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Designer on Designer

As professional designers (or aspiring students) we have something in common beyond our trade. Every day somebody has something to say about our work. It may be a client, your mother, your husband or your intern. It doesn’t matter if it is good or bad, constructive or not. We all know it is coming.

For many, this is a touchy subject. If a client gives us a bad critique, all we need to say is: “What does he know about design? I am the expert, not him.” — and if he likes it we grin and keep on going. It is not so easy when coming from a fellow designer, or when you are sharing your opinion with a peer. Like Marian suggests, as designers we need to step away from “I like”, “I don’t like”, “Nice use of the color yellow…”, “That font really works for this!”. We are expected to give constructive criticism, based on knowledge and design principles, cultural influences and social expectations.

Let’s talk a little about sharing our opinions, critiquing our fellow designer’s work — no easy task. You will usually find two kinds of opinions: (a) the honest, straight from the gut truth, and (b) the what do I say? What if I hurt his/her feelings? Marian shares her experience with a couple of designers:

In critiquing their work I usually had different goals for each of them. One is a brilliant designer and amazing artist, but gets very caught up in theoretical details. My goal with him was always to loosen him up. The other came up with zany, creative ideas, but was sometimes weak on execution — So in critiquing her work, I would focus more on the practical. Also, once she got an idea in her head she was very reluctant to change. Client changes were very upsetting to her, so my goal was also to get her to see where it was important and where it wasn’t. I was usually successful.

It is hard to give this kind of criticism, as well as to learn how to take it. Not very long ago, a junior designer started working with me, straight out of school and things did not work out quite right. Unfortunately, the “I am the best thing that has happened to this office in a long time” attitude did not allow him to open up and listen to what others had to say. He would nod his head, and keep going in the same direction, until we realized that somebody else had to take over his projects, if we wanted to keep a working relationship with our clients (and seem like we were listening).

Sometimes, our work is the one on the table, and we are the ones who should be listening. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t — it seems strange though, that we usually listen to those who are tearing our stuff apart, shredding it to pieces as we just stand there. Gunnar shares one such experience:

I had been doing design for more than ten years when I decided to go back to school and get an MFA. They were just starting a program at ArtCenter so I asked Lou Danziger to look at my work. He tore it apart. He pointed at things and said “You aren’t very good at this” and “Why do you do this?” It probably should have been devastating but it was wonderful. I never had anyone devote so much thoughtful attention to my work before or since. At the time I thought he was right about half of what he said. Over time I decided it was more like three quarters.

Being in the hot seat takes courage, and understanding. Many of us share the feeling with Marian of “I don’t take criticism well. My initial reaction is usually �fuck off’, followed by the revelation a short time later that everything I’ve done is shit and needs to be scrapped.” Yeah, right. But, if you start your critique Gunnar-style, you “generally talk to people you like, who have something to say, so of course you listen carefully for anything you can learn. (And, you assume they do the same.)”

Michael B., on the other hand, came to love sentient opinions:

I may be a bit of an anglophile, but the best criticism I’ve received of my work has been from British critics. I particularly remember a review of a book I designed that appeared in Blueprint, and a review of a lecture I gave that appeared in the D&AD newsletter. In both cases, the critiques were well-informed, carefully-reasoned, and, actually, sometimes rather harsh. But they made me think in a way that more casual, “I don’t like the way that looks,” comments never would. The very seriousness of the criticism was flattering: it made my work and ideas seem important.

With time, and the right opportunities, we learn to share our opinions, and how to get to them. Going beyond our gut reactions, the first sentence that comes to mind, and our first expression. Such is the case of Rick Valicenti, who after time has gained some valuable insight about himself:

Sometime last year I received an annual report for a Chicago based financial institution. I knew by the credit that gradycampbell/chicago had designed the book, but in my review of it (in Speak Up), I recall leaving the credits anonymous. The essence of my commentary was focused on the lack of any obvious ‘real human presence’ stripped from the annual’s communication which was quite refined and had, by choice, edited out all of the extraneous artifact that may have signaled any ‘real human presence’.

In hindsight, my comments were honest yet from the sidelines and my methods were cowardly. We all know, yet so often we forget, that all design is artifact of a process. Good design reflects a healthy process and bad design comes out of poorly managed processes. But to get ANYTHING worthy of critique from a design process is an amazing undertaking in and of itself!

