Design Criticism and the Creative Process

by Cassie McDaniel

19 Reader Comments

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  1. Thank you for this very timely article. I’m right in the middle of a project and actually have submitted my unfinished design for critique. I appreciate the points made in this article, which help me to feel more confident about the whole creative process.

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  2. That seems to me like a ‘nice to have’ but very lengthy approach. Usually I don’t have that much time (budget) to collaborate. And isn’t the payers opinion deciding?

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  3. Really great article. Even if Design as such is subjective you need criticism as you can not ignore the audience nor the client you are designing for.Thanks.

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  4. Thanks for the comments. @kanzlei — I suppose the payer’s opinion IS deciding (if you want to keep that sort of client around), but are they not paying you for your expertise? This article is really about respecting that relationship as well as interpreting feedback to find the nuances that allow for negotiation prior to deciding who has the final word. I don’t think collaboration necessarily has to be a lengthy process, either — use social sites, for instance: almost immediate feedback absolutely free. With clients, responding to reactions should mostly be done in situ, while the conversations are happening, which helps prevent misunderstandings from blowing up into the dreaded “do what I say or you’re fired” scenario. Hope that helps.

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  5. This piece will be very useful to me in my new role as Creative Lead where I work. I am the only formally trained designer on staff, and I have found that when I bring non-design coworkers into the process collaboratively early on, it helps the whole project go more smoothly. I am hoping to set up a regular “crit session” now and will use this article as a springboard to sell the idea.

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  6. The idea of every site is to get users to be moved to an action
    so the design and development of any site has to have the right sort of feed back to create these outcomes. I do agree with this article in the sense it is not a blight on the designer if
    they get feed back as we don’t always know what the user will do.

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  7. There’s been a lot of criticism of formal web design education recently, and even though I am a full-time design educator at Cuyahoga Community College I have to admit that much of the criticism is deserved. It’s been pointed out that many successful designers are self-taught and many believe that it’s the best option available.

    For some, but it doesn’t work for everyone. There are a number of advantages to a structured educational process like we offer, not the least of which is regular critiques of one’s work. In my entry-level Intro to Visual Communication class students often single out critiques as their favorite/most valuable part of the class.

    The points made in this article are all things we talk about constantly in critiques. Aside from technical skills and aesthetic values which we hope students develop, they also learn to talk about their work and that of others in a way that is productive for everyone. Because we are a community college with students from a wide range of backgrounds and ages from 18 to 50+, the critiques can be quite lively.

    This collaborative atmosphere is one of the things that may make a formal education worth the price of admission.

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  8. @kanzlei:

    And isn’t the payers opinion deciding?

    Well … yes and no. Two reasons.

    One – the payer might not have a well-formed opinion. If the best they can articulate is “I don’t like it” or “Make it look more web 2.0” then you haven’t actually got any information to go on – you still need more from them about exactly what it is they don’t like, and what they want you to add.

    Two – the payer might be an idiot. While I wouldn’t usually phrase it like that when talking to them, some people just have no idea about good design and website architecture. They’ve hired you as a professional, so they ought to at least be able to take advice from you. Otherwise you’ll end up with “this situation”:http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell – and no-one wins when that happens.

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  9. The core individuals participating in the collaborative effort need to all be experts, and led by a knowledgeable creative director. People who do not do this for a living simply can’t lead a creative team, nor should they be allowed to make the final decisions.

    It’s like having a team of chefs preparing a buffet for an event. Imagine if the one who decides is someone who doesn’t cook professionally for a living? They would choose only the foods they prefer and are familiar with, completely (but sub-consciously) ignoring the fact that the buffet isn’t for them, but for the guests.

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  10. nice article Cassie, highlights both good techniques on how to turn around seemingly vague client criticism and also the importance of criticism as a way to foster collaboration.

    @Andrei Gonzales – I’d agree that within an agency it’s best if those in the collaborative effort are experts in their field, but you’ll also get fantastic insights from a dev team reviewing a design (that will eventually need to be built) as well as from the creative director.

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  11. I agree with Andrei Gonzales’s post that the criticisms are most helpful when generated by UI experts. However, most design feedback comes from clients in the Marketing Department. It’s almost a law of nature that, in any discussion of web design or behavior, the Marketing clients will focus on the test content, instead of the design under review.

    Last year I had a marketing client call to complain that the agent test directories were erroneous, and that there was no one in their office by the name of “Ipsum.”

