The Art of the Design Critique

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.

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Comments

20 comments on “The Art of the Design Critique

  1. Posts like this on design blogs are always really helpful to me. It’s that crucial part of the job that you really can’t learn about from browsing design galleries.

    Giving an receiving criticism is always a tough thing because, especially if you don’t know the people across the table as well as you’d like.

    Great read, thanks for putting this together.

  2. Excellent article. Receiving criticism can be tough. Especially when it’s from a client who is requesting changes that would hinder the effectiveness of the design. Graciously taking the critique and then responding constructively is a learned skill that takes time to master.

  3. I agree with everything you say, but often don’t know how to turn it into specific, concrete action. Would you consider recording yourself doing a critique (either screencast or standup) and posting it so we could see what these principles actually look like in action?

    • have you read Process by Unit interactive? One of the points they talk about is having a designer, one designer, ultimately responsible for the design. This responsibly includes weighing all the feedback, doing the critique and adjusting the design as needed. At the end of the day if everyone is in charge, then no one is in charge.

  4. I like that you note the difference between opinionated criticism and quality criticism focused on business and audience needs. Great read, lots of good info.

  5. Totally agree on criticism, working without a team I always send drafts to creative and non creative people that have the right attitude to my work. its a process for a better end results and cant be valued enough…

  6. Aarron This was an excellent article. I think it is important for designers to know that design in your head and the end design of a product will change. That change is a good thing. At the end of the day it’s about how best can this design serve the end user. If one wants total control, then one should paint on the weekend. :)

    In some cases I think it would be better if the designer did not speak at first and let the team or client give their critique. As designers, we won’t be there next to our designs to explain them. The design must overtly convey the desired concept without us.

    But I also think it is important that when critiquing we explain things in terms of design and not “I don’t like that color” or “that’s not what’s in right now..” Be polite, be specific, and be open.

  7. I’ll take criticism, because I am the one working for a client. I dont care if they say “I dont like XXX”, it’s them I’m working for, so I need to suck it up and do the work THEY want. Even if it’s butt ugly. I’ve had butt ugly pages convert like a dream for no other reason. Design should be easy to understand for ALL people so shouldnt need explaining. If the designer has to explain the design to the client, throw it out. That client is just like the people buying from them. Stupid. So make everything stupid and let people tell you are you too advanced, and dumb down perfect things because you don’t pay you, they pay you.

    • I don’t buy any of that nonsense. If you’re simply pushing a pixel to the left and changing a color because your client tells you they’d like it better, then you’ve become a mindless pair of hands. You’re the design expert, and you should be making well reasoned decisions that serve business goals, user needs, and create a rich user experience. That’s the point of this article. Designers are communicators, and they have to be able to do that visually *and* verbally.

      Design should be simple, but not simplistic. We strive to create usable interfaces not because the people we’re designing for are stupid, but because we want to make their experience more efficient and enjoyable. Consumers aren’t stupid, they’re smart, savvy, and they want intelligent, elegant design. They want to perform sophisticated tasks with the things we design without feeling like an idiot because the interface is too confusing to use. Our job is to make them feel good.

      The greatest skill a designer can cultivate is empathy. See from your audience’s perspective and you’ll see they’re not stupid. Empathy requires that you sometimes go to bat for them when your client directs you to do something that is not in the best interest of users.

      As your communication skills improve, you’ll feel less like your client’s pawn and more like the design expert you know you are.

    • I don’t buy any of that nonsense. If you’re simply pushing a pixel to the left and changing a color because your client tells you they’d like it better, then you’ve become a mindless pair of hands. You’re the design expert, and you should be making well reasoned decisions that serve business goals, user needs, and create a rich user experience. That’s the point of this article. Designers are communicators, and they have to be able to do that visually *and* verbally.

      Design should be simple, but not simplistic. We strive to create usable interfaces not because the people we’re designing for are stupid, but because we want to make their experience more efficient and enjoyable. Consumers aren’t stupid, they’re smart, savvy, and they want intelligent, elegant design. They want to perform sophisticated tasks with the things we design without feeling like an idiot because the interface is too confusing to use. Our job is to make them feel good.

      The greatest skill a designer can cultivate is empathy. See from your audience’s perspective and you’ll see they’re not stupid. Empathy requires that you sometimes go to bat for them when your client directs you to do something that is not in the best interest of users.

      As your communication skills improve, you’ll feel less like your client’s pawn and more like the design expert you know you are.

  8. Thanks Aarron. Great advice for those of us that don’t have formal training on it. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this as it relates to critique from the client on a design, especcially for a sole proprietor with no collegues.

    Thanks!

  9. I fully agree with taking criticism from clients, however there are occasions when you have it right – so explain yourself. You aren’t designing for yourself and you aren’t designing for them. You are designing for the end user. If you can make is relevant and engaging for them then you are on to a winner and I believe that on occasion you have to justify your decisions and fight back.

    Of course if you are in the wrong then put your hands up and say “you’ve got me there!”

  10. Before criticising a client’s website, branding or writing, I always try to find out whether the person I’m speaking to was the actual author. In which case, I know to be more tactful in my criticism. A lesson learned only after some embarrassment.

  11. First we have to criticise consumer society on itself, this dominant mass production and disposal system. Mainly promoted by the US to create a distinctive role model for the rest of the world, which helped them to creat edistribution areas fro their mostly useless products. As long as “Designers” do not stap in front of a cultural revolution, they continue to participate in a dominat and wasteful destruction of all of our life spaces.
    Market s and production determinates a lifestyle which creates a surplus ready to destroy all ressources and lwel beeing on earth, stop to look inside your business attitudes start to change thsi destructive production cycles, that would be a bette rjob, than to stay dependent from srong industrial “clients” who foist destructive consumption over people,

  12. the hunie sucks not helped me at all, it is a trash! sticks in your mother’s ass this shit! I hope they go bankrupt soon enough