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Interestingly Trite

Oftentimes, design students use the word interesting during reviews and critiques. They elevate a design to the stature of acceptable, ideal, or award-worthy. But interesting is not an easy path to glory.

Google lists over 9,000,000 results for interesting design amidst images and web pages. I’ve heard the word used equally as much during my life in the classroom, and it makes me groan each time. When I was a student, my classmates loved talking about interesting things like movies and music. We loved looking at interesting design, and reading interesting philosophy. The word was as vacuous during that pseudo-intellectual heyday as it is now. I still hear it pronounced like it means something, but overcoming that word is the first step to succeeding in a critique.

Design Student: “I like that design. It’s interesting.”

Me: What do you find interesting about it?”

Design Student: “I don’t know, it’s just interesting.”

Young designers could learn a thing or two from Aristotle, who gave a formula that could apply to critiques: make a statement and prove it. Interesting is not enough—give me a statement, a conversation, then give me proof. Nothing is wrong with the word interesting, but when you repeatedly use it to justify or aggrandize work, you’re missing an opportunity for a discussion. One of the tasks that we as designers are charged with is observing and analyzing the world around us. We must also act as critics to justify our design choices with our colleagues or clients. The classroom is one of the first places we learn to do this, but I’m not asking for lengthy historical justifications about the work. It’s okay if you can’t explain why the piece looks authentic or fresh compared to its peers. But give me some analysis, don’t just select a winner and be done with it. Don’t award something the title of interesting and be on your way.


There are only two parts to a speech:
You make a statement and you prove it.
—Aristotle, Rhetoric


If interesting means that the design keeps your attention, then tell us why. Is the composition exciting, dynamic, active? Do the colors harmonize in such a way that you lose yourself in the myriad of hues? If the design evokes an emotional response, do your best to verbalize it. Give us a report. Is it really clean? Is it well executed? Does the content keep your attention, but the form require more finesse? Tell us something substantial about the design if it really is a winner in your eye. Give us as much detail as possible because interesting alone means nothing—interesting alone is a generality, too broad and vague. Deftly tell us how the design works, why it succeeds, or what makes it the best.

But interesting doesn’t always make something a winner, and since moving to the Southeast, I’ve learned that interesting may carry pejorative connotations. If a Southern lady meets an abrasive man at the grocery store, she may remark, “Wasn’t that man interesting,” using a scowled inflection with down-turned eyebrows. I have seen this happen with design as well, but if you truly hate the piece reviewed, then tell us why. Don’t scowl like the old women I hear, who fret about unchivalrous men and label them interesting. If the design looks like a fourth grader executed it in Photoshop using too many filters, then tell us that so we understand it’s a craft problem. If somebody used an all-Helvetica Swiss-design style for a horror film festival poster, when they should have employed a more rugged aesthetic, then tell us why. Evaluate the design. Make connections. Speak in clear terms and speak articulately. Be prepared to back up your statements, and appreciate alternate opinions when they arise.

Looking at design and judging design has as much to do with asking questions as giving answers. So before you decide to summarize your critique in one word with interesting, ask yourself what you mean to say, then say it like you mean it. And most importantly, when you’re in my classroom, do not use the word interesting.

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PUBLISHED ON May.11.2008 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Jesse Woodward’s comment is:

"I don't want to be interesting, I want to be good" - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

On May.12.2008 at 01:41 AM
mml’s comment is:

i think any serious design student knows not to say "interesting" in a crit. despite being in the hot seat sometimes, i appreciate faculty calling students out about word usage. words should be used correctly, whether written or spoken. i am very grateful that both my undergrad and grad experiences have emphasized language skills. words can take on new meaning when there is a small group of students working intensely together for 2+ years. it's important for the words being used to have the same meaning and weight in and out of a specific school context.

On May.12.2008 at 08:45 AM
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

interesting article jason

On May.12.2008 at 09:03 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks for making my blood boil this morning, Jon.

