Critique 101: How To Be a Better Designer (or everything else) Through Critique
Judger: the person that is criticizing; the critic.
Criticizing: analyzing and judging both the merits and faults of a work
Critique: the detailed assessment that comes from criticizing
Critique has such a negative connotation — it’s most often associated with a negative view of what’s wrong with something, and then often met with a reaction that stems deep within the gut of someone trying to defend their work, or simply brushing it off with an “I don’t care what you jerks think” attitude. But, criticizing and the subsequent critique is an invaluable element to the design process.
Why is it so hard to accept? We self-critique a project as we’re designing it, right? That element doesn’t feel right like that, in that place, at that scale, how about I do this… the process of iteration as you’re creating something is inherently self-criticism. Much of the issue with accepting criticism from external judgers is that we don’t know how to approach and deliver criticism. Quite often, feelings are injected into the criticism: I hate this, I don’t like this, I love this. Hate, like, love: all words that should never make their way from your brain to your mouth (or fingers if typing it up).
What is the piece or design trying to accomplish and did it meet those goals? What made it a success? What is hindering the piece from being a success in your eyes? What could it make it even more successful?
John: This really works for me because…
Jane: The use of … distracts me from the overall message of the piece.
John: The colors just don’t work for me. They fight for my attention and compete with one another.
Jane: The texture of this piece pulls it all together for me.
John, in what could be considered both positive and negative comments is a critic that is critiquing in both statements. Jane, with both positive and negative views is also a critic that is critiquing in both statements. Both John and Jane critiqued in a manner of what makes the design successful or unsuccessful in meeting the artists objective in their viewpoint.
Bob: I hate that you used comic sans.
Sandra: I think that’s the ugliest color.
Who cares, Bob and Sandra? Learn to criticize! Hate, think: those are statements of feelings and while they may be part of your interpretation of the work, should never be conveyed in your judgement of the work. If you’re curious why the designer used comic sans or that particular shade of baby puke green - ask them. What were you trying to achieve using Comic Sans? Why did you choose that color? In the absence of being able to have a discussion, one must use their critical analysis skills to see what the piece is trying to convey and achieve, and determine if the elements you felt were so disgusting actually just might work. Baby puke green and comic sans both have their places in design - maybe even together.
In both self-critique and critiquing others works, going about it the right way is key to making it successful.
How do we go about it the right way?
Describe, analyze, interpret, and judge.
The description step is only describing what’s in front of you. It’s simply what you see as facts. This is a portrait oriented, engraved wedding invitation, the material is acrylic, engraved on the backside of the material, it’s about 5x7”, it’s clear and white markings, it has rough lines in the engraving, using this fancy font, it has a dove flying, and so on.
Of all the features noted in the description of the piece, what do they suggest, what do they convey? How did that person do that? What’s most prominent? What jumps at me? What’s not prominent? Does it feel unified? Is it balanced? Is it too dark, too light? Do the colors clash?
The interpretation builds upon the description and the analysis to determine why they created it, why they made the choices they did, what’s the overall feel of the piece?
Description + Analysis + Interpretation = Do the elements work together? Does it convey what we interpreted the meaning to be? What distracts (doesn’t work) from the meaning? What contributes (works) to the artists intent?
What does this do?
It helps your other designers consider what people are seeing in their work in a manner that they can accept as constructive. But, even better, learning to critique others work does even more for you. It allows you to better self-critique and iterate your own works in progress. It also allows you to practice design without actually making anything at that point in time. The mental exercise of critiquing reinforces and also expands your overall knowledge and understanding of design, which will inject itself into your own designs.
Let’s do better.
By learning how to critique, others will become more accepting of critiques, and everyone benefits.