Stefani Wilkens
Stefani Wilkens | Graphic Designer

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Keys to Productive Critiques

In order to give credit where it's due, I'd like to start off with a bit of a disclaimer. This post is a part of a series based on what I learned at the Revolve Conference. The specific talk referenced in this post is Adam Conor's Discussing Design: Improving Communication and Collaboration Through Critique. If you have a chance, check out his book Discussing Design: Improving Communication & Collaboration Through Critique and/or his websites: adamconnor.com and discussingdesign.com.


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Critique. It's a word that inspires a sinking feeling of dread in some designers. We've all been through a critique that left our self-esteem torn to ribbons, and these experiences can stick with us far after they've occurred. One bad critique can cause a designer to avoid seeking feedback, which is a shame because constructive feedback is essential to good design. 

Most people don't particularly like critique – it's not comfortable for anyone to ask for judgment, ever. Thankfully, not all critiques have to come with negative side-effects. When approached correctly and with the proper knowledge, tools, and experience, critique can actually be a highly rewarding and energizing process. 

The first step to productive critique is understanding the various types of feedback and their effects. There's the Gut Reaction, which is pure emotion and often experienced for no more than a few minutes. Gut reactions are entirely biased, which makes them completely unhelpful. Comments such as, "it's not resonating with me", "I don't like it", or even, "it's gorgeous" tell us absolutely nothing. These comments provide nothing to build off of and oftentimes trend towards extremes. The voicing of such reactions can cause irreparable damage to both the designer and the final product as it can lead to either over-confidence or intense resistance.   

Another form of unhelpful feedback is Direction.  This is tricky because people who provide specific instructions on how to improve a design are intending to be helpful. However, such suggestions can actually get in the way of a productive critique. Direction completely devalues the designer. It's their job is to create a solution to whatever problem is presented. When they're given a set of changes to make it takes the entire intellectual side of their work out of the equation, which in extreme cases can make the designer feel quite worthless – and that's a recipe for design disaster.

Instead of leading with a Gut Reaction or attempting to help by providing Direction, the best type of feedback to bring to a critique is Critical Thinking. This is accomplished by asking one simple question:

Do we think this design meets our objective? 

By approaching all critiques with this question in mind, we begin to get valuable feedback. We learn what isn't working in a design, while also focusing on whatever is working extremely well. We learn the why behind specific problem areas and we empower the designer to find the best solution to those challenges. 

So, how do we do this? There are a few ground rules that must be followed in order for a critique to be a productive and positive experience:

  • The intentions of the group must be aligned. Both sides (those giving critique, and those receiving it) must be in agreement as to the purpose of the critique. In order to do this, both sides have to be objective in their feedback and set aside personal preference and ideas of what they think the piece should look like. In order to do this, all feedback should relate to the following series of questions: What are the objectives of this design? What are the related design elements? Are these elements effectively achieving the objective? Why are they in/effective? 
  • Avoid problem-solving. This is not the time to discuss revisions. Wait on specifics until after the process is done and the designer has had a chance to digest the various takeaways. This demonstrates respect for the designer and allows time for everyone to get on the same page.
  • Everyone is equal. Give everyone equal time, equal voice, and equal value. You can take seniority and expertise into account afterward; but for now, make sure everyone is participating and being heard. Don't allow anyone to hijack the conversation, and don't allow anyone to sit passively in the back without offering an opinion.
  • Next steps are the responsibility of the designer. Let me repeat that one: NEXT STEPS ARE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE DESIGNER. Upon entering into a critique, the designer makes a commitment to incorporating the feedback received. Everyone else commits to allowing them the space to problem-solve. (That's their job, don't take it away from them!)

There are also rules that apply to each side participating in the conversation. Let's start with those giving critique: 

  • Use a filter. For God's sake, don't blurt out your gut reaction. Doing so is counterproductive, and often quite rude. If you want everyone in the room to take you seriously, take a minute and recognize (SILENTLY) what your reaction is, then set it aside and move on into a deeper analysis of the work.
  • Don't invite yourself to the conversation. Design is a very personal process and providing input at the wrong time can be quite destructive. Instead of butting in with your two-cents while passing a designer's desk, schedule a time to talk. This shows respect for the designer's time and creative process and ensures that everyone is in the right headspace for critique. 
  • Do not make assumptions. Ask questions. Learn the designer's reasoning behind every element in the piece. Good designers have a reason for everything being where it is and looking the way it does. Take the time to understand that. 
  • Talk about strengths (as well as weaknesses.) So often critique focuses only on what isn't working. This is not only disheartening, but it can also mean that in the next round of edits the designer inadvertently removes or changes a section of the design that worked well. By pointing out both you give the designer the opportunity to build on their strengths.

Now, there are also rules for those on the receiving end. This can oftentimes be the more emotional experience, so always remember that critique requires that the designer come to the table with both humility and strength. The critique process is intended to be about growth, not judgment, so be open to improvement and focus on doing the following:

  • Set the foundation. Remind the group of its objectives. Go through the ground rules discussed above and make sure everyone is on the same page. Don't simply explain your work, walk everyone through the experience of interacting with the piece before opening the conversation up to feedback.
  • Think before responding. This is where gut reactions come in on the receiving end. Oftentimes, designers are ready to clap back when someone questions their work. Instead, ask questions to ensure you understand their meaning. Only once you're completely clear on what they're intending to say is it okay to offer an alternative viewpoint and explain your reasoning.
  • Participate. Take part in the analysis yourself. Oftentimes you're the one who can best articulate the strengths and weaknesses of your work, so join the conversation! Explain your reasoning, question your decisions, and demonstrate that you care about producing an effective final product!
  • Follow up. Continue conversations with those providing critique. Demonstrate that you care about their thoughts and ideas. When you're ready, ask for direction or instruction on specific changes.

Now you have the tools and the rules. However, I would be remiss if I left you without a final warning. Sometimes, laying out the ground rules is not always enough. Some people are just toxic. When dealing with people like this the best thing to do is to call timeout before you get overly emotional or shut down altogether. You always have the right to take a beat. Take five minutes and remind yourself that critique is not personal. Then employ strategies to get the conversation back on track. These can include breaking into groups, offering to speak to the problematic person one-on-one at a later time, or simply reminding participants of the ground rules. (I'll be diving deeper into conflict resolution in the next week or so!)

Critique doesn't have to be a heartbreaking experience, but it's not something that comes naturally either. It takes practice. It takes patience. It takes respect. Most importantly, it takes a willingness to learn and grow and a commitment to hearing other people's thoughts and opinions.

Do you have any suggestions on how to have an effective critique? Do you have personal stories about critique that could help another designer? Leave a comment and share your insights!