On May.12.2008 at 09:34 AM
Robert Augustin’s comment is:

A very true analysis of this far too often used filler word; mostly due to the lack of will (or training) to study a design on a professional level. It seems that to many people, the initial wow when viewing an artwork - or the wow's opposite - diminishes analytic abilities, at least to a point.

I would also only call it a lack of integrity to a point, though - this sort of awareness has to be built up over time. Some have it earlier, but to some people (students), it's something they have to incorporate as a part of who they are (or who they want to be), as opposed to, say, a nine-to-five job from which you can escape at five o'clock.

Working in the creative business demands an out and out creative personality, which involves seeking to explain why an artwork is interesting and why not, rather than just grading it as we grade everything else.

Thanks for this excellent article.

On May.12.2008 at 09:48 AM
Kosal Sen’s comment is:

Jason, do you feel the same way about the word different? e.g. "I like it...it's different." I personally think it's worse than interesting. It's somewhat possible to defend why it's interesting, but not different.
Without any true design-focused elaboration, the subjectivity of the any "critique" is valid as a client's mother's tennis coach's photoshopping daughter's.

On May.12.2008 at 10:17 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Kosal, neither different nor interesting alone own will make a critical analysis. When different and/or interesting get used to solely critique a work, I get more infuriated than listening to a Paula Abdul 'critique' on American Idol. But different is the first path to a compare/contrast, which could lead to a worthwhile critique.

On May.12.2008 at 10:44 AM
Peter’s comment is:

I would use an all-Helvetica Swiss-design style for a horror film festival poster.

On May.12.2008 at 11:43 AM
Derek Munn’s comment is:

In any critique I was ever a part of in school, "interesting" was a euphemism for "could work or be good if you had another day".

I personally avoid using "interesting", unless I want to avoid insulting someone and do it at the same time.

On May.12.2008 at 11:52 AM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

We were told in my class critiques to never say, "I like it" or "I don't like it" I think our instructor can relate to you and what your students are doing with "interesting". As you've made clear: it's about elaboration, expanding on the reaction, understanding and articulating what lies behind one's feelings. I see nothing inherently wrong or bad with the term "interesting" or even what it connotes, but without the explanation that follows, it's ambiguous--just like: "I like it."

On May.12.2008 at 02:27 PM
Chris Harrington’s comment is:

I've been told to speak "intellectually" about a piece of artwork. Although I've never understood what that meant until I read this. Always needed a clarification on what that really meant? And unfortunately never got a clear answer..."Figure it out." And most of the time I did have to figure it out by myself, problem solving, a big part of what an artist has to do, that's what we are. Were problem solvers. But as a student learning I need a sense of direction, which rises another question...How do you "teach" art? What I got after 2 years of art school is you can't, you can show different approaches, and be exposed to everything that's out there.
It is in fact an interesting statement and well put and I understand what it means more. I'm currently an illustration student attending Pratt Institute and recently a sophomore graduate from PrattMWP, and extension campus in upstate NY. Personally I have this problem just saying I like or I don't like a piece of artwork. But as continuing my education down in Brooklyn NY my goal is to explain why I like or dislike an artwork.

On May.12.2008 at 06:23 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Hey Jason, another "interesting" Southernism, which I learned from a former co-worker who grew up in Louisiana, is the phrase "Well, bless your heart," which apparently seems to mean something like "who cares about you, go to hell." He actually warned us never to say that to a Southern person unless you were willing to potentially get into a fight. (?!?!)

Overall, I agree with your premise that "interesting" is a hollow descriptor that requires further detail.

On the other hand, I would submit that there are times when vague blandishments can serve larger diplomatic intentions in working with some types of clients--or junior designers. By describing something as "interesting" you're imparting a certain sense of value, in that you're not saying that it's "boring," and you're giving some amount of validation to someone's ideas or efforts. Of course, the background scenario behind this is that you might be trying to gently bring someone with sensitivities or personal emotional investment over to new ways of thinking or seeing, without insulting them or making them defensive. And granted, the larger dialog may go something like: "I think you're idea is interesting, but there are some other opportunities that you might want to explore." So psychologically, you've given that person credibility and value, they then become more relaxed and open for a gentle redirect to better solutions.

