No critique can be critical

Jun 22nd, 2016

Two of my colleagues are currently working on a project which I’m very excited about. I’m excited because it’s a project that’s extremely personal to me and the two designers are both people I believe can do the job far better than I ever could myself. More than this, it’s my goal to give them as much creative freedom as possible with the hope that in the end they are both proud of the final product and don’t feel their vision was compromised in any way (a rare thing for a lot of designers).

However, I’m beginning to remember that this isn’t necessarily how the design process operates. That being distant and giving complete free-reign to creative people is perhaps more damaging than helpful. Why? Because designers need feedback and with no critique a project becomes far more difficult.

That’s not to say the project is suffering, just that I’m being unreasonably cruel to them. Feedback is the lifeblood of a project. It informs, excites and challenges the designer. It steers and shapes. Without it, a designer can either get lost in their journey or have to force themselves to critique on their own (which is incredibly difficult).

This realisation has made me think more about the importance of critiquing work, what it all means, when it works and how I should be approaching the role going forward.

Keep things on track
A critique – or regular critiquing – can prevent a project from veering away from the set timeline, budget, scope, and a multitude of other constraints. Collaboratively looking at how the design is shaping up will reduce its meandering and help bring the focus back, steering it towards a suitable solution. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end only to be told something that would’ve changed the entire approach had the designer known earlier.

Let people in
Allowing others to help in your own design process not only encourages you to grow as a designer but enhances those assisting in a similar way. Everyone becomes a better teacher, and together learn to spot weaknesses or confusion, and guide a project through. Every time you work with people you develop your communication skills. You get better at listening, witness the benefits of collaboration and become more willing to admit your own weakness when they are identified.

Be vulnerable
Perhaps the most difficult for a lot of designers is the thought of showing unfinished designs; but the earlier you can show concepts – no matter how shoddy or laughable – the earlier you can start the collaborative process. Showing early work also forces you to talk about your ideas. To convey a strategy or “the big picture” is more difficult with unfinished work, but is invaluable for gaining feedback. And it will save you a ton of time that might have otherwise been wasted on developing concepts.

Get actual feedback
Feedback is essential, but it shouldn’t be confused with vague opinions. Too often feedback comes in the form of “I don’t like it” or “I don’t like blue” or “I don’t like circles”; these are not useful to you or anyone else. This can be avoided by focussing on particular elements to identify specifically what isn’t working, but also by asking what the target audience would think (what they’d prefer; how they’d respond), you eliminate personal bias and invite rationale and logic into the session.

Demand feedback
This is perhaps not as common an issue, but is the sole reason for writing this article, and that’s when someone – in this case, me – isn’t giving feedback when specifically asked to. This can be due to design apathy, lack of understanding, resistance, intimidation, indecisiveness, or in this case, a misplaced gift of autonomy to the designers. By leaving every decision up to them I am giving them more work than they need. They’re already running their brains to the max coming up with multiple options and directions for the project to go in. Not to mention working up each one and exploring the different routes they can all go in too. But on top of all that I’m making them assess each one and decide which to go with.

Critiques help us navigate through complex processes and effectively inform and guide projects through to their intended purpose. One of the drawbacks of immersing yourself in a project is it can become difficult – sometimes near impossible – to disconnect again; to look at your work with fresh eyes and objectively judge its strengths and weaknesses in relation to the end goal. This is precisely why external analysis, discussion and suggestion is an absolute necessity in working through to an effective solution.

The better we are at giving, seeking and using feedback – and the more willing we are to collaborate and absorb outside influences – the more we will improve our creative output. In short, the only way to truly create original and engaging work is to include and value critique as an essential component in our creative process.

Now excuse me while I go tear this project to shreds!

Good at creative solutions, collaborating and thinking of a third thing he's good at.