If I was to comment on this same project today, I would refocus my attention not on the thing itself, but the process that gave it life. I would have first picked up the phone and talked directly to Kerry about his time on the project. What were the issues, what were the successes and what were the failures (if any). I would ask him how he felt about the design’s final outcome and if there were some things he might do better or differently. I would have done more to make my critique process filled with real human presence and tried to reposition myself in the designer’s process, in the designer’s meetings and on the designer’s conference calls.

Only then would I have had a better platform to critique. Only then would my observations been of any ‘real’ value to other practicing designers. And only then would any reader been able to improve their own processes and subsequent artifact we call design.

In the end, criticism about design by designers is a great tool, is done with the proper information, background understanding, and if you have a clear objective of what should be. We tend to respect those who give us fundamented observations, as well as those who listen to what we have to say and later decide what to do with the information.

Do you think you are open and ready to be openly criticized by your peers? Do you think you have something of value to offer your fellow designers?

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.05.2004 BY bryony
DesignMaven’s comment is:


Let me deal with my two favorite people first.

My offline compadre's.

Gunnar Swanson and Michael Bierut. Brings a big wide Grin to my face.

Gunnar and Lou Danziger. That must have been a sight to see. Well, Lou Danziger worked with Herbert Bayer at the Container Corporation of America. Personal friend of PAUL RAND. More over Lou Danziger worked with SAUL BASS in the early days. Lou is the quintessential teacher of American Design. As well, Forebearer of Corporate Identity Practice in America.

Gunnar Swanson, West Coast Luminare, Obstinate, Know it all, APPROCHABLE. Very Passionate about Education and Design.

Keeps me in stiches with his Pearls of Wisdom and Designer War Stories.

Great Friend and willing to share his knowledge.

Gunnar the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

You're more like RAND than you think !!!!!!

Just Breaking Balls about the Obstinate and Know it all.

Michael B.

I once sent my Identity Samples to Michael B. for critique.

Not man enough to tell what he said. It is private.

I'm still in Washington D.C. If that's any indication what he thinks. Nuff Said.

I can reveal this he has on more than One occassion Beat me up for my PUNCTUATION!!!!!!

Seriously, at this stage in my career. Having been in the Identity business for twenty years.

I elicit comments on my work from people I respect.

Critique can be a good thing. And critique can be jaded.

I'm at a place in my life. I know when someone is Bullshitting me.

Certainly, I'm able to decipher what I need from criticism. And able to discard the bullshit.

Dare I say, I can stomach the blaspheme and bullshit David Weinberger has received in reference to his work.

Definitily, David is cut from a different cloth.

He's a kick ass Identity Designer.

You also Felix. Before I get your hate mail !!!!!!!

Other than Michael B. I'd like to see another Designer that contribute to the Speak Up community. Upload their major, major redesign of a Bass or Rand Identity. For the record any of their Identities to be critiqued by the general populas.

Young Designers

Design Education is LIFELONG.

As I said to another online/Offline Buddy. When he boarded the Ferryboat Klamath.

Every Man is not your Friend. Every Man is not your Enemy. Every Man is your Teacher.

On Jul.05.2004 at 06:44 PM
Danielle’s comment is:

Once, when I was a student at Cranbrook, I was working on a logotype for a project I was doing. For my critique, I pinned at least one hundred iterations on the wall for feedback. Laurie Makela said to everyone: "Let's remove from the wall all the logos that obviously ARE NOT working, so we can have something more manageable to discuss." So, all my classmates got up and began removing logos from the wall, one by one. At last, there were ZERO logos left on the wall! The very last one pulled off the wall was the one I liked the most, so I went over to the floor, picked it up, and pinned it back onto the center of the wall. Then we had a serious critique. At the time, I wondered whether my classmates truly thought my work wasn't worth talking about, or if they were just being smart-asses. Now, I think they just got on a roll and thought the whole thing was funny.

I sometimes share this story with my undergraduate students, and they're all astonished that my classmates were so harsh. But it also shows them that they don't have to be so nice when talking about their classmates' work in critiques. I think it's important that teachers foster an environment in the classroom that teaches designers to give thoughtful creative criticism that asks important strategic questions about the work (instead of just commenting "that's a pretty color").

On Jul.05.2004 at 06:50 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

I think that Rick Valicenti’s statement that “all design is artifact of a process” is an important part of what makes graphic design criticism difficult. Poor craft may be superficially evident but the important question of graphic design is how well it accomplished goals (and how worthy are those goals are.) It is often hard to know the underlying strategy so we tend to resort to asking how well something answers the question that it looks like it may have been meant to be the answer to.

