Help, don´t hurt
Good critique should help not hurt. Design processes involve iterations and in between iterations there often comes critique and feedback. For students, critique is part of their education. It helps them navigate through the labyrinth of possibilities. It also offers pedagogic opportunities. Connor & Irizzary´s book “Discussing Design” (2015, O´Reilly) deals with how to go about constructive critique.
I´ve been giving critique and feedback to students for years and I learned a few things from this book. Among the things I do with critique is always, always offer thanks for the presentation before you say anything else. This is to ensure a smooth bridge from the person presenting to the person critiquing. It may very well be that the design is basically fine but if it´s a burning rubbish bin or at least very problematic but that´s no reason to jump in and begin with emotional responses.
Connor and Irizzary describe three types of feedback before moving on to critique – not the same thing. Directive feedback is the kind offered by dimwitted senior managers: “That ought to have been orange and not green because…” Reactive feedback is the kind that scarred me during my MA: “That looks like rotten plastic,” declared the tutor who didn´t even show up for most of the course because he was allegedly off sick. I won´t forget that one. “When instructors critique, they are giving form to complex and dynamic forces, situated in a duality of potential help and potential harm,” write McDonald and Michela (2019). More desirable is objective feedback, ideally posed as a question. “If you want users to notice this feature, how else could you have designed it?” This respects the aim of the design and also allows the student to think harder and to own the answer.
Let´s look at what they say about bad critique because this is likely to be the kind of critique we´ve the strongest experience of (I tend to recall the really bad, the really good and forget the stuff in the middle). Selfishness ruins critique – it´s not seen so much in teaching situations because the tutor has no direct interest in the design but may be seen in commercial settings. The critic´s personal goals get in the way of objectivity. In this way a thousand lousy designs have been foisted on the world. This is also ultimately bad for the corporation and bad for the critic, that is if they hang around long enough for the blowback. Untimeliness can be a problem – is the critique focused on the right stage of the design process? If the process is at the ideation stage then it´s might be less relevant to talk about the nitty-grainy details of styling. I´d add to this list the problem of a lack of sympathy.
Meaningful analysis can be obscured by harsh delivery. It really isn´t a good idea to use rich language. While working at a client I remember one pushy executive declare in a voice loud enough to be heard across the office space that someoone’s work was “sh**”. There´s no excuse for this kind of language even if the work was indeed less than satisfactory.
I strongly suggest that when listening to a presentation make notes of the main points and mark them with a plus, a minus and a neutral sign e.g. an arrow for points of interest. Don´t take good elements for granted. A list of notes might look like this:
+ good use of colour (explain)
+ thorough design process
+ involved users at right points
> wicked problems versus tame problems?
- ergonomics need revision
- visuals have problem with contrasts (hard to see object in renderings).
That way the whole project is accounted for and you better keep an eye on the balance of satisfactory and problematic elements.
At the end, the receiver of the critique ought to feel like they can do things better but also know what worked and was successful. Ideally, they feel supported rather than beaten to a pulp.
Connor, A., & Irizarry, A. (2015). Discussing design: improving communication and collaboration through critique. " O'Reilly Media, Inc.".
McDonald, J. K., & Michela, E. (2019). The design critique and the moral goods of studio pedagogy. Design Studies, 62, 1-35.
Dannels, D., Gaffney, A. H., & Martin, K. N. (2008). Beyond Content, Deeper than Delivery: What Critique Feedback Reveals about Communication Expectations in Design Education. International Journal for the Scholarship of teaching and Learning, 2(2), n2.
Graham, E. M. (2003). Studio design critique: student and faculty expectations and reality.