In-House Issues: Critique Critical

Whether you’re a manager whose job it is to mentor your reports, a designer trying to help out a peer and friend or especially a client offering input on a design you’ve been presented with, the way you critique a design will not only determine the quality of your relationship with the critiquee, it will also impact the quality of the design itself. Poor critiquing etiquette results in less than stellar design. Conversely if you offer up your feedback in a way that the designer can embrace, you’ll empower the designer to improve the design in ways she would never have been able to do on her own.

The mindset to adopt is that of either a partner or a coach, depending on your relationship with the designer. Never assume the role of a lecturer or of the fixer.  That attitude almost always turns the critique into a one-way conversation and turns the designer into a “pair of hands”. The designer will become resentful and defensive but, more importantly, an opportunity will be lost to coach said designer and get their perspective and valuable input on the design being discussed.

Framing the context of the critique as one of meeting the objectives of the project should always be the starting point of the conversation. Once there’s an understanding of, and an agreement on, the goals of the design (hopefully there’s a creative brief but, if not, then an informal one should be established) you have a foundation on which to base your feedback.

This may seem counterintuitive but, while your comments should primarily be objective, it helps to throw in personal preferences, not as comments to be followed but rather to establish a more personal bond with the designer. They have personal likes and dislikes too and it’ll free you both up to acknowledge that fact and even let it color the design when appropriate. This will keep the exchange from becoming a robotic exercise and hopefully allow for a bit of passion to energize the process.

Below is a list of guidelines that may help in establishing your critiques as a collaborative process not a dictation of orders to be obeyed. One special note: if you happen to be the designer in the critique and you have a less than enlightened partner, don’t cop out and shut down. Take responsibility for, and control of, the exchange by being assertive but most importantly honest in your side of the exchange. If you feel as if your being bullied or steamrollered, say it – not in an overly aggressive or angry way that would make the other defensive, but in a way that is open, earnest and sincere.

  • Start the conversation with a positive comment before approaching a more sensitive issue.
  • Couch comments as suggestions not dictates.
  • Ask the designer for their opinion on your feedback.
  • CRITICAL: Address the problem first – then suggest a possible solution. Too often those being asked for input immediately start suggesting something they want to change on a design without first discussing the problem they’re trying to address which would encourage a more productive exchange, and possibly, a better solution.
  • Acknowledge that there are multiple ways to address a problem and be open to discussing the options.
  • Agree to disagree and make sure the individual with the final say is recognized and brought into the process when necessary.

Any additional critiques or comments on this post would be greatly appreciated.

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