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Couching a Critique

There’s no denying it. In most cases critiques only make the end product better because, if nothing else, the contributor making the suggestions leaves feeling as as if his/her thoughts are integral into the development and therefore they will be more likely to give a higher approval to the result.

Rather than just rehashing the comments from past threads, I was hoping to encourage a little constructive brainstorming. Communication is our field, and sometimes it is our colleagues — the very people we work with regularly such as writers, pr folks, and so-on — that do not properly express themselves when giving feedback.

While in school, critiques were brutal but always started off in the 2-for-1 format (two compliments for every critique), but even that isn’t always effective and can feel forced. So what does work? What should be avoided? I’ve found a few good ideas but very little inspiration online. So I ask you, what’s your take?

At a loss for an answer, I realized that I needed to re-evaluate the problem before I could attempt to give suggestions. It struck me on my way to work today that there are really two types of critiques: subjective and objective.

Like many other designers, I’m sensitive about my work. But when I considered past critiques more closely, I realized that in most cases I have been more sensitive to subjective comments than I am to objective critiques.

By that I mean the following:

When I receive objective critiques that include comments like, “Hey, that quote mark isn’t ‘curly’ and totally looks wrong. Fix it!” or “Dudette, you made a big mistake and left a rule around that box. It looks awful. Dump it and match the others.”

Even with the words “awful” and “mistake” thrown in there, I don’t sweat it because they’re facts. These comments may be presented in a frank manner, but there’s no denying stuff like that so it’s easier to take, no matter how it’s brought up.

On the other hand, when I hear subjective comments like, “That picture looks awful because it doesn’t have a drop shadow. Fix it!” or “Chica, you made a big mistake and used Aries Display in that head. It looks awful. Dump it and make it Comic Sans.” I usually get a little pissed at first.

If any negative tone is given with a subjective comment — even if it may improve my piece — I am immediately less likely to consider these sorts of comments objectively as a better design solutions. I’m not sure if this makes me a complete loony tune or what, but it’s a fact.

Identifying this difference made me realize that it may come down to people being nice. The whole, you get more with honey than vinegar thing.

Could it be that simple?

Not intentionally meaning to continue this post in a very Carrie-Bradshaw-has-a-series-of-rhetorical-questions-sort-of-way, but does the critique process actually work better if you simply follow the advice of your kindergarten teacher and “play nice”? Is this (gasp!) just a case where a little sensitivity could make all the difference in the world?

How do you teach someone to be more kind?

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PUBLISHED ON Jun.17.2003 BY joy olivia
armin’s comment is:

Critiques are touchy situations. You make a good point Joy, that there are objective and subjective critiques with the objective ones being more easy to swallow. There is no denying when one messes up and it's nice to have somebody to catch it.

When it comes to critiquing look and feel, that's when it can get hairy. People tend to get very defensive (myself included) and not open to changes. I have always tried to take in the most comments and then see if I want to apply them. I always try everything that is proposed to me as a better solution before dismissing it. It usually makes my work better and on the same amount I end up doing what I had in the first place.

I've known people who don't sugar-coat their critiques and they can still be effective, while other who do it oh so sweetly are, in my view, less serious. If you don't like something, go ahead and say it, I may not like it but I'm going to listen.

And then mug you in the street.

On Jun.17.2003 at 09:39 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

I think it is easier to offer negative criticism if couched in terms of the parameters of the job. This way, you can talk about wrong choices for typography or a bad photo in relation to not meeting the objectives or not fitting into the style of the piece. We all have our ideas of what is "right" graphically. I may prefer Century while you prefer Baskerville. The nature of a crit will never eliminate subjective advice or preferences. I just try to separate my personal likes and dislikes as much as possible from the task at hand. Just because I wouldn't do it that way doesn't mean it is wrong.

I always found it difficult to offer criticism because I have an inherent desire to be nice and find the positive. I do this because, hey, we all want to be liked. I also do this because I've been ripped apart in crits before, and it just isn't pleasant. I'd rather someone say something a little ambiguous, because this puts doubt into my head and I'm apt to push harder to get the design right. If someone just outright says its crap or exclaims their hatred for my typeface, I'm more likely to get defensive and dig in. I think many of us are like this.