And of course they may want to push back on their idea, in which case you are then forced to delicately deconstruct their idea, and diplomatically show how the kernel of "good" in their idea/effort is taken to a more optimal outcome by other options. But without the initial "interesting" validation, some insecure types can immediately become very defensive and uncooperative.

On May.12.2008 at 06:27 PM
Adam Okrasinski’s comment is:

No one seems to have brought up my personal least- favorite critique tactic, the "reminds me of."

"Oh well it kind of reminds me of Shark Week like on the discovery channel"

"This one reminds me of Harry Potter"

"I reminds me of that other poster you did"

Without elaboration, all statements in critique are useless. Correct?

On May.13.2008 at 01:59 AM
marko savic’s comment is:

This reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld,

Ben: A beautiful woman like you should. You're quite breathtaking.

Elaine: Breathtaking? I'm breathtaking?


Ben, referring to Ugliest Child Ever: Yeah, he really is breathtaking. (Elaine confused by his comment)

On May.13.2008 at 03:52 AM
James Gibson’s comment is:

Isn't that strange how certain people can use those grand sweeping descriptors?

I'm reminded of someone i've worked with who had a very similar word they used anytime I used black in a piece. No matter how sophisticated the execution and application, printing effects, whatever I would get the same response:

It looks too ominous.

It's driven me crazy, they have never been quite able to explain what that means. Regardless of what the brief spells out, I could never seem to use black in a project because of it being "Ominous."

I think this discussion may be even a grander discussion (as Steven has said) on how people want to seem like they are making a critical judgement, without trying to hurt people's feelings. Saying something like "Interesting" has just as much value as hearing "Ominous"

I would have preferred him just saying "I don't like black" and at least I would have had something to work with.

For me, anytime I hear somebody use words like "Interesting", it seem like these people are trying to make intellectual sounding arguments, while sidestepping any critique of value.

On May.13.2008 at 08:49 AM
Josh’s comment is:

I think it really has to start from understanding the concept of the piece and whether it has one or not.

I think with critiquing art it takes a longer time to nail down, because history, trends, techniques, influences all take time to decipher or require a prior knowledge of. Just ask the millions of art history students who have had to decipher a Braque from a Picasso during the Cubist period.

Students generally aren't versed in the history of design or history. Their influences hinge on pop culture, some history(maybe) and typographic rules they learned last semester. Hence their vernacular isn't totally up to speed, so this exclamation of interesting is really all they have.

Maybe as you said Jason its about asking questions as well. The kids gotta get tough skin at some point, so perhaps as an exercise in understanding, you have the students ask the others about a particular use of a color, choice of type or why the layout looks a particular way...etc.

It's a double lesson in one for if one were to ask another Why did you use warm colors, then the critiqued is forced into divulging the thoughts behind their work. Results could feasibly include:

- The critiqued can validate a good concept and know that they have made good choices. Hopefully following through with convictions and such in the future.

- The questioner can have their thoughts confirmed and if the crowd observes a satisfaction, they bank the question and response as appropriate to use in the future

- The reserved observers hopefully get the idea which can open the conversation up.

Not that this is a lesson most educators don't already know, but the point is maybe to ask questions regardless of whether it's a tip top piece of design or not. Minor discomfort for major group benefit.

That would keep the interesting, different and ominous from popping up.

On May.13.2008 at 11:32 AM
madeo’s comment is:

"Interesting" is the word that people use when they're scared to tell the designer whether it sucks or not. By using the word "interesting" the student is still free to jump on a bandwagon and agree whether it's good or bad. The word "interesting" is purgatory between good design and bad design.

