(Photo from Flickr user JD Hancock)

I attended a high school that has an amazing visual arts program. We would regularly produce artwork, put it on the wall, and then gather around to say what we liked and didn’t like. More importantly, we would explain why we felt that way. This structured feedback is called critique. The younger students would often take it personally and sometimes cry hysterically, but it was for the best, because after a few years they would start to produce stellar work and provide excellent feedback. At the time, I didn’t really think about the broader applications of critique beyond traditional art, but it’s incredibly valuable for building durable careers and companies.

Critique is a method for analyzing subjective ideas with the intention of discovering good qualities and areas that can be improved. In other words, critique is a synonym for “constructive criticism” or “giving feedback.” In a professional creative setting, such as a web design agency, it’s an essential skill to master. Creatives and non-creatives have to give feedback to one another regularly, and if that feedback is blended with too much ambiguity or tense emotions, the work environment can become a toxic cocktail of contempt.

Just like there’s good and bad science, there’s good and bad critique. It’s difficult to perfectly define “good” critique, because that only comes with practice, but here are some basic guidelines that can help.

Ask questions and listen. Really listen.

Whether you’re critiquing someone else’s work or if you’re the one receiving critique, it’s important to listen. Do more than just understand the words they’re saying; make an extra effort to understand their motivations. Ask questions to help them articulate their ideas, especially if those ideas aren’t yet well considered.

If a client, a boss, or a coworker makes an illogical request or doesn’t like a design, give them ample opportunity to express their point of view before rushing to guess a solution they might like instead. In addition, it’s important to maintain an accommodating tone. Don’t be dismissive.

Let’s say the client asks the classic question, “Can you make the logo bigger?” You might probe with a response like, “Sure, we can make the logo bigger. How large do you think you might want it? I’m just asking so that I can understand the look you’re going for.” Most designers in this scenario wouldn’t actually want to make the logo bigger. Rather, the hope is that the conversation moves towards a meaningful discourse, potentially uncovering project goals or considerations that the client initially omitted. It might also show that the client doesn’t have any sound reasoning for the request, which could be an opportunity to interject your own design expertise (i.e. explaining why the logo is the size that it is).

These types of delicate client conversations are sort of like driving a car. You can’t just floor it and blast through every traffic law because you want to get somewhere. You have to take the time to accelerate and decelerate, gently steering your way towards the destination with mutual respect for others.

Allowing both parties to contribute will help everyone become part of the solution, rather than perpetuating a notion of winners and losers. Critique is not a competition; it’s a collaboration.

Be specific.

If you don’t like something, it’s OK to say, “I don’t like this.” What’s not OK is leaving it there. In my opinion, the most important part of critique is specificity. Good critique is clear, concise, and concrete, leaving little to no ambiguity about the problem areas. It’s equally important to be specific about what’s good, so that positive trends continue.

If you’re on the receiving end of a critique and someone starts off with rude commentary like, “that sucks,” you still should do your best to respect their opinion. Asking follow up questions might disarm them and lead towards more thoughtful discussion. If they give a vague answer, such as, “I just don’t like it.” try suggesting areas that might be off-putting. If it’s a website, ask about the colors, the layout, and so on, then suggest alternatives. Keep in mind that not everyone has the design vocabulary necessary to fully express a coherent opinion, so in the cases of a client relationship, the designer is often obligated to help the client articulate ideas.

Avoid overly emotional critique.

Emotional state has a big impact on decision making. Sometimes good feelings can lead to positive outcomes, like making the extra effort on a key project or pushing a little harder at the gym. However, in my own experience, emotions (good and bad) tend to get in the way of sound reasoning. Flying high on positive feelings can make you overlook serious pitfalls that hurt later. Conversely, negative feelings can lead to useless bickering.

I believe it’s important to critique with a level head. If emotions are tense, don’t barrel straight into an argument with the person that’s annoying you. Instead, try taking a 10 minute walk, or listen to some music, or accomplish a quick to-do item. It’s amazing how redirecting your brain for a moment can completely rationalize the tone of discussion. You might even want to ask the person to go on a walk with you, to help them relax, too.

Don’t hide behind fallacies like, “I’m just being honest” because it’s still no excuse for stepping on people’s feelings or being rude. They create a divisive atmosphere of right versus wrong, which doesn’t advance a common understanding. Instead of saying something like that, look inward and try to identify why, in very specific terms, you feel the need to be defensive or offensive.

Share your critique tips.

There’s a lot more I could say about critique, but those are some of the best tips I have to offer. If you have any stories, questions, or bits of advice that you’d like to share, let us know in the comments!

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