February 2, 2006

Under The Loupe #3: Critiquing

This week on the Loupe we’ll be dealing with that situation everyone loves to hate, Critiques. Though this won’t be a detailed process to critiquing (you should hopefully be somewhat familiar with the nature of a critique already), I will try and shed some light on constructive and respectful critiquing.

First off, let’s all get on the same page; a critique is a critical discussion or review, typically of artistic works. You might think you already know that, but there is an important thing to take away from that definition; you will notice the word “opinion” is nowhere to be found. This is not to imply that opinions have no place in critiques, rather, it is meant to show that the two are not synonymous. Critiques are about dialogue; a two-way conversation. There is critique etiquette to observe. Just because you may not appreciate someone’s work, does not mean it is without merit.

I first become introduced to the concept of seriously critiquing design when I was in college. Initially, critiques were a somewhat foreign and unpleasant occurrence in my classes, but over time I came to love them. The reason I had such an initial aversion was because I didn’t know how to really give or receive constructive criticism. It took time to for me understand just how to interpret and give nurturing feedback. As an added benefit of all those early critiques, I learned how to more intelligently talk about my work and developed a thick skin against scathing comments.

Before we get into the thick of it, consider one more thing: design is not about innovation. Design is about communication. Innovation in design is usually a wonderful byproduct or direct result of a particular need. Design that seeks to foremost be innovative will commonly fall apart under its own stylistic girth.

Let’s look at some critiquing tips from both the giving and the receiving ends:

When Giving a Critique

  • Ask questions. Critiques should be more of an investigation than an interrogation. Try to understand why the designer did something before suggesting that they do it another way. Basically, try to understand the problem they’re trying to solve.
  • A critique is not the time to show how smart you are. It’s also not the time to blindly state how you would do things as though the designer is wrong.
  • Just as you shouldn’t take it out on the waiter when you are served ill-prepared food from the kitchen, you should be cautious of assuming that every facet of a design is solely the designer’s intention (especially when it comes to client work). There are many factors involved in a design, some of which the designer has little or no control over.
  • Beware of nebulous design buzz terms. General words like “clean lines”, “retro”, “old”, “technological”, and “friendly” hold different meanings to different people and have become familiar parlance for those who have no idea how to communicate about visuals. If you have trouble putting your thoughts to words, talk about the impressions and feelings a design leaves you with. For instance: Did the design make you feel good about a product or service, or did it turn you off altogether? Did you understand what the design was trying to communicate, or did it leave you feeling confused?
  • Keep it brief and poignant. Don’t tell the designer how to do something unless they ask you for assistance. Help show them the problems you see, and let them go from there. Designers are born problem-solvers, and they will respect you for not back seat driving.
  • “I don’t like it” is one of the least helpful things you can say. The fact that green isn’t your favorite color means very little in the grand scheme of things. Instead, stick to what is concrete. Did you have trouble finding valuable information in the design? Do you see anything that might be a problem when a design gets printed/programmed? Is there something vastly different than what the client is expecting?
  • Don’t make it personal. Design by its nature is a very personal thing, so you need to separate the two and critique the design, not the designer.
  • A critique is not only the time to bring up problems with a design, but also to highlight what is successful. Alternating praise with the constructive criticism is a good strategy for all-around happiness.
  • Think before you speak.
  • If you plan on speaking up to say why you dislike something, be prepared to back-up your opinion… especially online. Sign your name to your comment and stand behind your opinion, or no one will care.

When Receiving a Critique

  • Moderate the critique. As the designer, it is your job to steer the conversation in a useful direction and maintain the tone of discussion. Introduce and present your work; never just “unveil” and wait for feedback. Open with some background information on the project and the problems you sought to solve.
  • You are not infallible and neither is your design. Let yourself be wrong, you will learn more and become better for it.
  • Criticism by its nature is a tricky beast because it relies almost solely on subjective means. If someone is having a bad day, they can easily take it out on you in a critique. Don’t let yourself be drawn into a pissing match. Stick to the facts of the design and the challenges at hand.
  • Be open to all the ideas and feedback you receive. Try not to get defensive. You are often very close to your design work and may not see something that’s glaringly obvious to everyone else. Remember that the first point of your design is not to make a great portfolio piece, but to serve your client’s needs.
  • Sometimes you will need to prod people for their real thoughts. If people are stone-facing you with an “I don’t like it” angle, try and crack them. Ask questions to try and draw a real response out of them. Chances are, their problem may be with a small piece of the design and they are just having trouble communicating it to you.
  • By that same note, take feedback with a grain of salt. You should at least entertain comments from your peers, but if you feel strongly about an aspect of your design, stand up for it and make your case.
  • Feedback is not meant to just be taken; it’s meant to be discussed. Ask questions in response to criticism.