I usually take two tacks on providing advice. If I'm offering direction in a team crit, then I'll focus on the directions that work best. Then, I'll offer suggestions to improve the one's that aren't working as well as they could. For the directions that just aren't right, I will pretty much just say that I don't think they are right and that we should not work on them anymore. I'm not going to take time to rip them apart unless someone asks me very specifically what I don't like about them.

When I'm providing one-on-one advice, I will be more direct about what parts are good and what parts suck (if they do, indeed, suck). I have often said something to the effect of, "I don't get it yet, and I don't see it working, but go ahead and prove me wrong." I want to give the designer the benefit of the doubt and the chance to really work out the solution. Plus, I'll almost always offer my ideas for what could make the piece better.

On Jun.17.2003 at 09:46 AM
joy olivia’s comment is:

Consistency is probably also key, I've found. Like you, Armin, I'm more prepared if I know how the person I'm working for is going to give me their feedback. If you have people flip-flop on you -- candy-coating sometimes and bashing the next -- it's just confusing.

Too bad you can't just give clients a checklist where they can pick "like it" or "don't like it" for things like body copy font face and point size. Of course, that would probably just cause more headache.

On Jun.17.2003 at 09:46 AM
Amanda’s comment is:

I am a freelancer & work from home - so when i send a file to a design peer to get a critique, I expect it not to be sugar coated. Maybe I am used to brutally honest critiques (my husband is a designer as well, and well, when you are married the sugar coating fades quickly) but regardless if you take the advice or not, it is still an outside opinion, which is always good.

How will we grow as designers/artists if we don't forgo the pride once and awhile? Regardless if the feedback we receive is based on personal taste or not, it should be our own responsibility to sort out which opinions will help our design and which are personal taste that are veto-able.

On Jun.17.2003 at 09:48 AM
joy olivia’s comment is:

Can I work for you someday down the road Jonsel? Those are great ideas. Ambigious is a good point. And, it's something that I respond best to as well. When I hear, "Hmm, this is good. But have you considering playing with this XXXX a little?" it does exactly what you said and plants a seed that inspires me. Very good ideas. Thanks for sharing your experiences and advice.

On Jun.17.2003 at 09:50 AM
joy olivia’s comment is:

Good points, Amanda.

I agree that critiques from fellow designers are more frank that those from clients, and for that I love them.

For some reason, though, I am disappointed when I have brutal critiques with clients where it's their way, period.

I have received harsh critiques before that have also been "couched" in a constructive, pleasant way. It's actually pretty amazing when you walk away having to start over from scratch but are still inspired to do so. I guess my point in the original post was how can clients achieve that reaction? I think Jonsel had a lot of good ideas on that. Not dwelling on the negative, redefining and reiterating the purpose of the piece (if the point was missed), and asking questions rather than forcing specifics.

On Jun.17.2003 at 09:55 AM
Adrian’s comment is:

I find that when I'm want feedback/criticism and my coworkers are reluctant to speak, I'll ask lead in questions. Rather than ask about the piece in general, I'll ask about specifics. Once they know I am sort of questioning my own work they usually open up, comment on the specific and more often than not, they comment on other parts. The more I ask the more open they get.

In school, no one said anything other than "it looks good" or "it works" (I hated that one), but once someone started with the criticism, it just flowed. Sometimes I'd wish it to stop, but that's where I learned humility, and I am glad to have gone through that.

Back to the point, once my coworkers know I am truly open to suggestion, they often will give me the type of feedback I want.

I know of some designers that will deliberately "f" up something on their piece to see if anyone will say anything.

Asking questions also works when I give feedback. I'll ask about something and see what their response is. I then gauge how I'll continue to comment based on that. If they handle it well, I'll be very specific, if they seem dejected I'll be more supportive and general. I don't want anyone to go away thinking I'm criticising them and not the piece.

It's a fine line trying to give criticism and not upsetting the person.

