+5 for a Useless Critique

This cartoon has been hanging outside my office door since 2006. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, 2006.

Criticism, or critique, is a well accepted practice in design*: designers cycle (or iterate) through making-thinking-remaking, until they become reasonably satisfied with the emergent result, or they run out of time and energy (hopefully the former). At key intervals within this process, designers seek feedback on their work, usually from colleagues, classmates, superiors and, sometimes, from clients and others.**

In their most basic use, critique and iteration help designers improve functionality and target look-and-feel. When done well, critiques challenge assumptions, biases, and stereotypes; push against the status quo; clarify contexts of use; and raise expectations of quality, including accuracy, thoroughness of research, attention to detail, and justification of design choices.

No matter the intention, however, here are 5 ways to make any critique completely useless.

1. Focus on yourself, rather than the work.

When you let your ego get involved, any attempt at criticism will become an attack on your beautiful soul, rather than a discussion of the fit between design objectives and design choices.

Such an exchange tends to look something like this:

Feedback-Giver: Why did you choose an image of pigeons for the cover of this oil company’s annual report?
Designer: I spent a lot of time selecting just the right image for the cover page, so that the colours would match the company’s identity.

It’s hard not to get defensive when you perceive an attack. The trick is to practice not seeing a critique as an attack. It is, instead, a conversation where you have the opportunity to express your idea and, in return, hear how others understand (interpret) this idea’s physical form.

You’re not powerless.*** What ever the feedback, you have the chance to gather it up, take it home with you, think through it, and either accept it as valid or reject it (for reasons).

2. Hope-leap towards the finish line.

There are very few shortcuts in design. Most of those that do exist, come from practice and experience. And that practice is exhausting and time consuming. It is understandable that, sometimes, you just want to be fucking done; to hope that the hours you spent on that draft take you more than two steps in the “right” direction. When you’re tired, any negative feedback — or even perceived challenges to your thinking process — becomes disheartening to hear.

Before any critique, try to get some sleep. Eat a good meal. Put away those presentation boards, and take a walk. Talk to the pigeons; remind yourself that this stage in the process is now finished, you did your best and, tomorrow, you’ll get to try some more.

3. Talk, instead of listening.

The best way to avoid receiving feedback, is to monopolize the time with lengthy descriptions of your design process, research results, and creative insights.

That’s not what a critique is for. Whatever time has been set aside for the critique, less than a 1/4 of it should be you setting the stage for the discussion. The rest, is made up of you listening.

Pro tip: Don’t count on your memory; find an exit buddy. This person is charged with taking notes during your critique, so you can focus on the experience.

4. Ask for solutions.

If your critiquer identifies a problem with your design or your rationale (justification of design choices), don’t ask for ways to fix it. That’s your job. You are the one who has spent time and energy immersing yourself in all aspects of “the problem”. You are the expert, or should be. Asking for ideas turns a critique into design by committee (ick).

Pro tip: Asking for clarification or elaboration (👍) is different from asking for solutions.

5. Stop, just before you get to the good stuff.

If you’re in a critique with other designers, aesthetics-based feedback is low hanging fruit: whether a design shows unity or balance, uses hierarchy to structure content, or has enough white space. Functionality-based feedback is more complicated, requiring more time and commitment (user testing). Analysis and discussion based on connecting problem (the direction the design needs to take) to concept (the designer’s unique solution to the problem or intent) to physical manifestation (the design as presented for critique) is far more complex. Designers tend to encourage aesthetics or functionality-based discussion, but shy away from deep-dive interrogations of the design’s consequences and implications.**** If your colleague tells you they “like it”, ask them why; ask them to be specific; and ask them to comment beyond the visual.

Pro tip: Prepare for your critique. Write out your concept. Know what research and thinking went into your design — why you did what you did. Be prepared to present your case, then stand back and listen.

Final thoughts

A few years ago, I was asked to sit in on a skype between a client (a feminist, academic organization) and a design agency, tasked with re-designing said organization’s web site. The agency was in the early stages of the re-design project, having met with the client, conducted some preliminary research and analysis, and now presenting a set of moodboards for client review and feedback. The moodboards featured bow ties, typewriters, bicycles, and well-dressed young men. The agency wanted feedback about colour choices and typefaces. The colors were lovely, as were the typefaces. The design direction, however, was intensely problematic. As one of my colleagues pointed out, it was “as if they smeared hipster penis all over the place.” Not addressing the core of the conceptual problem — the agency’s lack of due diligence in trying to understand the organization, their user base, and the proposed purpose and content of the site — would not be fixed by debating serifs. This feedback had to be communicated and heard, if the project was to move forward.

Which it did, with a successful launch in 2016 and not a bow tie in sight.


Notes

  • * And in architecture, art history, cinema, fine art, music, writing …
  • ** Occasionally, critique is made more formal through user engagement (focus groups, usability studies, interviews, and the like.)
  • *** I understand that when you have a boss or a client sometimes you are, essentially, powerless. If you need to eat and the client says “make me a boat logo”, you make her a damn good boat logo.
  • **** I write more about the need for serious, public critiques of design, here.

Still Curious?

I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @candesignlove.

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