None of these methods is a catch-all winner. These are things I have found helpful over the years. When critiquing someone’s work, above all else, put real thought into what you are saying. Ill-conceived commentary usually feels as such, and will inevitably cause someone to call you out on it. Take the time to write or say what you mean, otherwise there is little point in saying anything at all. The person you are critiquing put time into what they created. If you are going to step up to the plate and offer criticism, good or bad, show them enough respect to put a bit of time and brain power against your thoughts.

Commentary (36):

1. Ian says… feb 2, 2006 | 7:54 am

I’ve always loved and sought out critique. You didn’t mention it explicitly, but it’s a pretty fair form of collaboration with people you respect enough to ask for feedback (or in your case, un-ending praise).
Good one. Really digging this series.

2. Ben Young says… feb 2, 2006 | 9:04 am

I didn’t like it. :p

Seriously, though, a very useful article. It’s easy to launch into a “critique” without really thinking about whether what you’re saying is going to be of any use. I’ve been on the recieving end of bad critique many times, and sadly I fear I’ve given bad critique many times more.

This article is a great reference-point. Hopefully, when I’m next asked to crit something, I’ll bite my tongue and take a step back first.

3. Sophie Dennis says… feb 2, 2006 | 9:16 am

Giving and taking feedback isn’t something that gets discussed enough, making this another slam-dunk article. Thanks Jason!

Handling criticism better can save many a good design solution from the bin. The guidelines for “When Receiving a Critique” could be a blueprint for dealing with client feedback.

Client’s will usually make some or all of the Giving a Critique misakes. This is perfectly natural. I wouldn’t expect a client with little or no design experience to have the understanding and vocabulary to be able to communicate their impression of a design properly.

I’ve found staying calm, not getting defensive, and asking constructive questions back can have amazing results, especially when a client is inclined to reject what I think is the right design solution for them. Some careful questioning (and staying well clear of any implication that your design is perfect and how dare they criticise it) can move them remarkably quickly from rejecting a concept entirely, to agreeing that it just needs a bit more work on the details.

4. bearskinrug says… feb 2, 2006 | 10:01 am

Good points!

Before this article, I always thought the goal of critiques was to make me cry…

Looks like my old teachers, my former co-workers, and my mom are all gonna get a punch in the face!

5. steve says… feb 2, 2006 | 10:16 am

Great article Jason. You should be a professor, you’ve really got some great ways of passing on info that is pretty important to young and old designers.

6. Nick Whitmoyer says… feb 2, 2006 | 10:55 am

Excellent article! When I was in college my instructor Eber Gordon taught me to never use the words “I like” or “I don’t like.” Instead going back to what you had said, “Design is about communication” and we were supposed to determine whether or not “it works” at achieving effective communication.

I must admit the personal attachment designers have to their work is very difficult to ignore. I feel as though I have improved and matured over time at taking things less personal. Providing a little leeway before presenting work to clients or for critiquing is something I usually try to do.

7. Jacob Souva says… feb 2, 2006 | 11:13 am

Great read. I wish more people (esp. on-line) would be aware of how to critique. I remember in college, how a masterful critique could elicit instant respect, even with things that can be hard to hear about your own work.

On the flip-side, a ego-driven critique can cause a lack of respect. I find that some designers become so important to themselves that they use their critique to pooh on the little people, who may just be learning (and in need of real help). We all started knowing very little and needed help along the way.

8. Dustin Wilson says… feb 2, 2006 | 11:16 am

Yes, you should be a professor. I had some great professors while I was in college. They were strict in that critiques were a class participation thing. In my freshman year we would all groan at critiques. The professor would stand up there and tell us why all of our design projects sucked. One would say, “Never be complacent with your design. Always think of ways to improve upon it.” They’d get angry over people who stretched type. The first year is what I’d call the “Initiation.” Many drop out because they can’t take the critiques. After that you’re expected to grill the other students as much as the professor. I would ask many questions throughout the critique, but I would always give my opinion and state to the other student that it was just my opinion.