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  12. Great article. I love to think of the process as collaborative!

    I’d like to add another type of feedback that might be encountered during design feedback/critique:  A client suggesting how to fix a problem in the design, instead of saying that part doesn’t work and letting the designer/design team find the right solution.

    As a very simplistic example: a client says “Make that heading font size 2px bigger” to solve a problem that the heading doesn’t have the right prominence/visual hierarchy in the design.

    It cam be a little tricky, but I try to steer those suggestions back into a question of “It sounds like that heading isn’t as strong as it should be. We can working on making that more prominent.”

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  13. “The Process video”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wac3aGn5twc

    Presented without comment.

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  14. I find your article to be very helpful for a single designer shop.  The only real critiquing I get is from the client.  Your article gives me the tools to elicit valuable information for client relationships.  Thanks.

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  15. “Really great article. Even if Design as such is subjective you need criticism as you can not ignore the audience nor the client you are designing for.Thanks.”

    i’m completely agree with theo, your article open ome design idea fo me,  thank you so much…

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  16. Really great article! I agree, as web designers, we need to listen to the different criticisms to build a better website.

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  17. Criticism can contribute mostly when the designer is experienced enough to seed usable constructive points of view (if there are any) from the rest. And every self-respecting professional should treat his clients’ suggestions the same way. Of course the client is the one who makes the final decision but it should be based on the designer’s expertise why this suggestion should or shouldn’t be part of the product.

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  18. Great article. One I have read time and again. I have a question that I hope soemone can advise me on;

    I recently had an interview for a web agancy. The postion was for Trainee Web Designer (my dream job). I’ve produced a few sites to date but am no means a web master. The interview went really well. We got on well, discussed design trends and personal prefernces over a coffee and he gave me some great advice on how to advance my protfolio. It resulted in a request for me to re-design the home page of one of their current clients. I accepted and recieved the details in an email later that day.
    This was the brief;
     
      “I’m interested in your interpretation, choice of color, structure and style choice.
      Will you explain your reasons why you opted for a particular style.”

    I did my research, mocked-up a homepage and sent it on with an email expalining choice of colour, typography and layout.

    The response I got was less than favourable;
     
      “I’m sorry to say that its not quite what I expected from you. I think you have the ability to do a lot better. Would you like to have another go at the design or leave it?”

    I am not afraid of negative feedback, of course I would love if all the feedback I got was positive but I find that I often learn the most from good/helpful criticism. I found this answer to be rather vague and unhelpful, especially from someone in the industry for many years.

    I emailed again requesting more specific feedback;

      “What is it about the design in particular that does not meet your expectations? If I go ahead with another attempt I feel I would need more detail in regards to what missed the mark in your eyes and why.”

    His response to this was;

      “Here’s link to sites that we have designed recently. The standard is pretty high.”

    They were sites I had already researched before submitting my design but I studied them again and tried to take note of the noticable difference in quality. It was tricky. I showed my design to a friend along with the list of sites, they were a bit more helpful but I still felt like I was playing the guessing game in regards to the expectation of my interviewer.

    So I emailed again;

      “I have spent some time looking at your other sites but unfortunately without specific feedback relating to my design (the whats and whys) – or even specific feedback in relation to one of your own sites – I don’t feel a redesign will produce what you are looking as this results in a guessing game on my part. If you have the time to relay specific feedback to me, that would be great.”

    The response;
      “OK, Best of luck with the job hunt.”

    My reaction; I felt/(still feel) totally gutted.

    Am I worng in wanting more specific feedback? Why would he go from being so interested and helpful face-to-face to being so vague and unhelpful via email? What is it I have done wrong in this instance?

    I have been advised by friends that I may have dodged a bullet by not getting the job – working for someone unable to give helpful feedback (especially for a trainee role)is less than ideal – but I feel they are just trying to save my feelings.

    Any adice on this matter??

    Thank you in advance.

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  19. Thank you, interesting article. A small criticism though on a particular bugbear of mine: The (common) misuse of the expression “begging the question…” which is used in the introductory paragraph. What you actually mean is “raises the question(s)”.

    Begging the question has a specific meaning which (to quote Wikipedia) “is a statement that refers to its own assertion to prove the assertion”, a bit like a circular argument. (All cats are black because my cat is black, and it’s a cat, so obviously all cats are black).

    I have noticed the expression being used incorrectly frequently lately, and I can only assume that people think it sounds a bit more erudite than the simpler, correct, version. Pedants unite!

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