concise way. A complex overview risks to be too general, failing to deliver a clear message.

Hardly a simple article with a few guidelines will change our behaviour. Perhaps what we need is a new method.

Platforms like Medium and Quartz introduced inline commenting, which is indeed a great improvement. By forcing comments to be placed in a precise area — for example a paragraph — a context is given to the comment, hence discouraging general and sterile statements.

Also what Gawker did back in 2012 was an inspiring change. Given that the system had room for improvement, it was the first time somebody tried to find a way to give comments a different grade of importance according to their usefulness and relevance. By breaking the time order and highlighting certain content, marketing practices could be discouraged: if you wrote mainly to gain attention, almost surely your intervention will fall at the bottom of the comment stream, hence failing its main purpose.

Our social networks need to evolve and adapt to the real needs of our community. What probably worked at the beginning, with a smaller and selected number of users, appears to be broken and misused nowadays. We need those tools to change.

But what we really need to change is our responsibility as designers. We need to build a constructive community engagement based on feedback and debate, rather than on profile views and likes.

And this is something we should start doing now.

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Multidisciplinary Designer. Living and freelancing in Berlin, writes about design thinking, branding and weird thoughts that cross my mind.

Multidisciplinary Designer. Living and freelancing in Berlin, writes about design thinking, branding and weird thoughts that cross my mind.