On May.13.2008 at 01:34 PM
Deezignee’s comment is:

Young Mr. Arvizu: I was just going to post about that very phrase. I think during the course of my studies, I had "You NO LIKE!" pounded into my head hundreds of times.

The same could be true of any adjectives/bland statement used in a critique. I'd say the best thing a student can do, is learn to justify their reasoning. It's never too early to start building presentation skills.

On May.13.2008 at 02:00 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

I tend to agree with Steven up there, that it's sometimes easier to take into account the emotional investment of a student and use noncommittal words such as "interesting" when critiquing, rather than immediately putting them on the defensive. It's not a bad starting sentence to say "That's interesting, but..." and then follow it with your analysis. It's far easier to swing someone around to your point of view with a gradual arc than it is to make them stop abruptly and turn around.

That said, I understand that's not the point you're trying to make here. You're saying that a student critiquing another student shouldn't be general. However, in the example you provided there, Jason, it's hard to fault the student for giving a general critique when the followup question was just as general. These are in fact kids who don't have the vocabulary to give thorough critiques. If you're trying to get them to explore their own preferences further, rather than throwing the word you don't like back in their face, try asking the right question.

Student: I think that's interesting.

Teacher (choose one or more): Do you think it meets the project goals? Could it be better? What would you change if you could? How do you think the designer arrived at this solution?

There are a litany of questions you could ask that would prompt a better response. The question you provided as an example only serves to show a student that he's asked the wrong question. A good lesson, but one that only works through negative reinforcement and doesn't really teach anything.

On May.13.2008 at 02:27 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> The word "interesting" is purgatory between good design and bad design.

Can somebody put that on a t-shirt, please? Or at least an iPhone wallpaper?

On May.13.2008 at 06:07 PM
schwa’s comment is:

interesting = awake but barely breathing
intriguing = paying attention and engaged

On May.14.2008 at 06:38 AM
Keith McCord’s comment is:

I had a high school art teacher who would use the word "interesting" to describe anything that was... how do I say this, "not good." One of the things that I got out of my art school education was how to constructively criticize, namely, how to appreciate when something had strong typography or an eye-catching image, and when something could benefit from a different color combination or editorial tone. The comments at the lower levels (ah, the pleasures of drawing 1...) always start at "its good" or "I don't like it," but eventually progress to insightful & helpful collaborative development.

On May.16.2008 at 12:33 PM
Lorelle Thomas’s comment is:

Yes, Steven!
I used to do that with clients. "That's interesting. I think I can work off that." or "I thought your ideas were interesting so I used them as a springboard." Meanwhile . . . what I was showing them bore absolutely no resemblance to the idea they had proposed but, they believed their idea had inspired it, were flattered, and receptive. We all want to be acknowledged!
Now I teach it to students and we jokingly call it BS 101.

Here's another presentation word to work on.
"I TRIED to make this lighthearted/dismal/sophisticated."
Well, did you do it or not? If you TRIED, were you successful or did you fail? How many times have you said to somebody, "I'm having a party Friday night." and they answer, "I'll try to be there." Has anyone who said that EVER shown up? Trying means you spent some effort. It does not mean you actually did anything.

On May.18.2008 at 12:41 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Lorelle, I generally do try to implement a client's suggestion, just because sometimes it just may work. Or, if I think the direction I'm favoring is strategically/conceptually/aesthetically better, I'll make one version with their suggestion and four versions where I'm following my direction. Then I'll pitch it as see "I tried your idea, but as you can see these other directions tend to work better..." Of course, if a client is sadly inclined to pick bad ideas, I may decide to not to show them their bad idea and say "Yeah, you know I tried that and it really wasn't working because of X, Y, and Z," hoping that the client will put faith in my reasons and professional acumen, and then will move on to focus on my ideas.

I do, however, very much agree with Jason's original premise that it's important for students to learn how to talk intelligently about design and its functionality. But there is also something to be said for learning the strategic "artful dodge."

On May.18.2008 at 08:28 PM