Online Critiques and Outsourcing the Design Process

A clarification to begin. A professional design critiques’ primary focus is to improve the work, an educational critique is to improve the designer. My interest here are students and thus improving the designer. Full disclosure, I am an advocate for and active participant in online critiques.

“My teacher says this sucks, is he right?” I have seen this kind of post frequently, and consider this an affordance of the internet, where finding supportive voices to validate opinions is easy. I have noticed graphic designs students also seeking more formal critiques in online forums. In most cases, the work they present could benefit from a good critique, and the instinct to seek out advice seems legitimate. Many times I have witness fast and extensive overhauls of design work. For example, three rounds of iterations, with a perhaps a hundred bits of advice, and a final product that shows no relation to the original work submitted. It is this complete transformation that peaks my interest. Has it become a crowdsourced design? What might the implications for design education for these kinds of activities?

The first issue concerns the reviewers. How do you vet both the advice and the giver in an anonymous forum? Students seem to give equal weight to all feedback regardless of the source. This creates a space where the students are comfortable making choices contrary to the instruction because they have outside opinions backing them up. This is odd, and certainly an issue to address. While it is healthy to occasionally challenge instructors this kind of behavior seems to question their position as experts. If students don’t consider their instructor’s experts, then what are their views on the principles presented and the discipline itself?

Is it a shortcut, is it cheating the system, or are they cheating themselves?

The second issue is how this sort of critique relates to student development. The activity I am describing, quick feedback and turnaround, is effectively art direction; do these three things and the design will be better. Graphic design process is not executing a series of instructions. If there is no deeper understanding of why the changes are made how can the designer apply that to future work. Is it a shortcut, is it cheating the system, or are they cheating themselves? Instead of exploration, I come up with a single idea and get a rigorous evaluation and actionable feedback before the classroom critique. The design I show may be better than my original work, but I didn’t really do the hard part, I have no better understanding of process, my process is outsourcing the process, I am hacking my own education. When do you stop being the author of your own work? What happens when I get a job? Do I need to keep posting online to ensure my work is acceptable? What have I learned that is reproducible?

The third concern, is it useful to get as many opinions as possible? In a scenario where you are receiving a hundred pieces of advice over a few days, how do you internalize that, can you achieve enduring understanding? I don’t have an answer. On the face, it seems like too much for a young designer to process.

Lastly, how does this affect educational goals. Projects, classes and instructors have  desired outcomes. beyond an attractive final product. Online critique participants are concerned with improving the final product, and their input may conflict with the intended project outcomes. How can we maintain focus on the proprieties the class/instructor/project are attempting to teach?

Designers of varying aptitudes post work and comment in these online ateliers. Some of it is vacuous and posturing, but there is also genuine curiosity and insight. The question isn’t whether some students will seek out these spaces, but if they are prepared to separate the wheat from the chaff. Emergent behaviors provide a great opportunity to engage students in new ways. Perhaps this kind of online/outside critique can be integrated into in a project, enabling the critique to be critiqued, as well as to introduce strategies for vetting and triaging criticism. At the very least, some guidance should be provided to help navigate students through these online spaces.