How to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
I love a good design critique. It is a great way to exchange ideas and solve problems. It is also one of the practices that has endured over time and connects graphic design to the past. I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts and accumulated advice regarding critiques. First a quick basic taxonomy of critiques.
A critique is an organized and systematic way to give or receive feedback involving at least two participants. The nature of the feedback changes depending on relationships between the participants. There are multiple permutations of relationships that can be sorted into three main categories of critique; work, school and presentation. A work critique can involve designers, colleagues and bosses. A school critique consists of students and instructors. A presentation critique has work critique participants as well as a client. Both the main focus and the secondary concerns change with the category.
The focus of a work critique is to make the design better. A school critique is focused on learning with better designs hopeful side effect. A client presentation often turns into a critique of sorts with the split focus of pleasing the client, making the design better and learning.
When dealing with different categories and varying agendas, it is not possible to have universal rules. The follow thoughts and collected advice are divided by role and not necessarily appropriate to all categories:
- Critiques should not be concerned with likes, taste or subjectivity. A critique articulates that there is objective criteria (design principles, research, precedent, etc) to which the design work can be compared.
- Critiques help both sides of the practice. The maker and the reviewer can both learn things.
- Patrick Stokes’ take on opinions from The Conversation is relevant: “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.
- Some people call critiques “design reviews” to alleviate pressure and avoid negative perceptions associated with the word “critique.” If your participants are swayed by this ruse, you have bigger problems than design crits.
- Make a conscious decision whether the critique is a time to fix things or a time to point out concerns. In a school setting, fixing things during the crit may not be ideal, the primary goal is to learn. In a work critique collaboration and solutions may be appropriate.
- Design critique skills translate directly to interview skills.
- Ensure the participants understand the goal of the critique. Review the problem and the goals the session is meant to address. If there is a client have a list of the agreed upon items for action.
- How do you balance the notion of creating an environment where students are receptive to feedback but also can grow a thicker skin?
- Don’t try to identify or solve all the problems in one critique. Tackle the big stuff first.
- Don’t be afraid to control the physical environment as needed. For example, if you have low energy crits, try having everyone stand or hold the crit outdoors.
- If everyone agrees the work is good and there are no changes something is amiss.
- What does success look like? Consider having examples available of how similar problems have been solved.
- No apologies/No excuses/No pointing out your own faults
- People who praise your work and love everything you do are not going to help you improve.
- One of the purposes of a critique is to learn to be critiqued.
- The thing is the thing, you show what you show. Do not spend time describing what you wanted to do or what you will do later.
- You are not your work. You may be invested, but there is always another idea. Try not to take a critique personally.
- The world can be a tough place. Clients and employers don’t pull punches. Good critiques should prepare you to deal will negative feedback.
- Don’t offer false choices; Which is one is better? Which one do like more?
- Try to connect your comments to the goals or the brief.
- Avoid prescriptive statements and directives.
- Lead with questions, finish with statements. I have been offered advice extolling the virtues of only asking questions or conversely only offering statements. Moderation in both is appropriate.
- Avoid comments like “I love the red type.” Focus on why and how, “The red was good choice because it emphasizes the type in the hierarchy.”
- Do not make it about you, make it about the work. Offering “what I would do” type advice is counterproductive.
A note about excepting feedback. Everyone, even people you despise, people you don’t trust, people you think are ignorant, all have the potential to offer insight, to have useful ideas. Try not to make value judgements on feedback. It is all data. If you disregard what is said you are depriving yourself. Make an effort to listen and reflect on all input. It will only be a waste of time if you let it be.
The last word is from Judy Reaves in Writing alone, Writing Together she describes some of the differences between criticism and critique:
Criticism passes judgement — Critique poses questions
Criticism finds fault — Critique uncovers opportunity
Criticism is personal — Critique is objective
Criticism is vague — Critique is concrete
Criticism tears down — Critique builds up
Criticism is ego-centric — Critique is altruistic
Criticism is adversarial — Critique is cooperative
Criticism belittles the designer — Critique improves the design