The Art Of The Critique

Any designer will tell you that their design has no personal attachment to them. This may be partially true (though honestly, it's a complete lie — the act of creating is always personal, at the start; it takes a concerted effort to strip-away any fingerprint, and at that, there will always be a bit of ourselves in anything we do). All designers infuse their personality in all their work (unless it happens to not be their work; but that's an entirely different matter). When working in a studio or multi-designer environment the work that you poured your thoughts, time and (sometimes) heart into can come under attack in The Critique, and because sometimes designers don’t know how to effectively critique, the process can be horrific or pointless (in a sea of unnecessary praise).


Why Critique?

I would hope that it's obvious why the practice of critiquing is important to the design process, but perhaps it's not. In an ever growing market of "indie designers" (of which I was once a part — I also will not use that vulgar "f" word) and people entering the field without formal training, I feel there needs to be a reminder of not only how to critique, but why to critique.

Critiquing isn't an opportunity for you to tell someone how you would design something — that's like saying "I realize you're short, but I really think you should be as tall as I am" — but an opportunity to explore alternate ways to come to a solution. The goal of design is to find the best solution for your client's problem. Period. (Ok, well, obviously design is more than that; it’s concept, story, creativity, execution, language, audience, message; blah blah, I’m simplifying for the sake of not getting sidetracked on what design is and isn’t). The critique allows you to gain insights and perspectives beyond your own, and thus (hopefully, when done right) creating a better solution.


How Not To Critique

The Critique is usually an informal conference or gathering where a group of people look at concepts and propose ways of improving upon that concept. There are many ways a critique goes down, but here are a few ways that I have seen, been subjected to and occasionally been guilty of:

The "I Didn't Design It" Critique A studio can be a very hostile environment (or not, my experiences have been of passive competition; while we have a common goal, we’re also desiring advancement in our careers). Surrounded by designers competing for that one client that will allow them to grow, improve and learn (and maybe a desire to get noticed by other designers), mixed with dashes of artistic moodiness and ego can make for a explosive mix; especially on days when you critique project. Design solutions are as varied as the personalities of those designing them. Of course I would do something differently than someone else, that should not be the motivation of my critique. No “I would have...”

The "Crop Dusting" Critique Most modern studio environments are designed to have open work spaces — to help further collaboration and interaction among all employees (if you’re working in a cubicle I apologize because I can only imagine how horrifying it might be). Open space working also ensures an environment of doing work and not just posting on Twitter and looking at Reddit all day. It’s not unusual for an Art Director or Marketing Executive or Content Specialist to walk by, see your design, and make a passing comment; such as "I don't like that at all", or "That sure needs some work". These comments are neither constructive (they give no concrete direction of change for the designer) nor informative (the concepts are typically in process and incomplete, not meant for critique, thus exasperating the designer).

The "Vague and Pointless" Critique The main focus of a critique should be to clearly, calmly and constructively give a designer the tools to improve upon their concept — through color, layout, grid or element suggestions. Sometimes critique commentary can range from wildly over dramatic ("I hate this color palette, I see it all the time on everything"), to objectively unimportant ("I'd like to see more organic floaty thingies" or “Can you make this look more socially bold, but subtle”).


Do It Right

Many critiques fall into one or all of these categories, mostly because we are never taught how to give a meaningful and useful critique. Here are a few of my rules that I follow when critiquing work:

Know the parameters of the design If the client's objectives, needs and goals aren't readily know or told to you, ask the designer (or art director or whoever would know) what those are. Without that, your critique will be baseless and often unhelpful. It's better to keep your mouth shut than to suggest something that isn't within the scope of the project ("I don’t like all the red, it feels angry", when the client’s brand colors are red, for instance).

Open with what you like about the design You know what your mom always told you, "if you can't say something nice then don't say anything at all", the rule applies to critiques. Always open a critique with the at least 3 things you like about the design. Positive encouragement helps bolster the confidence of the designer, while making them receptive to hear your criticisms. It also makes you search further than your gut reaction while stripping away your personal preferences. Discussing things that are merely based on your likes and dislikes are unimportant. So what if you don't like Univers Ultra Thin or background gradients, rather than inject your personality into the critique think about why you don't like certain things before opening your mouth. Informed opinions, coupled with reason and evidence will not only distinguish opinion from fact, but open discussion, education and dialog. If you don't have evidence or fact, then learn it; read books on design theory, design history, typography and understand current trends so that you'll better understand your own likes and dislikes and how to communicate them.

Explain what and how you'd improve the design, not what you don't like If you like having enemies and hostility in your workplace then just list everything you don't like about the design. Not only is it harsh, but it comes across as petty and mean spirited. Rather than list what you dislike (which is usually opinion based), talk about what you'd improve and how you'd improve the design. The "how" is very important. Discussing how you might improve upon the concept not only allows for an open dialog on design, but gives tools and means for the designer to improve the concept. Point out overused or cliched visual devices, discuss the color palette and how it accentuates the tone and mood of the project, observe balance, white space, hierarchy and informational importance. Your "how" can turn a concept from mediocre to excellent, especially when done well. Working with people should sharpen you skills, do it for others (and they’ll do it for you).

If you love it, then say so Just because its a critique doesn't mean you have to find things to dislike or pick apart. If you like it, then say so. Say what you like and why you like it and then shut your mouth. On the opposite spectrum, don’t just praise something because it’s easier than offering insight or because you’re afraid of offending someone. Unnecessary praise is just as harmful as harsh criticism.

If you keep some of these techniques in mind you'll begin to critique with more effectiveness, receptivity and team work; and maybe educating yourself and others around you.

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