Around where I live (North Louisiana), people have no concept of design whatsoever. Cheap effects and work put out by uneducated people (I’m not calling them designers) litter the landscape. Local commercials are horribly bad and make you cringe just looking at them. People are happy with getting Billy Bob to use his Photoshop filters to create them a “logo.” I typically try to stick to Illustration around here in fear of getting overly angry. I really enjoy when I get in a design job from elsewhere, though.

Speaking of this I’ve had an idea for a good while to start my own blog where I take screenshots and photographs of local “design” and make fun of it. It’s horribly bad the way things are here. I need to find a good tv card for my Mac, though. When I graduated I was a bit naive and thought I could improve upon it little by little. I found out in the end people want ugly. It’s really refreshing to go downtown and see the pre-computer, handmade signs. *sigh*

9. Sean O’Brien says… feb 2, 2006 | 12:14 pm

Excellent article. I could have really used this in school.

There is one thing I would add to the “When Receiving a Critique” section:

Don’t tell the audience about every minute detail of your design process.

Make the presentation succinct. I suffered through too many critiques in which the designer talked way more than necessary about things that were irrelevant to the final design.

10. Wilson Miner says… feb 2, 2006 | 12:14 pm

This couldn’t have come at a better time. My fiancée and I are trying to work together on designing our wedding invitations, and I’m guilty of almost everything in the first list.

I guess I just never paid attention when I didn’t have to find a way to apologize before bedtime.

11. Brandon says… feb 2, 2006 | 12:49 pm

In light critique of the following:

design is not about innovation

I think it ought to be put into perspective depending upon what type of design you’re creating. Granted in most cases, communication is the foremost responsibility of the designer and their product should reflect that. However, in the case of certain (endangered) media design forms (i.e: the old compact disc), innovation seems to be one of the most important aspects of the design form.

It may be however, that the “stylistic girth” of the CD has led to its impending demise. :^)

12. Jason Santa Maria says… feb 2, 2006 | 12:59 pm

Good additions and comment all round!

Brandon: Definitely. I tried to hint at that with this sentence: “Innovation in design is usually a wonderful byproduct or direct result of a particular need.” Basically saying that sometimes necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

13. chuck says… feb 2, 2006 | 1:52 pm

great post, Jason … a lot of really good points to keep in mind.

This helps me as a critquer to learn better ways to express myself.

It also helps me as a critquee to accept critique with thick skin. One of my favorite comment is “its just not working for me” … when I hear that, I just tune out and don’t listen to the rest of the critique.

I love the Loupe series by the way!

14. Seattle Web Guy says… feb 2, 2006 | 2:12 pm

Great post! Being a programmer, I can’t say I fully understood the concept behind critiques. Might be useful to critique code once in awhile using the same methods…

15. Drew says… feb 2, 2006 | 2:21 pm

“Introduce and present your work; never just ‘unveil’ and wait for feedback.”

Can’t this be a useful tactic, though? Doing so will elicit your reviewer’s initial reactions, which are probably the most important. Plus, you’re not sitting next to every user of the site to explain why you did what you did. Hopefully it’s evident in the design. Just curious as to what others think.

Definitely enjoying the series, thanks Jason.

16. dotone says… feb 2, 2006 | 4:03 pm

Cool read. I think it all depends on the background of the person raining the critiques. So, we gotta’ talk their language first, not use jargons and at least be aware of their’s. At the end we gotta’ satisfy their needs and that couldn’t be done without proper communication.

The problem is: Knowledge transfer is sticky. That’s why we all get to learn how to communicate better by experience.

17. maus~ says… feb 2, 2006 | 4:40 pm

hey

this is, by far, the touchiest subject for me, when it comes to design. although i’m aware that when a client speaks, she doesn’t mean to offend me, but… when i actually hear the word coming out of her mouth… it’s like a black courtain drops over my eyes. i almost lose any sense of reason for a split second. i hope that in time i’ll get over it.

anywho… let’s see if i learned anything:

- how come u keep the last comment at the bottom of the list? the way i see it, if an actual conversation takes place, the reader has to scroll down all the way to the bottom of the page. which can get quite uncomfortable.

