Catherine's Learning Journal

Dare to invite critique

peacock showing feathers

I wonder if you can relate to any of these scenarios:

The final review. You’ve worked for quite some time on an important project, and finally, it’s done! You proudly show your finished product to your client and get a disappointing response. She lists a half dozen tweaks she wants made that will take more time than she knows, and she points out a concern that will generate a lot of rework to correct.

I love it, but. You show your creative work to a colleague hoping he will applaud its genius. Instead, you get a litany of likes and dislikes – he says he loves it, but still manages to niggle at more than a few finer points.

It’s great! You’ve outlined a rather ambitious approach for your project and send it out to a few colleagues for feedback before presenting it to your client. The reviews come in with superlatives – “It’s great!” “Wow – nice job!” “Woot!” So why do you feel less confident instead of more confident?

That’s the funny (or not-so-funny) thing about feedback – it is seldom just what you need: it’s often too much, too little, too soon, too late, too specific, too vague, or too off topic. In our field, we seem to have trouble getting actionable feedback in a timely way from the right people.

A possible solution is well-planned and executed design critique – helpfully described by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry in their compact book, Discussing Design: Improving communication and collaboration through critique. It’s a terrific read, filled with useful advice from people who clearly have experience from which to draw.

Why engage in critique

I imagine many designers in our field would be less than enthusiastic about inviting a critique; they feel ownership and pride in their design work, and they hesitate to have other people second guess that work – especially people who don’t have the professional background to understand design decisions or deep knowledge of the project and its parameters. (I’ll admit it if you will!) It’s easy to feel defensive, and it’s understandable to want to avoid reworking something.

And yet a well-executed design critique is a powerful tool for upping our game. Craft fields routinely rely on regularly subjecting designs-in-progress to reviews – the purpose of which is to amplify the effective aspects of design and to point out the flaws so that they can be addressed before the product is complete.

Renowned professionals in the performing arts are well-known for having established “brain trusts” of talented collaborators and reviewers to critique the work as it evolves. (For more on that subject, see my post on Frank talk, sprited debate, laughter, and love.) We could benefit from more of that kind of “studio” review of our own work. It would benefit our outcomes, to be sure, but just as importantly, it would be the best kind of professional development, helping designers to accelerate their skill development.

“Critique is one of the pillars of a successful design team. It walks hand in hand with execution and craft.”  ~ Jon Kolko

How a design critique works

A design critique isn’t a forum for capturing likes and dislikes; it’s an opportunity for people to “analyze design choices against a product’s objectives.” According to Connor and Irizarry, a good critique focuses on specific elements, and makes comments on the degree to which the elements work or don’t work given the project’s objectives or quality principles for those types of elements. (A critique is very different from a review meeting, which is generally called to gain approvals from stakeholders. Hopefully, good critiques along the way – some of which may include stakeholders – will make review meetings much less stressful.)

In giving feedback, many people rely on their gut instincts, personal preferences, and biases. If instead, they can focus on whether the design works for its purpose, the feedback is more likely to be useful. In order to garner effective feedback, then, we need to set up our critics with important information, and then ask very specific questions rather simply chart pluses, minuses, and deltas (suggested changes).

Try these steps the next time you want to get useful critique from colleagues and stakeholders:

  • Share pictures that illustrate your design (storyboard frames, screen shots, or other physical representation) and allow critics to review these for themselves before beginning. Often, this means posting artifacts on a wall.
  • Provide a brief overview of the project’s objectives – what you are trying to achieve. This will ground the critique.
  • Call attention to specific aspects of the design for which you want feedback. Also point out areas for which you don’t need feedback just yet to forestall commentary on work that you feel isn’t ready for critique.
  • Ask participants to point out what works and what doesn’t given the objectives; they don’t have to have specific suggestions (in fact, it’s often better if they don’t).
  • As you talk, ask people to explain their comments by referring to the objectives, quality principles, or underlying beliefs so you can fully understand the nature of the issue they are discussing.
  • While people may offer suggestions, stop short of making final decisions during the critique. It is more important that you understand what needs to be addressed than that you have an agreed plan to fix it. (You may get additional ideas as you mull things over afterwards.)
  • Take notes – or have someone else take notes – so that you can take all the feedback in for consideration.
  • Actively facilitate the conversation. Have someone who is a skilled facilitator assist in keeping the conversation on track and asking clarifying questions to ensure productive critique.
  • Plan for regular critiques throughout the process of design and development.

“Proper preparation for a critique session can make a world of difference when it comes to getting the insights that will help improve what you are working on. Ensure that participants know what is being critiqued, how the sessions will be run, and what the goals of the session are.” ~ Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry

Jon Kolko points out that the foundation for an effective and impactful design critique is trust. People who are in competition with one another may not have the right mindset to engage in critique with peers. Consider carefully who to invite to these meetings, and take care to lay the groundwork to make them productive. If you are a design leader, work consistently with your team over time to establish the kind of trust and camaraderie that makes design critiques energizing and productive.

Honing our craft

We can rightfully call design a craft, and as such it flourishes in an environment in which people constantly impel one another to greater levels of performance. Craftspeople appreciate when peers break boundaries, but they are also quick to point out when the work violates core principles for good quality. The design critique is an important practice for honing our craft, individually and collectively. It’s also a foundational element of design thinking; effective critique is the engine of the prototyping and iterating cycle. So go ahead and show your stuff – invite critique so that you can constantly improve.

Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry give a terrific blueprint for the design critique in their book, Discussing Design, and I highly recommend it.

Resources

For more on design critique, see these resources:

Discussing Design: Improving communication and collaboration through critique (2015) book by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry (O’Reilly)

How To Improve Your Skills And Products With Design Critiques: A Conversation with Adam Connor, Co-author of Discussing Design (2017) podcast with Connie Malamed, eLearning Coach

3 Kinds of Critique (2014) by Adam Connor, Discussing Design blog

Tips For Facilitating Productive Critiques (2012) by Aaron Irizarry, Discussing Design – Useful advice for holding design critique sessions.

Endless Nights – Learning from Design Studio Critique (2011) by Jon Kolko in Interactions Magazine – Advice on how to be on the receiving end of a critique.

Want To Build A Culture Of Innovation? Master The Design Critique (2018) by Jon Kolko in Fast Company | Co.Design

Using Critiques To Improve Learning Experience Design: Lessons and Resources to Get You Started (2016) by Connie Malamed, eLearning Coach – links to multiple resources with commentary

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