This is one of the hardest skills for any designer to attain. It is a lifelong practice. And you will discover, as you move from agency to agency, that there are varied points of view to how to approach a critique. I am going to share with you some guidelines that we can use for the rest of our class. This is what I'd like to call a positive method for discussing design concepts, as opposed to the "shooting gallery" approach I've seen at other shops.
I started as an editor for writers. Those who ply their trade with words, just like designers, can get very attached to their thematic ideas -- the big thinking behind their work -- and the stylistic choices that make the line-by-line writing unique. When couching feedback, making tweaks or changes in the name of improvement can't just happen without context. Otherwise, you aren't honoring their intent.
With this in mind, when I critique work, I like to start at the top and work my way down. I like to discover what the designer had in mind with the work, and based on that rationale, help them to either re-orient how they think about the business problem or to consider alternative points of view for their design execution.
1. Consider the context of the critique. Are you talking about concepts? Final executions? Depending on where you are in the process, adjust what level of feedback you need to provide. Don't heavily critique sketches or screen comps if you aren't very far into the design process. Being mindful of context is more than half of being constructive.
2. Solicit a statement of intent from the designer. Let them talk about what they wanted to accomplish with the work, and how it fulfills the business goal. Most feedback in a critique comes from the friction that occurs between the description of the designer's intent and what qualities the work exhibits that the designer may not have intended.
3. At the start of a critique, always point out what you like. Begin by describing in the work the elements that you really like. Be positive, affirming, and always save one detail for after you've given constructive feedback.
4. Talk about elements that can be judged against the brief first. Based on your understanding of the business problem, address any concerns that you might have about specific elements of the concept or design from a strategic point of view. Make sure that when you note problem areas, you also include a possible direction or two that could help to address that problem. If you don't help with at least half a solution, you're just passing the buck. This also will help the recipient of the feedback to better understand your point of view.
5. Leave your aesthetic judgment as next to last. If you want to critique color, type, photo direction, or other surface attributes that could be considered outside the realm of the brief's scope, then be sure to point out that you're talking about art now, not strategy. Invite a dialogue: "There's something about the type use here that I'm struggling with... let's talk it through..." Be sure to note that you're sharing your artistic point of view, not passing judgment.
6. Bring up one last great detail you love. Reassert the qualities of the design that are really strong. Leave things on a positive note, and the feedback will always go down smoother.
Of course, this sort of process is easier if you're delivering feedback to a single person, one on one. It gets a little more challenging when you are collaborating as a group and you are all responsible for the quality of the end product.
In the case of group critique, you need to assign one person who will "own" the final result. That person should strive to solicit everyone's point of view and consider those various angles on the final result. However, in the end, the work needs to have a cohesive vision or "art direction." It isn't about what any specific member of the team wants the work to look like if you're working as peers. It's about what the work wants to look like, based on how your team has agreed to rally around a desired result. This result needs to be described at the start of the project, or at least partway through, in order to confirm the result.
You'll know that the work is past critique when you're just making fine-grained details over and over again instead of giving big thoughts about how the work could better align with the business strategy or the client's overall needs.
Let's try this out in our next class and get some practice on giving positive, supportive critique!