- and second, there’s a feeling of… unreadability that i get everytime when i visit your site. i really can’t explain why. everything is in it’s right place, but still i find it hard to read. i’m not really sure if it’s the serifs, the contrast or the letter spacing / line height combo.

thank u for your time

PS: no, i don’t need glasses

18. Joshua Kendall says… feb 2, 2006 | 8:06 pm

Wow from what I actually had time to read that is helpful. I’m going to mention it to one of my design professors when I see her since she makes us critique others. This should help the class. :)

19. hukl says… feb 3, 2006 | 9:55 am

Well written article * indeed

I’m studying at an art school right now so all these principles aren’t new to me but to have em all on one page is really nice.

I will tell people about this. I know a couple who could need these advices *

20. june says… feb 3, 2006 | 3:10 pm

Oddly enough I really like critiques. And kind of miss being in an environment where they happened regularly.

“Introduce and present your work; never just “unveil? and wait for feedback. Open with some background information on the project and the problems you sought to solve.”

I don’t have his book on me, but (for anyone that has not read his book) Hillman Curtis has some words of wisdom on what to explain and what not to explain when presenting your work. If I remember, I’ll look up the quote later.

To add my two cents, I also think its ok to be selective of what suggestions you actually put to use. What one person suggested may not work well with what someone else suggested.

21. David Perini says… feb 3, 2006 | 3:14 pm

That was a convicting read, especially coming a day after I posted this critique. Would that there were “Edit” links on comment forms!

I really appreciate how in-depth and developed this series is. Thank you!

22. NeillHARMER says… feb 3, 2006 | 5:35 pm

Great read.

I wish I would have had this when I first started in the business. I used to get REALLY pissed off when the client would critique my work.

“WHY DONT THEY LIKE IT HOW IT IS?!”

To the point I would almost pout after someone gave a critique.

Well many years in the field now…and I think I have most of the taking crituque well.

Thank you for the article, I will be handing this out to new designers for some time to come!

23. Kristen Taylor says… feb 3, 2006 | 6:05 pm

June (comment #20), I thought too of Hillman Curtis—specifically the text on p.91 of his MTIV (2002, New Riders), when Curtis details how his team ”[imposes] a final filter as a group” for a project before a client presentation; he says, “at this point, anyone can point to anything on the screen and say ‘Justify.’ ” Free-lancers do not have this in a company environment; the more important, then, to create a circle of trust you truly do. Thanks for the article, Jason.

24. Marko Mihelcic says… feb 4, 2006 | 9:12 am

great article Jason,.. “bearskinrug says…Before this article, I always thought the goal of critiques was to make me cry…Looks like my old teachers, my former co-workers, and my mom are all gonna get a punch in the face!” LMAO hehe

25. Eoghan O’Brien says… feb 7, 2006 | 8:03 am

Very interesting article, I’m probably guilty of doing most of the things you shouldnt do when it comes to critiquing. Although I’ve always taken constructive critisicm quite well, unless it was from family…cos they have to say nice things.

26. Katie says… feb 7, 2006 | 10:19 am

Thanks for the article, Jason! I read an article of a similar nature back in university 5 years ago! :) Definitely will pass it on to my friends and colleagues!

27. Adam Howitt says… feb 7, 2006 | 10:30 am

These points were spot on and they apply more widely than just design. Everybody deals with criticism at some point. I am also guilty of the black curtain coming down when my fiancee told me the save the dates just didn’t look right. I’m a programmer and application architect so a lot of my time is spent carefully thinking out application architecture strategies.

My blood boils when I’m in a meeting talking about the direction we are taking after I have spent hours considering it, maybe days, when someone pitches in with an ill thought out suggestion and then defends it to mark their authority.

Personally, I have a huge problem accepting criticism and I am using this site as my new mantra ;-)

28. Nick says… feb 7, 2006 | 7:49 pm
Keep it brief and poignant. Don’t tell the designer how to do something unless they ask you for assistance. Help show them the problems you see, and let them go from there. Designers are born problem-solvers, and they will respect you for not back seat driving.

I don’t think this is always true. I agree with being poignant but sometimes a suggestion is the perfect supplement to defining a problem.

