I’ve had a somewhat adversarial relationship with design critiques throughout my career. I would sometimes take feedback personally, become frustrated if I got conflicting feedback, or feel as if people didn’t understand what problems I was trying to solve. I started by following some tried-and-true steps coworkers shared with me, but I still found myself occasionally having a difficult time communicating with people or feeling like the feedback I gave wasn’t useful to designers.
The breaking point
About a year ago I had a particularly rough design critique. Afterward, I immediately began to justify how poorly it went by placing blame on others.
I said to myself, they didn’t listen to what I said, they didn’t care about what I was working on, they were in a bad mood.
At that point, I all but gave up and thought that’s just how all critiques would go. However, at lunch that day, I overheard a fellow designer and an engineer she worked with talking about having empathy for the people we build experiences for. This concept was nothing new — I’d heard it a million times and spoken about it a million more. But in that moment it made me stop and think about how empathy could be applied in design critiques.
Understanding the problem
Then and there, I decided that during the next design critique I would sit, observe, listen, and take notes. When the day came, I made sure to be in the room before everyone else.As everyone came into the room, I saw most people’s demeanor start to change once they sat down. People crossed their arms and legs, their faces became serious, and the room grew silent.
As the first presenter began showing his work, some designers began to scowl or look frustrated and confused. Once he was done presenting, the feedback began to roll in and patterns began to emerge. Designers would sigh before speaking or say, hmm… yeahhh…, drawing words out before giving feedback as if it was difficult to understand the work or figure out what feedback to give. The designers focused heavily on things that didn’t work, that were confusing, or that broke patterns. Positive feedback was mostly limited to saying good job or good effort but was rarely followed up with specific examples of what was good or why the designs were successful. At the same time, the presenter reacted by crossing their arms, interrupting people to explain and defend their decisions, all the while largely avoiding looking at the people they were speaking to. The mood of the room would ebb and flow as people continued to present designs and give feedback.
While no one was overtly hostile, it was very apparent that at times tension would build and people felt uncomfortable.
I spent the next few days going over how things went during the critique and thinking back to other past critiques and how I conducted myself. What was my body language like? Did I interrupt people? Was I quick to dismiss people’s suggestions? Did I just tell the presenter what I would do instead of try to understand why they chose their solution? Turns out, I was guilty of all of these at one time or another.
Getting on the right track
Honestly, that was a hard pill to swallow. I was self-sabotaging my own design critique experience.
While other designers in the critiques were guilty of the same behavior, I knew the only things I could change were my outlook and how I acted. So I took the time to write out several things I knew I needed to be mindful of before I went into design critiques:
- Come into the room with empathy: Without empathy, we jump too quickly to problem-solving before understanding the problem. When we do this, we end up focusing on the designs and forgetting the person who created them. Give feedback as you would want to receive it; treat fellow designers how you would want to be treated.
- Strive to be self-aware: The only way you can improve is to pay attention to the things you do and don’t do and how they affect people in the room. Many times we do things without realizing; it can be uncomfortable to confront the things about yourself that need improving, but it is necessary to move forward.
- Maintain positive body language, facial expressions, and eye contact: Make sure you look open and welcoming to show you are there to participate. Allow yourself to connect with who you are talking to. Do your best to sit up in your seat, keep arms and legs uncrossed, have an even expression on your face and look at people in the eyes when speaking to them. Making these changes may seem easier said than done, but the key is to start small. Don’t try to improve everything at once. Pick one thing you want to improve like sitting up straight and pay attention to it during critiques. Once you see improvement choose another thing you want to improve until you’ve got it all down. If you work with remote team members or present over video calls, take the time to watch yourself on camera. This is the quickest way to notice and correct what you may be doing.
- Be mindful when communicating: Let people finish speaking before you respond. People are really just looking to be heard, so take the time to actually hear them and let them know they’ve been heard. It’s also important to let things process before responding. Let things sink in, see if you understand what was said, and if you don’t, let them know and turn a misunderstanding into a positive conversation.
- Help people find solutions; don’t tell them what to do: Telling people what you would have done doesn’t necessarily help them. Leveraging examples from past work, other designers’ projects, and industry examples provides feedback and possibilities open to interpretation.
- Celebrate the work and be specific: While it’s important to point out what needs iteration or what could be improved, it is equally important to spend time pointing out the things people have done well, why they were done well, and why you appreciate them.
Putting things into practice
Before the next critique, I read each of these points several times over and paid close attention to how I was handling myself. I presented a small project to start, made sure to let people finish speaking, paused before responding, and kept my body language and demeanor open and welcoming. I instantly noticed a difference,
I was more relaxed, people were interested in my work and everyone in the room actively engaged in discussion.
I got great feedback on my project and was able to participate in meaningful discussions with my design team. After the critique, a few designers even approached me and thanked me for sharing my work and feedback.
This process was a huge step forward and while I still struggle from time to time I’ve come to see design critiques and the overall notion of feedback in a completely new light. I was able to better design myself by taking a step back, really looking at how I behaved and reacted to those around me using empathy, a skill I employed daily when designing.
Most importantly I learned the success of design critiques hinges on how participants approach them.
Everything we do as designers is iterative. While this process started with self-reflection it truly became impactful once I started working to improve during critiques and openly talking about my struggles with my fellow designers.
I sincerely hope my experiences and thoughts can help anyone that’s shared my challenges and frustrations. Finally, if there are things any readers have done to improve their design critique experience please share them! After all, the only way we get better is by sharing and working together.
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