On Jun.17.2003 at 10:05 AM
Paul’s comment is:

One thing I find myself doing frequently in client reviews (which differ so significantly from peer critiques that they hardly bear comparison) is teaching Design 101. Most of the non-designers I have worked for really respond positively to being shown how principles like scale, contrast, etc. effect what they see. When I then show them how these apply to the work in question it often helps veer the review into more objective territory. I agree that this is the better level of discussion, but as Jonsel says, subjectivity is inescapable. Its not like our decisions as designers are objective either.

On Jun.17.2003 at 10:50 AM
rebecca’s comment is:

I didn't go to design school so my first crit experiences were on the job, at age 21, in an environment that I now recognize as hostile to designers. I toughened up pretty quick in those "design committee" (!) meetings: people were jokey and dismissive, an attitude that predictably resulted in a tame, mediocre design program. Now that I've earned my thick skin I appreciate no-nonsense critiques—I feel insulted if a colleague tries to sugarcoat something and remind them that hearing their concerns is part of my job—but still have trouble tolerating anything but a serious, professional approach to the work. Anybody care to share language that they've used when a client meeting starts to get unconstructive? Constructive language?

On Jun.17.2003 at 12:03 PM
Paul’s comment is:

Anybody care to share language that they've used when a client meeting starts to get unconstructive? Constructive language?

Usually the people reviewing the work are not part of the intended audience for it. Gently reminding folks of this often helps move things to more objective and constructive territory.

On Jun.17.2003 at 01:11 PM
griff’s comment is:

On the receiving end, critiques are much like tabasco sauce. Your first experience is very unpleasent and you wonder why anyone would subject themselves to such a horrid thing. With time, they don't seem so bad, and then one day you find yourself craving it, unable to get enough. You are burning up and your eyes are watering but you seek more.

On the giving end, I always tell people the more feedback I have, the better their work. I find it nearly impossible to critique bad work, there is a feeling of not knowing where to start or that there is nothing good to use as a foundation. It is easy to critique a good design, tiny fixes that can greatly improve the piece almost jump at me. A good design defines rules and sets a direction. Elements of continuity end up driving the design, they become obvious.

Getting my students to participate and contribute to a critique is by far the hardest part of teaching. One technique I use is to ask the designer of the piece a few questions.

What was the most troublesome part of your piece?

What elements took the most time?

Are you happy with the typography?

Most designers know the weakest part of their designs. Answering questions like those open the door for the other students/designers to comment on things the designer is aware could use a little help without bruising egos.

I also tend to be too kind, if possible i like to hint at what needs work, and I hope the designer will pick up on the hints and arrive at a better solution without me giving a solution. I want to see their solutions, not just pandering to the way I would have designed it.

On Jun.17.2003 at 02:02 PM
brook’s comment is:

Your first experience is very unpleasent and you wonder why anyone would subject themselves to such a horrid thing.

But then you also realize the best way to avoid being embarrassed and feeling like shit is to try as hard as you possibly can. Do your best on every single project no matter what you think of the job. assignment, etc. You'll still fail sometimes, but you'll be able to defend all of your decisions and feel good knowing you didn't half-ass it.

On Jun.17.2003 at 03:00 PM
griff’s comment is:

Brook, related I think, is an issue of confidence. The reason I can now withstand the most brutal of critiques is because I am confident in what I have created and I have reasons for why I did what i did.

I think the people that get eaten alive are usually those who design with no clear purpose other than to make something look pretty.

And gosh darn it, people like me.

On Jun.17.2003 at 04:19 PM
Ginny ’s comment is:

The older I get and the longer I'm in this business, I'm less sensitive about critiques.

The only time I get angry about a critique is when it's not constructive. and if the critiquer is vague. If I've asked for a critique, then critique it! Good, bad, who cares. I want to hear what you think. I don't want any sugar-coating. If I trust your opinion enough to ask, then you'd better give it to me straight.

On Jun.17.2003 at 04:27 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Great questions to your students Griff. Think I'll steal some of them for mine.


And I agree w/ Ginny.