Complicating that is the question of the role of the designer: It is rarely clear what role the graphic designers played in strategic development. It is also hard to know what failings in strategy or execution are the result of the designer failing to manage the process in a manner that would achieve the best result. A corollary of Valicente’s statement is “The way we sell graphic design is the way we do graphic design.” The craft of managing the process is not as superficially accessible as the crafts of composition and construction.

On Jul.05.2004 at 07:10 PM
BA’s comment is:

I think that's a good point Gunnar... I can understand how a critique (whether during creation or after completion) can aid from a more complete understanding of the process and factors exterior to the designer (as Rick Valicenti discovered). But then anything is conceivably excusable and criticism may revert to absolute negative or absolute positive responses: either a 'fuck off,' I had to deal with this this and this - or a 'grin and keep on going.'

Obviously the convenience of getting in touch with the creator is not always available - and then if the critique is of a finished design, how much should the creator lend to the critique? After all, it isn't common to read a critical review of someone's own work. But then you could also argue that doing research is part of every analytical study - but how much?

So perhaps this is tangential, but as someone interested in critical writing I ask: is there a methodology in striking a balance between an informed critique and an influenced one?

Could we expand the idea that we "respect those who give us fundamented[?] observations, as well as those who listen to what we have to say and later decide what to do with the information" to claim that we respect and get the most use from those that critique using BOTH methods - in healthy doses?

On Jul.05.2004 at 08:38 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

I've been confused when giving criticism. In one of my classes, I was asked to give my honest opinion about a fellow's work- I disliked it, stated my reasons for my disliking it, and what I would've done if I were in the artists' situation, only to be snapped at by the professor because I didn't share her opinion of the work, and didn't parrot her ideas verbatum. Asked for blunt honesty, I gave it, and got punished for it...

Since than I've become quite wary of stating my opinion alloud... afraid of a verbal reprimand/punishment for daring to state my thoughts and opinions...for not being one of the herd. Too often it seems people ask for the truth, and all they want are lies.

On Jul.05.2004 at 10:11 PM
Jim Amos’s comment is:

The best criticism is well informed and to the point. The worst kind of cirticism I've had was from a collegue who made no comment at all except to say "Ok, now change it back to the way it was, thanks. ".

On Jul.05.2004 at 10:40 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> fundamented[?]

Heretoforth we declare "fundamented" a new English word. So there is this word in spanish, "fundamentado", which means to be well-informed, with a strong understanding, with good basic skills, etc. It doesn't show up in dictionaries but we feel it should.

Critiquing design is really a no-win situation with most people. Because it is oh so subjective. Also, designers put a lot of "themselves" into any piece (and this is why so many think being a designer makes them artists) so when you critique their work you are critiquing them. It is hard to get dettached from the work and take criticism on the work itself. Another problem with design criticism, like Marian pointed out, is the "I like/I don't like" syndrome. I can dislike a lot of work but that doesn't mean it's bad. When designers talk in terms of "I like/I don't like" it is completely useless as critique, it serves no purpose other than establishing the critic's taste. I can take criticism as good as anyone but give me an "I don't like it" and I'll never ask for your opinion again. Follow it with a "because…" and you might get my attention.

Another problem with judging/critiquing graphic design is what Gunnar already mentioned and what Rick alluded to, the "back story" of any project. I understand why it is important but I can see a logo, an annual a report, a package or anything else devoid of a bullet-pointed list of strategic reasoning and come to my own conclusion, judgment and critique. As a "trained" graphic designer I can make an assesment of any given piece based on what I know as a graphic designer ragardless of the original designer's intention.

Which brings me to the "real human presence" factor that Rick talks about. Let's take again the annual report example he gives. And let's say that annual report gets to Rick's desk and any number of shareholders' desks, would Kerry then have to call Rick and each shareholder to explain the process behind getting the annual report done? Each person is responsible for the assesment they make of the final piece, and the original designer must accept any criticism — good or bad — that comes from anybody.

Do food critics go to the kitchen and chat with the chef before doing a review? Maybe then the chef can tell the critic that the owner is forcing him to use celery in the soup, and that the budget only allows for two pinches of salt rather than three… and on and on. Nope, a food critic goes to a restaurant, orders his/her food, eats it and guess what? He makes a review regardless of the chef's "back story". It gets published in newspapers, magazines, etc. and if it's not a handsome review the restaurant loses customers and runs out of business.

So pucker up, design criticism ain't that bad.

