Adam Connor: A Better Way to Critique Design

“I hate purple.”

“Have you tried making the logo bigger?”

Every creative professional who’s ever picked up an X-acto knife or wielded a mouse has dealt with non-helpful commentary from clients or colleagues.

Which (along with nightmare flashbacks to design-school crit sessions) is why critique has earned a bad rap. But Adam Connor suggests that critique can be a beneficial, even enjoyable, part of the design process. Essential, even.

HDL_Discussing Design CoverConnor is a designer, author and illustrator based in Western Massachusetts. As VP of Organizational Design at Mad*Pow, he helps create positive change by addressing the relationships that people have with one another to foster more collaborative, creative and customer-centric organizations. He has coached and trained teams across the world and from industry leading organizations such as Google, Disney, Fidelity and Aetna.

Connor takes the stage at HOW Design Live to present a session based on a book he co-authored (and illustrated in his crazy monster style) with Aaron Irizarry: Discussing Design: Improving Team Communication and Collaboration Through Critique.

Recently, when Adam was working from home during a massive March snowstorm, we asked him about how critique can be a powerful force for good in design.

In the real world, what’s the purpose of discussing design?
At its core, design is not a process that has an end — there’s always the potential to put it out into the world and see what kinds of impact it has, and learn from that, learn about the problem you’re trying to solve and the people you’re trying to solve it for.  It’s really about iteration — analyzing and evolving a design — and critique is just one tool in the arsenal that we have

So this is more than a one-off conversation in the early stages of a project …
Right: It’s something you’d do regularly and repeatedly over the course of designing a project or a product. And it doesn’t have to be a formal conversation — you don’t have to say, “We’re going to have a critique on Tuesday from 3 to 4 p.m.” You could be working on something at your desk and need to step back and grab a colleague to see if he has 10 minutes to help you think through it. Or the conversation could come up in a status meeting about the project, and you can steer that toward a critique.

I would imagine that many critique sessions tend toward one of two extremes: self-congratulatory navel-gazing that doesn’t really refine the work, or harsh nit-pickery that creates bad feelings among team members. How can we make these conversations actually productive?
All of that really boils down to facilitation, and that’s the key to these conversations almost entirely. We have a tendency to focus on the negative, for lots of evolutionary reasons, and we also have a tendency to not want to upset people. So we wither get really nitpicky or we avoid saying anything negative.

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In order to make these productive, what the designer/facilitator needs to do is set solid context.

Aaron and I were shocked when were working on the book and we would ask people who were going into  meetings to show their work for reviews what they started with, what goals they gave the other people in the conversation. It was all over the place: People didn’t know what the goals were for the project, or didn’t know who they were designing for.

That’s the keystone: You have to have a shared understanding of what you’re setting up with the design — who you’re designing for, business goals you’re trying to achieve, what you hope to get out of creating the solution, what the guiding principals are for the solution you’re trying to create.

Putting those pieces together is important — then when you start to have a conversation, you can focus the conversation on a particular aspect of the project and a specific business goal, and you can address whether that part of the work is addressing that goal.

What prompted you and Aaron to write the book?
We were both frustrated with the quality of exchanges about design that we were seeing, mostly in social media. Like, Apple would put something out and all of a sudden every designer and nondesigner would start destroying it. We thought, “How do you know what their objectives were? What information do you have that the rest of us don’t that allows you to offer this kind of commentary?” We were both complaining about it to a mutual friend and she introduced us.

What did you learn during the research process that has changed the way you engage in critique in your day-to-day work?
One of the biggest things for both of us was that any time we’d talk to people about how they were getting input on their work, the word ‘feedback’ came up constantly. And people used it interchangeably with the word ‘critique’.

We started digging into what the word means, and we discovered that there are three forms of feedback:

  • Reaction — this is from the gut, a visceral reaction, either positive or negative, that you verbalize.
  • Direction — this was interesting to dig into, because that was where people thought they were getting helpful feedback. Direction is more along the lines of, “Did you think about ordering the steps this way?” or “Did you think about radio buttons?” It’s telling people to do something other than what they’ve done.

    Both reaction and direction are challenging — they don’t tell you much about what’s strong or not strong about the work. Reaction doesn’t tell you anything at all, and direction only tells you the other person’s vision of the solution. Neither analyze the design — they’re just, “Here’s what I think.”

  • Then there’s critique — which is a form of analysis. And this is what you’re really after. “If your objective is this, then this aspect of the work will help achieve that, and here’s why.”

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If someone gives you a reaction or direction, and you understand that it’s coming from a real place, you can ask them why, and then the conversation can be really effective.

So if someone gives you direction, you can ask, “What challenge would the idea that you’re proposing address?” And if someone gives you a reaction, you can ask, “Can you tell me what about the design makes you want to throw up?”

The trick to doing it well is to bring humility and understanding to the conversation.

If your team struggles with sharing feedback about your work, or if you want to implement a critique process with your colleagues, don’t miss Connor’s session at HOW Design Live. Review the full HOW Design Live program and choose your ideal mix of inspiration and information.

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