As you become more seasoned, you gain more patience, and hopefully, you also grow as a designer. You're more able to crit your own work -- but more importantly, if you work closely with other people, it's less of a crit, and more of a collaboration. Rather than define a threshold to present an idea to the group, the work is more shared, more open to constant discussion, and more flexible to changes.

Our attitudes with critiques matures as we learn more about ourselves as a designer. Once that happens, it's easier for a designer to separate his/herself from the work, and honestly assess whether it's a success or it's shit.

And your point of 'confidence' Griff -- I'd term it more as a lack of insecurities. All designers start out as insecure, fragile things. We take criticism of our work as mortal wounds. That's pointless -- and hinders honest assessment, and is professionally immature. As we grow, insecurities tend to go away.

It's ironic that when designers become more secure in their work and are more open to crits, they tend to stop needing crits because they can push themselves.

On Jun.17.2003 at 04:55 PM
armin’s comment is:

>my husband is a designer as well, and well, when you are married the sugar coating fades quickly

Ha! Every good project I'm involved in, my wife (she's a designer as well — hi) has to give it her OK, she is my toughest critic. There is nothing better than to hear "That sucks" from somebody who means it and knows what they are talking about. Plus, she is more orderly than I am, so she always finds weird alignment shit that I fail to see.

On Jun.17.2003 at 04:56 PM
Amanda’s comment is:

Heh Heh! Armin, I think we have similar lives. My husband is the details freak who finds those little things in my designs to correct. I am the wilder, bolder half of the two of us. Good balance I suppose. He is my toughest critic as well - and sometimes it stinks but it is so wonderful having that person who is completely honest with you.

Makes for really lame pillow talk though - nothing more pathetic than talking about kerning or new font obsessions with your SO before hitting the hay.

On Jun.17.2003 at 05:17 PM
Tan’s comment is:

My wife is in the biz too, and she's the best production typesetter I know -- and she catches everything that I miss.

And she knows all of my design tricks, and calls me on stuff when she knows I'm just not trying.

Even worse, sometimes I bring stuff to work on at home. Out of habit, she'll go through my files and will call me at work to give me shit on stylesheet shortcuts or missed kerning.

I can't even imagine what our design/typography squabbles sound like to our young kids at the dinner table.

On Jun.17.2003 at 05:38 PM
armin’s comment is:

Do you think our significant others are talking about us on other online forums?

On Jun.17.2003 at 06:11 PM
Amanda’s comment is:

of course they do.

On Jun.18.2003 at 08:36 AM
natalie’s comment is:

From the front lines of design school, can I just add that no one teaches students how to critique. I picked up my language and techniques from art history courses. Even design professors, who are working professionals, rarely offerup helpful advice. Maybe programs have softened up, but most students today crave machocistic crits. Everyone is so tight-lipped; we need more drama!

So, I am surrendering my tact card and asking you, next time, to be the asshole in the crit and get some dialoge flowing.

On Jun.19.2003 at 05:37 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

This may have been stated earlier (I'm too lazy to re-read the thread...) but what is not said is just as important as what is said. I learned a long time ago that when a design doesn't get much of a reception - good or bad - then it probably needs work.

Maybe programs have softened up

I hope this isn't true, because if design schools are offering up softball crits to spare feelings, then these students are not prepared for the working world. As a student, you have the luxury of time to learn how to handle criticism. Learn how to take a nasty crit and toughen up your skin, because no creative director is going to come over and hand you a tissue.

On Jun.19.2003 at 06:18 PM
luumpo’s comment is:

In school, I always got the impression during critiques that I was the only one who was really saying anything. And, eventually, after a year or so, people understood that I didn't really hate them, I just felt obligated to tell them what I thought about their work.

I don't think you can really blame the professors for the dismal state of school critiques. They try as hard as they could to get people to talk, but they just wouldn't. If they require that people talk, they'll just end up with a bunch of meaningless compliments.

And, bascially, I'll talk if anyone gives me a chance (at great length, whether you want me to or not) so this was a great situation for me. I'm hoping that this will translate into being valued in the workplace, since I haven't found a job yet.

What do all you people think with jobs out there? Are people who speak their mind valued in the workplace?

On Jun.19.2003 at 08:46 PM