Design Criticism and the Creative Process
Issue № 321

Design Criticism and the Creative Process

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?

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The critique as a collaborative tool#section2

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#section3

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?#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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#section11

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#section12

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#section13

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.

About the Author

Cassie McDaniel

Cassie McDaniel is a designer, artist, illustrator, and writer. She’s done interactive work in London, Florida, and Toronto designing for big brands as well as artsy, cultural, and non-profit organizations. Say hi on Twitter: @cassiemc.

19 Reader Comments

  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.

  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?

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  8. @kanzlei:

    bq. 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.”

  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.”

  13. 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.

  14. “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…

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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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