Having someone say “This doesn’t work” without them providing suggetions or ways to improve can be very annoying. I believe that when someone defines a problem area it is extremely helpful in jump-starting the conversation if they follow up with suggestions.

Saying “You know, A doesnt really work, have you thought about trying XYZ?” is much more productive.

29. Jason Santa Maria says… feb 7, 2006 | 8:02 pm

Nick: I completely agree. I am talking more about those situations (and I have been in them) where a client/art director stands behind you and uses you like a pair of hands. Suggestions for improvements are great, just not blind commands. Because critiques should ideally be give-and-take communication, when someone says that something doesn’t feel right about a design, the designer should probe further into finding out why. They should ask what about it feels wrong, and what suggestions the critiquing group has.

The situation I am trying to portray is a different one that the two you outline above (a critique with good communication, and one with bad). I am talking about the situation where a good or bad critique is had, though the participates linger around to “help” the designer solve the problems hands-on when they are uninvited to do so. It’s as much a designer’s duty to ask for help as it is to design anything in the first place. So, when I say “brief and poignant” I mean not to labor over a detail that a designer is perfectly within their ability to solve.

It is highly recommended to maintain the goals of a critique and not let yourself get into a situation like that whenever possible.

30. Sarah says… feb 7, 2006 | 9:21 pm

When I read your entry this afternoon I instantly sent the link to my business partner. He’s the creative genius in our operation and has been trying and trying, for the longest time, to get me to understand why I can’t just say, “I don’t like that.”

I felt like you had written the article for me! Thanks a bunch - it was totally helpful for a person like me who has found herself working in the graphic design and web development industries, but without any formal training.

Thanks a bunch!

31. david says… feb 8, 2006 | 10:34 am

Great article, my only quam is that i believe that a critique is an opinion. other wise you would not need to aske the designer any questions, there would be a prescribed list of attributes that thedesign either meets or does not meet.

and i unsderstand that there are some rather subjective ‘rules’ of design/communication, but the moment your own personal ‘feelings’ enter the picture-which is what that person is basically asking for in a critique- for me at least it then takes it out of th realm of being purley analytical.

And yes i know that an opnion and a critic can be separate from each other. I simply beleive that they live closer than we would nesseccarily like them too, one of the reasons its hard to get used to. not because they are devoid of feelings, but precisly because in a ‘bad’ critique ( i qoute that because a constructive critique isnot bad ) we tend to ‘feel’ sad or angry or let down because or design failed to conect emotionally with the critiquer.

let me end by saying that i do realize that even the best art/design can have logical flaws and have room for improvment, my point is that most times if not all the time as critiquers we already have a set emotional pull towards a particular style and will more than likely base our stance on those initial emotions.

32. Nick says… feb 8, 2006 | 4:38 pm

Jason: I see what you mean, and it does comes in to play more with clients than in the classroom setting that I was talking about. Clients dictating to “move this up and make this bigger ” comprimises the whole position of the designer.

But as far as a more classroom or studio like setting I think the key thing you said was:


”…critiques should ideally be give-and-take communication, when someone says that something doesn’t feel right about a design, the designer should probe further into finding out why.”

If the parties involved are not facilitating the communication than nothing will come of the critique. The person giving the critique should provide suggestions, and the person receiving the critique should desire those suggestions.

Great post Jason, this is a fun discussion.

33. Veerle Pieters says… feb 12, 2006 | 6:48 am

Very well analyzed and spot on. I recognize a lot of the situations you describe. I’ll bookmark this one for future reference ;-) Thanks for this interesting read.

34. JOhan says… mar 11, 2006 | 10:57 am

“I don’t like it? is one of the least helpful things you can say. “

Depends on who says it and how many follow that argument. If someone starts out and needs confirmation on the *skills* part, it could have a positive reverse effect that the designer wll try hard to rethink its concept. Design is about reformulating the concept into an eye catching and above all communicative concept that has a perfect balance between content and its presentation.

35. aka tzmedia says… mar 11, 2006 | 12:02 pm

You could alternately call this article… “What to do in case of a micro-managing design skeptic, and how not to be one…”

36. Kristin Wenzel says… mar 31, 2006 | 7:41 pm

Thanks for writing this — I recently started a position as the full time, on-site web/graphic designer for a local business and realized how different it is than working as a freelance web designer. The section about how to direct a critique of one’s own work has been very helpful.