On Jul.06.2004 at 08:53 AM
Darrel’s comment is:


On Jul.06.2004 at 09:29 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Armin—Cooking and graphic design are similar in many ways but one difference is that even the cook should ultimately judge cooking by what it does accomplish where those of us who see design as a practical activity ultimately believe that graphic design should best be considered in terms of how well it does what it was supposed to do. For other sorts of design it may be obvious what it is supposed to do. Is the racecar faster? Is the chair comfortable? Is the tool easier to use well? Does the building promote the right attitude toward government, allow public access, and let bureaucrats get their work done? Sometimes (maybe often) graphic design has an obvious “supposed to” but not always. That, of course, doesn’t mean that we can’t judge graphic design on many levels even when we don’t know the specific goals.

It might seem that this is a slick alibi for designers—“the strategy made me do it” as a weird echo of “the client insisted on it.” Although clients do sometimes insist on things that are to the detriment of well-executed design, it seems that clients are often the dogs that ate our homework. Part of the job of a designer is to manage clients’ decisions within the context of predetermined client needs so if the dog ate your homework the next question is about who trained the dog or left him in the room alone.

The problem comes when subjective criticism actually runs counter to good strategy. Rand’s bow-adorned package was so appealing that UPS’s real desire to redefine their mission can get ignored. In this case we’re privy to the strategic needs and can move on to ask how well the golden comb-over works in that context but how many projects do we ignore despite an effectiveness we can’t understand and (perhaps more importantly) how many projects do we laud despite their being abject failures at their intended purpose? Certainly there are formal lessons in strategically-weak work but does this suck us into supporting the notion that graphic design is all about making stuff pretty or cool?

On Jul.06.2004 at 11:04 AM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

This reminds me of my comments regarding how ugly and irresponsible the Unilever logo critique was here a few weeks ago.

I'm ready to be criticized, I have older siblings!

On Jul.06.2004 at 11:55 AM
george’s comment is:

clients are often the dogs that ate our homework

this is right on the money!

I know I've been guilty of it from time to time and I'd bet most designers have as well...I've failed to guide a client's desires towards appropriate design solutions or I've gotten lazy or maybe I've just plain screwed up, and it's been easy to say "the client insisted on THAT...what could I DO?!"

in terms of design criticism, I think there are often two levels of critique that are possible - one with a set of assumed goals ("how well does this design tell me something? do I believe that something is what the client is hoping to tell me?"), and the second with full knowledge of the stated goals for the project ("oh, THAT was the goal? well in that case this work conveys the message perfectly").

both kinds of critique are valid and both can be useful for designers, imho.

On Jul.06.2004 at 12:42 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I like short, quick criticism based on logic and reason--point out what's not working, explain why, and leave it to me to fix it. I ignore all personal opinions, positive or negative; design is an objective undertaking, there is a black & white and a best/not-as-good. Speak in those terms for maximum impact. It's rare. I don't have that available to me right now, but I'd rather have nothing than be ordered around by someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.

On Jul.06.2004 at 02:58 PM
Amber Nussbaum’s comment is:

I'm a senior, about to get my BFA in graphic design. I can never seem to get concrete feedback on what to change or improve concerning my school projects. I get tired of hearing, "wow that looks really nice" or "I like it." The kids in the program don't take this stuff seriously, and the teachers sometimes just don't articulate weaknesses very well.

Finally I'm in the portfolio class, where we refine and fix everything. The instructor literally threw out half my projects as "beyond repair" and how welcome that was! When it was articulated to me why they weren't working (or why they were) it really helped me set some boundaries and guidelines in my head. Finally I can see what I'm doing wrong, obvious missteps and parts on which I'm not being thoughtful or thorough enough.

I just wish I had gotten this kind of criticism before now. I welcome it. Although I'd much rather hear it from a teacher than from a boss or a client. :/

On Jul.06.2004 at 03:32 PM
Rob ’s comment is:

One of the first things I did when I began teaching design was ban the word "like" from all and any critiques. I've done this to the extent possible in my company posiiton as well. What I strive for, and stress, is does the design work in terms of the goals of the project or the assignment. I think this helps take in what Gunnar and others have mentioned about the 'process.'

I am a big fan of design briefs in that they give both client and designer a shared roadmap of where they want to go. The design obviously is the one that has to get there but it's also important to acknowledge that we really don't get to the final design of anything, totally alone. And truly, if all agree that the solution works, then the designer's done his job.

As for me personally, having worked mostly in positions where I was the only designer, I have come to rely upon outside friends for their critiques and comments. And since I started my career as a writer, I feel I still have so much more to learn about design that I wouldn't want to ever stop gettting feedback and improving on what really works.

