Four methods for good critique

Markers and a whiteboard as a symbol of design critique.

Mitch Goldstein at RIT has put together a lovely little site called How to Crit, that reviews the value of design critique and how to give and receive criticism. I love this kind of knowledge sharing — good critique is invaluable in improving one’s work and process. However, it’s a hard skill and many people give feedback in ways that are unconstructive, vague, or unkind.

So, Mitch inspired me to share what I’ve learned over the years about giving good feedback.

Start by acknowledging the intent

It’s easy to dive right into criticism, but doing so can lead to the creator feeling deflated or defensive, and therefore less receptive. I always try to reflect what the person’s intent was with the work, and to acknowledge what is positive about that intent. This has the benefit of making them feel understood and appreciated, and frames the conversation as a supportive one.

Frame constructive critique in terms of goals

Especially when it comes to design, it’s easy to have reactions that are based on personal aesthetic taste. To avoid this pitfall, I try to identify goals that we all agree on and give my analysis of where the design does or doesn’t achieve those goals. So for example, “The muted color scheme doesn’t convey the sense of youth and liveliness that we want to associate with the brand” is far more useful than “I don’t like the pastels”.

Present problems, not solutions

One of the most common pitfalls in critique is giving prescriptive feedback. Again, this is an easy trap — you see a design and you think, “Aha! If it were only like this, it would work better!” It feels faster and easier to just share your idea because you think it will work better.

However, this approach has two problems. The first is that by being prescriptive, you don’t leave space for someone to explore or to come up with an idea you haven’t considered. Design is a process of problem solving, so by jumping ahead to a solution, you are depriving the designer of the opportunity to work through it. Furthermore, if you present a problem rather than a solution, you ensure that everyone is aligned on those problems, and agrees that they are the right ones to solve. “Make the headers bigger” is less useful than “Help the user understand what’s most important on the page”.

Take your time

This one is always hard for me, as it’s easy to feel pressure to respond immediately, especially when work is presented in person for the first time. It often takes me time to process my response and give the most useful feedback. Some strategies I’ve developed for this:

  • Hang back. If you’re in a crit with multiple people, let others talk first and take time to collect your thoughts. Other people’s feedback can also spur your own ideas.
  • Make space for follow up. Take the pressure off of one meeting and make sure there are spaces for conversations to continue more fluidly after a crit or presentation session.
  • Get a sneak peek. If possible, have folks send you visuals before you review in person. You’ll get less context until you have a conversation or presentation, but you can start to develop some initial reactions. (Note: this is really only feasible with teammates you have a lot of trust in. I would not advise sharing in advance with a client or partner who isn’t close to the process. Thanks to Stewart Bailey for the prompt on this!)
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