Critical discussion around design is as important as the design process itself. If you work in a design team, feedback from your colleagues can keep you challenged, and can push you to improve.

Despite its value to the outcome of the design process, it’s far too often avoided like a trip to the dentist because we subconsciously feel criticism of our work is not just a reflection on our design, but is a spotlight upon our personal shortcomings. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Proper design criticism focus on goals, outcomes, and the needs of the users.

How to Give Constructive Criticism

Photo reproduced with thanks by Richard Caddick

Criticism should be honest, and constructive. Nobody wins if the discussion is simply an exchange of warm fuzzies. The goal of every critique is to discover how to make a design better, not win a gold star for perfection. If you have a lot of feedback to offer that you think might be a little tough for a colleague to take, start with the positive. As Mary Poppins once advised, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Tie your critical feedback to the business goals, and user needs. Chances are you’ve already done some preliminary user research and maybe made a few personas. Post those personas on the same wall where you are viewing design concepts so your feedback channels the needs of your audience and not your personal biases. This will also help you be more articulate with your observations and recommendations, as it will keep you from saying “I really like …” or “I don’t like the way you …”. That’s not real criticism. It’s opinion. Opinions are nice if you’re a rock critic, but not so useful if you’re designing to achieve real business goals.

If you’re speaking about design comps, you may have observations about style. Be sure to talk about style in terms of user needs and business goals as it tends to be seen as a reflection of a personal viewpoint. Consider how the style relates to the brand, to competitors, and what emotions it will invoke. Is it appropriate for your client? Does it effectively shape customer perceptions?

How to Receive Criticism

When you’re the recipient of a design critique, rule number one is listen. Your first impulse might be to defend each and every criticism, but that will kill conversation, and won’t give you the opportunity to really consider the suggestions offered. Listen, take it all in, then provide your thoughtful response after your colleagues have spoken.

Your response to criticism shouldn’t always be “no”. If you shut down every bit of feedback, either you are a one in a million super-genius or your colleagues are all blithering idiots. Odds are, neither is true, which means you are turning away useful feedback that will make your designs better. There’s a rule in improvisational acting that states, “Never say no”, as it kills the flow of ideas. The same is true in critical design discussions. Instead, you can keep the conversation going with a response like “That’s an interesting idea that I also considered, and here’s my thinking on that …” This gives your colleagues the opportunity to see your thought process, and potentially help you take your line of thinking further.

Bring a notebook to the critique, and keep detailed notes on the suggestions you receive. Not only does this help you remember the direction you should take when sit back down to work, but it also shows your colleagues that their input is valuable. When you’ve received helpful feedback, don’t be shy about offering thanks. Thanking someone for feedback rewards their contribution, and wins an ally in the cause of improving your designs.

Knowing that your designs are subject to critical feedback will change the way you design. It’s much harder to defend a design decision you made because “you liked the way it looks”, which will lead you to make smarter decisions that are driven by the project goals and user needs. When you are designing, it’s a smart idea to jot down some notes that will help you express to your colleagues how you arrived at your final design.

How to Conduct a Critique

If you are conducting the critique, you should start with some ground rules. Everyone needs to participate. When everyone’s subject to criticism, it will feel less like anyone is being singled out, and therefor is less stressful for all. If anyone lets their criticism stray into the realm of the personal, call them out on it and remind them of how best to direct their criticism in order to help each designer improve.

You’ll need to actually tell everyone how to give and receive criticism. If you have people on your team that didn’t go to design or art school they will be very nervous about this experience as they won’t know where to start nor will they understand how to take the feedback. Critical discourse is an art that requires some practice in order to feel comfortable on either side of the discussion.

Let the designer presenting their work provide a short explanation of their thought process to create some context for discussion, but don’t let it get too extensive. The more explanation is offered, the more it will shape the feedback given. It will make people more inclined to simply parrot back the designer’s intention rather than offering a gut reaction to what the critic sees. You may want to experiment with saving the designer’s explanation until after everyone has commented to see if the discussion is more productive when untainted by the designer’s perspective.

You will inevitably encounter points at which some feedback stings a bit, but that is okay. Fostering open communication in your team even when the feedback is hard to hear is, in the long term, a healthy thing. Though you want to steer clear of personal attacks, you have to facilitate honest communication and create an environment where people truly know when they are heading down the right path, or are way off base. If everyone gets a pat on the back, you encourage mediocrity, and let people know that okay is good enough.

Critique is a Must

You really can’t call yourself a designer if you can’t give and take criticism. Even the greatest designers of all time are subject to some criticism. When we stop evaluating our work, we stop growing. The sting you might feel from criticism of your work is just a growing pain as your mind expands. Embrace it, because it’s going to lead you to new heights in your career.