The critique as a collaborative toolWhen we embrace a truly collaborative process, critiques afford the incredible intersection of vision, design, strategy, technology, and people. The critique is a corrective step in the process that allows different ways of thinking to reach common ground—for example, compromising on visual vs. technological requirements. Critiquing an unfinished design mitigates the risk of completely missing a project’s ultimate goals. Acting as a wedge in the creative process, good feedback can readjust the design message and help us figure out what we’re really trying to say.
|The Design Process|
It’s important to remember that critiques are meant to improve output rather than hinder process. “Often times the thing that turns a hunch into a real breakthrough is another hunch that’s lurking in somebody else’s mind.” Encouraging the overlap of ideas from multiple people, as in critiques, facilitates these breakthroughs.
For a designer, a good critique can:
- prevent a meandering design from veering too far from timeline, budget, scope, or other project constraints,
- allow others to help, teach, and guide when there are weaknesses or confusion,
- accustom others to the shoddy state of unfinished designs to talk about bigger ideas and strategy,
- familiarize colleagues, managers, and clients with the design process,
- invest everyone in the project early on,
- circumvent alarming change requests by responding immediately as a team,
- distribute responsibility for developing creative output,
- help build team trust, and
- eliminate destructive ego.
Presenting designsSharing your work at any stage can make you feel vulnerable, but discussing it lends credence to the design process. Present a rationale for all design decisions you make. If that’s impossible, ask yourself where there’s room for improvement, and listen to suggestions. A plethora of tips are available on presenting designs and public speaking. Use these resources to target your growth areas and then practice good habits every opportunity you get.
What is good feedback?While critiques are important, what people actually mean when they give feedback may still be a mystery. How do we connect the abstract things that people say to what we actually create on our computers? Here are a few scenarios where you can rein in vague feedback to benefit the design.
LACK OF CLARITYExample: “I don’t like it,” or “I really love it!”
Ask specific questions to collect specific feedback. Zoom in on whether or not they like what they see to figure out exactly what they like. Ambiguity feels safer but it doesn’t benefit the conversation or the design. For likes and dislikes ask specifically about typography, color, layout, images, etc. Show them the kind of response you might be looking for. Ask questions even if they seem absurd, even if you’re pretty sure you understand what the other person is saying. Doing this reveals potential miscommunications at an opportune time rather than later on in the project when it becomes a costly inconvenience.
TAKING IT PERSONALLYExample: “I don’t like purple.”
Sometimes a colleague or client gets hung up on a strong personal distaste, usually on one particular detail. When criticism is based on personal preference, separate subjective comments from objective ones to filter the really meaningful feedback. Readjust your line of questioning—instead of asking what the person standing next to you thinks, ask what the target audience for the project might think. Would they, too, not like purple? This helps prioritize design effort by focusing on feedback that affects usability or product quality. Remember your own biases and be honest about them. The best designers work with their audience in mind regardless of personal inclinations.
DESIGN APATHYExample: “It looks fine as it is, let’s just go with it.”
If a person cannot discern between good design and bad design, it is tempting to believe they are design blind or incapable of appreciating good work. It could be, however, that they don’t quite understand or accept design’s role in product engagement or they are not comfortable talking in visual terms. Use probing questions and specific examples of websites or animations or whatever your end product is to understand their particular reluctance. Sometimes it takes several examples to figure out the root of the problem. If observers are tightlipped, reassure them that all feedback is helpful whether it’s positive or negative. By interpreting criticism this way you not only allow an open conversation, you also control it by managing your own reactions.
CONTRADICTIONSExample: “This needs to appeal to Baby Boomers but the users will probably be in their early 20s.”
Put the other person in your shoes. How would they approach this situation? Asking for advice (avoiding sarcasm) doesn’t hurt a project; rather, it opens up communication and helps people think about the project’s overall objectives. Pinning down clear, measurable goals from the outset ensures that you are approaching the project from the same perspective.
INDECISIVENESSExample: “I’m not sure what I think. What do you think?”
It’s common to be asked for your professional opinion on a decision that someone else must make. The risk is that they don’t actually mean what they are asking. For instance they might be testing your subjectivity to see how your preferences measure up to their own. Regardless of the intent, this is an opportunity to gain someone’s confidence. Offer your opinion but be sure to back it up with good logic, such as user experience best practices, type methodology, or color theory. Keep your knowledge-sharing relevant and be as straightforward as possible. A situation like this is a chance to educate, and by using it to its full potential you can benefit everyone involved in the project.
RESISTANCEExample: “That’s a great idea, but not right now.”
There seem to be few choices in this situation. You can argue until you’re blue in the face, attempt to create allies that will help argue your case, or you can forget about your brilliant idea for now, and save it for later or for some other project. What you choose to do depends on what is at risk. For example, you don’t necessarily want to argue with your largest client. Nor do you want to push the idea if the opposition is practical, i.e., too little time or budget. If you do pursue the idea, pitch it to the best of your ability, state it to the best of your ability, but don’t overstep your boundaries before calculating the risk. There will be people that respond differently to your approach, so learning to gauge what motivates the people that you work with is helpful.
TOO MUCH NEGATIVITYExample: “I don’t like the type or that picture. The colors are off. I think you’ve missed the point.”
Sometimes in the design process, especially with too much feedback or too little initial direction, the end message appears diluted or warped and you find that you missed the mark. Don’t give up as a default, but know when to cut your losses and start over. Gather as much information as you can about why this attempt failed. “Each project I suffer like I’m starting over again in life. There’s a lot of healthy insecurity that fuels this stuff.” Starting over on the same project can be even more disheartening, but the accomplished architect offers a lesson; each time we begin again, we do so with the knowledge and lessons we learned before, increasing our potential for success in each new effort.