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Issue № 321

Design Criticism and the Creative Process

by Published in Graphic Design, Creativity19 Comments

At a project’s start, the possibilities are endless. That clean slate is both lovely and terrifying. As designers, we begin by filling space with temporary messes and uncertain experiments. We make a thousand tiny decisions quickly, trying to shape a message that will resonate with our audience. Then in the middle of a flow, we must stop and share our unfinished work with colleagues or clients. This typical halt in the creative process begs the question: What does the critique do for the design and the rest of the project? Do critiques really help and are they necessary? If so, how do we use this feedback to improve our creative output?

The critique as a collaborative tool

When 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 (see Figure 1).

The Design Process

Fig 1. The Design Process

Zach Lieberman, creator of innovative eye-tracking software, preaches the idea of DIWO—Do It With Others—saying, “We need to think about art–working more like a laboratory, that we are performing research and working together.” This contrasts with the common design parable that a camel is a horse designed by committee. The critiquing process is not an excuse to form a design committee, but designers must embrace collaborative efforts and act as stewards of design rather than dictators. We need to ask ourselves: What’s so wrong with a camel? Is it not just a different way of looking at the problem?

If the critique is to help us to collaborate, it must sound like a suggestion rather than an order. It should be conversational, both giving and taking, again in the interest of collaboration. When design critiques are one-sided—for example, when commands are issued without explanation—the result is like playing telephone: the message arrives diluted and insensible because the message bearer has no context or ownership over ultimate design decisions.

It’s important to remember that critiques are meant to improve output rather than hinder process. Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From says, “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 designs

Sharing 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 clarity

Example: “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 personally

Example: “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 apathy

Example: “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.

Contradictions

Example: “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.

Indecisiveness

Example: “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.

Resistance

Example: “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 negativity

Example: “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. Frank Gehry says in The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry, “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.

Negotiate criticism

The idea that feedback is not fixed is a common thread in these scenarios. Our interpretations and reactions influence feedback. A critique is the beginning of this negotiation process, allowing the exchange of thoughts and opinions. Ultimately it is important that our designs accomplish business goals and engage our audience, but getting there is not always as straightforward as it seems. Every time project members exchange and share information or insights, the project value goes up. On the other hand, if communication isn’t adding value, ask whether it is important that you collaborate or if there is an alternative.

The designer as collaborator

The critique’s importance in creative output is not a new idea; it is why design community sites such as Dribbble, Behance, and Forrst flourish. But embracing the critique depends on knowing your value to a project and understanding how to navigate process to achieve great work. In his presentation called Quieting the Lizard Brain, Seth Godin talks about “shipping” or delivery, and “thrashing,” the idea of experimenting despite uncertain outcomes. “What you do for a living is not be creative; everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship. And as someone who knows how to ship, you have a discipline and part of your discipline is that you insist on thrashing early.” It sounds simple enough but in the depths of process it is not always an easy formula to follow. Critiques can help us navigate both complex processes and projects. The better we are able to do this, the more we can collaborate effectively, improve our creative output, and create original and engaging work.

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