On Jul.06.2004 at 04:15 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

We’re conflating several modes of graphic design criticism. I suspect that the styles and problems are quite different. My earlier comments about understanding purpose help answer why we don’t have graphic design reviewers more akin to those who write about movies or books. (There are, of course, several other—and probably more important—reasons.)

The question of how peers should talk to each other about their work may be too complex to sort out here.

Despite Michael’s experience, published criticism isn’t about helping designers understand their work. Helping us all understand something more about design is a more worthy goal. The personal reaction of the designers whose work is reviewed is almost beside the point.

It does seem that criticism from a teacher should have some very specific purposes. “I like that” or “I hate that” by itself is probably not very useful. A teacher’s criticism should teach (the individual student or the class.) A few modes come to mind as useful:

1) I often drive students crazy by not directly stating my opinion but instead asking a series of questions about what they think. Sometimes the questions are general. (“What does it mean?”) Sometimes they are specific and even pointed. (“What does using that typeface gain you?”) Sometimes they are meant to define issues (“How does this photograph make you feel?” or “How do you think this will be understood by its audience?”) The point is to get them asking certain questions almost automatically so that they will ask them of themselves.

2) Often students don’t believe that they have the power to produce smart work. The iterative process of designing is foreign and they seem to be waiting for the idea fairy to hit them on the head with a magic wand. Pointing out that good ideas are often imbedded in the (so-far) lousy work is important. The aim of this sort of criticism is to develop the skills of finding an idea. Pointing out emerging ideas is helpful for getting people unstuck.

3) More developed work can benefit from the sort of criticism that notes specific problems. (“Look at the kerning here.” “What’s up with that rag?” “Nobody is going to take this seriously unless it’s spelled right and has real quotation marks.”) The point there is to help get people in the mode of perfecting their work and not settling for almost.

On Jul.06.2004 at 07:12 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Is the racecar faster? Is the chair comfortable? Is the tool easier to use well? Does the building promote the right attitude toward government, allow public access, and let bureaucrats get their work done? Sometimes (maybe often) graphic design has an obvious “supposed to” but not always.

How about: Does the design communicate? No need for explanation of process and such. Like you said, the process can be a wily alibi, that is why it is important to be able to separate process from result and be able to form a critique based solely on the result.

> I have come to rely upon outside friends for their critiques and comments.

So "designer on designer" critique is tough… have you ever tried "designer husband on designer wife" critique? Talk about unstable territory! One thing is to do a critique of a fellow student or co-worker and then each one goes on their merry way and another is to do a critique, cook dinner, have said dinner and go to bed together…

Seriously though, the person I trust the most with a critique is Bryony (and I'm not saying it only because I have a cooke jar full of home-made chocolate chip cookies). I'll bring stuff from work to make sure I can proceed. Most of the time it's "That's terrible, do it again" or "That's great, now, would you like more cookies?". It's taken us 4-5 years to get to this point, if she says nay, I know something's not right, because in the past when she's said nay she's given me plenty reasons. So now I know when a nay is coming. It's really cool to be able to share our work and get an honest opinion.

On Jul.06.2004 at 07:13 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

Seriously though, the person I trust the most with a critique is Bryony (and I'm not saying it only because I have a cooke jar full of home-made chocolate chip cookies).

It does help though.

It's taken us 4-5 years to get to this point, if she says nay, I know something's not right, because in the past when she's said nay she's given me plenty reasons. So now I know when a nay is coming. It's really cool to be able to share our work and get an honest opinion.

Many years have had to go by before we got tot his point. I remember when we were just starting out as designers, people would ask if we would ever share and/or work together... you can guess the answer. A big NO escaping from both of us rather quickly. Today, it is another story. I know that when I show something to Armin he will put it through the toughest test and scrutiny he can think of, and I love it. It’s one of the reasons why I push myself as a designer every day.

If only it were this satisfying and fulfilling when I share with other designers. Increasingly frustrated with, un-thought comments, every day remarks, and your usual questions/observations (no matter what the project is), I have learned to send my work far away, be it to Carmen in Atlanta, or Armin at home, a friend in Mexico, a teacher, you name it — the point is to send it to the necessary people who will give me the input I really need.

On Jul.06.2004 at 08:58 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Armin—All design communicates. The question is does it communicate what it is supposed to? Sometimes that’s obvious what it is. Sometimes not.

On Jul.06.2004 at 11:03 PM