Want to create better designs? Interested in becoming a better designer? There are few shortcuts to better design but introducing regular structured critique to your design process is one of them.
Does the word critique make you cringe?
When I ask design teams who don’t do critiques why it’s not a fixture in their working work they tend to pull pained expressions. Digging deeper and asking what comes to mind with the word critique and the associations are exclusively negative.
I commonly hear mentions of Statler and Waldorf the old cranky upper balcony hecklers extraordinaire in the muppets, or Dorothy Parker and her acerbic poison pen, Simon Cowell and his judging panel of cronies and Anton Ego voiced so sardonically by Peter O’Toole in ratatouille Pixar’s Ratatouille.
Critique, when done properly, provides a safe space to get feedback from peers. If it doesn’t improve the designs or help you grow as a designer then you are doing it wrong.
If you remember one thing: Critique ≠ Criticism.
Why make design crits part of your practice?
A good peer-review process acts as essential quality control. Getting feedback early and often enables you as a designer to benefit from the wisdom of your colleagues.
It’s a tried and tested practice used in varying forms in other creative endeavours to help challenge, shape, and enhance work. When making movies, dailies (the previous day’s outputs) are watched by the cast and crew to improve their performances, actors receive notes from directors and producers in rehearsals and during the run of a performance, novelists receive comments on manuscripts as they move from draft to draft.
In all these cases feedback is a baked-in part of the creative process. It starts early and continues through iterations from lo-fidelity to polished product.
A design critique should be time spent well for both the person seeking feedback and those giving it.
As a designer, the activity gives an opportunity to stress-test design ideas by seeing what questions it raises. It also improves design quality by gathering suggestions for enhancements and reduces risks by getting a sense check of the work with time to make any adjustments.
Equally, for participants, giving feedback should be rewarding – as you get to see how your colleagues approach design problems and get to sharpen your critical thinking skills.
At Clearleft, we’ll use the expertise of our colleagues when we are looking to get input on project work, devise new workshop activities and prepare conference talks etc. Anything you are creating will benefit from you having to explain your design decisions and from the feedback from a fresh pair of eyes with a new perspective.
Critiques of work are better when done more often and earlier rather than less and later.
How do you run a productive design critique?
It feels embarrassingly simple when written down. But that’s the point. Critique is simple to do if you bear in mind a couple of essential things:
1 Set a time and place
Invite the colleagues you feel can give you some considered feedback. A mix of designers, subject matter experts and insightful others. Aim for 3 to 5 people to provide a range of views while having enough time for everyone to be heard. Set aside 30 to 45 minutes as people will appreciate a calendar meeting that isn’t an hour long.
Of course, this step is easier if you have critiques booked in as a regular ongoing ceremony.
2 Facilitate the session
Help the people you’ve invited to give you better feedback. Start by briefly giving some context on the problem you are trying to solve and any key insights or constraints that are useful for them to know. Then tell them what you are looking for feedback on. Keeping it targetted will help them focus and give you more actionable suggestions.
Then show your designs. Sometimes it helps to do this with a commentary walking people through the designs. Other times a timed silent gallery allows people to view the work and consider their responses. You want to foster an atmosphere that encourages considered advice rather than knee jerk reactions.
3 Get some feedback from your peers
This is the point at which the tension seems to rise the first few times you do a critique. It’s helpful to set a few ground rules to make everyone feel more comfortable and make the session more productive. You want to create a space that allows people to be constructive rather than combative.
Remind people why they are there: to use their expertise to help improve the design.
Remind people to use language that questions or offers advice rather than dictates. Move from ‘you should …’ to ‘you might want to consider . . .’.
Remind people to separate critique of the person from the product. My go-to phrase is ‘Be hard on ideas. Be kind on people’.
To balance feedback I like to get everyone, in turn, to contribute one thing they like in the design that they feel meets the brief and then one thing they would suggest changing.
I’m a fan of helping the attendees frame their feedback by starting their replies with:
I like how … (to pull out a positive thing to keep), and Even better if … (to suggest something to reconsider or change).
Once you’ve captured the feedback and if time allows dive into a discussion on the areas you want to explore in more detail. However, be careful not to dive into creating solutions on the spot. This is not the purpose of the session and is unfair on the person giving you the feedback and you as a designer to have an immediate fix. Questions in the session and solutions later.
What are you waiting for?
One of the key activities that lead to better quality designed products and services is to do regular critiques. When run well they help designers to articulate their work and to canvas valuable insight and input from colleagues.
For teams who don’t yet do critiques, what’s stopping you from putting one in the calendar to improve whatever you are working on now? After all, any habit needs to start with the first time.