Ideas Transcend Napkins
On Saying No

Mastering the Art of Self-Critique

Self Critique Checklist

I've hit the wall. Again. Time for a walk around the block... or maybe a brief chat with my co-workers about the new Radiohead album. Or maybe working on another client project would clear my brain enough give me at least a little perspective...

When I first started out as a designer, the most vexing part of the creative process was knowing when a design was finished. Since I'd migrated to graphic design from many years of working at a magazine, I thought that tight time constraints usually dictated what made a design complete. Since I was always doing page layout to a fast deadline, I would come up with the best cover and spread ideas that I could muster in the time allowed, bounce it off the other editors, make some tweaks, and fire it off to the printer. Every issue had a few strong layouts, some weaker ones, and one or two dogs that I'd try to excise from my mental archive forever.

Fast-forward to working as a designer in a boutique design firm. Now the tables had turned. While creating variations on logo designs, days would pass. We'd spend hours concepting on projects without creative briefs, tasked by clients to brainstorm freely without any real boundaries or methodology.

I began to lose sight of my magazine training and meander through thorny ad problems without a clear path or process to point at a brochure cover and say, "This is done. It's right." It was incredibly liberating, frightening, and beautiful. It also didn't last very long, as I moved across the country and could never find an agency like it again.

After that delicious design experience, it all becomes a blur. At larger agencies, I would enter into a room filled with account people, project managers, creative directors, art directors, copywriters, the agency CEO even. Standing at the front of the room with my lowly design work, I would present the strategy and visual look and feel as best as I was able -- hopefully before they were able to finish sharpening their knives and dig in for the meal.

The joke among my fellow designers was that you were lucky if you heard, upon one of the staff members leaving the creative review/buffet, a belated "Nice work." There you were, nursing your work in shame -- printouts covered in red Sharpie that pooled around the page margins like blood.

"Anything to avoid that!" was my rallying cry for some time. If only the work could be bulletproof, then I could walk a little taller out of the torture chamber, with a mere shred of dignity.

Hence followed a dark period in my career, full of obsessing over the kerning of asterisks on disclaimers, re-re-retouching of Photoshop comps to bring them to a meticulous level of detail, and brainstorming enough ideas to fill a waste bin before I'd even dive into the computer to start the laborious process of executing yet another idea that was on the verge of being killed (in my mind, at gunpoint) before it had a chance to blossom and evolve into something beyond what I'd imagined.

It was that last thought that cracked me upside the head three years ago and yanked me straight out of what I like to refer to as my "I am the work" phase. (That and a generous coworker who pulled me aside and told me to chill out and stop arguing with the account manager about whether the leading needed to be adjusted on the second paragraph of the VW ad.)

Great designers aren't joking when they say "It's about the work." Get yourself out of your work, stop identifying with it, and you suddenly discover that the work is trying to have a conversation with you. It's trying to tell you what it wants to be. Since that day three years ago when I had my touchy-feely design awakening, I've kept in the back of my mind a mental checklist that I tick through before I offer my print layout work for studio critique. The rest I leave up to art and its cagey way of seeping into a designer's rational thinking and skewing it in unexpected directions.

Depending on your process, you may not do sketches. But you'll be ill-served if you don't consider these questions before you dive into your design program du jour.

1) Is the idea and concept sound? Check the brief. Think about your audience. Did you communicate the single most important thing that the brief hit upon? If it isn't clear, then you may need to refine or revise the concept. I try to make sure this one is always covered before even getting into the computer. A rough sketch approved by your team is always good insurance and keeps you from rework. If you can't summarize your concept in a single sentence, then you may need to refine even more.

2) After the concept was nailed, did I really understand the copy direction before I started designing? Did I just go through layout on this project and miss an opportunity to bring the copy and the design into delightful harmony? Get this over with before you get into the computer. Talk with your copywriter (if you have one) or your client if you feel like you grok their thinking and can take the copy to a new place they haven't considered. Most designers have to get started or run in parallel to copywriters, so you should always stay joined at the hip and keep each other abreast of those "Aha!" moments that throw the work into new territory and require revision.

When you get into the computer and start mashing stuff around, these questions always bubble up:

3) Are the layout proportions correct? Is there a proper use of the rule of thirds (or artful deviation from it)? Is there a point of focus and flow, so your gaze moves from the most important content into your supporting copy and call to action? Did you build a grid? Did you ignore the grid and go crazy to artistic effect? Have good reasons for your decisions.

4) Is there something typographically interesting on every page? This one can often be hard to answer when you're working within a tight design system for a major brand. The trick is that "interesting" can simply be an elegant use of balance between larger headlines, subheads, and well-leaded body copy. On more creative executions, you may need to manipulate the type in Illustrator/by hand to get it to look unique, making sure the type that you do use isn't overplayed. (Does your client really want a poster with Helvetica or Times? Enter new territory.)

5) Is the photography or illustration of the best quality? As I've heard repeated again and again, a bad photograph can be massaged into an good design, but a great photograph can propel a design into the stratosphere. There is no longer an excuse to say "There is no budget for photography" when microstock and the prevalence of digital cameras have made it infinitely easier to generate photography for a project. Just be sure that you cover your ass in your contract and license what you create appropriately so the client doesn't own your personal custom photography outright. Then, on the next project, include money for photography no matter what. If the client tries to cut the line item, fold it into something else (like proofs).

6) Are there multiple levels of visual interest? Print designs need texture and variety, as well as an illusion of depth. If a layout has some photos, some solid color blocks, and some type, that can often be enough to get the layout to sizzle. But you may need to work into the layout another level of texture or detail below that to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on the page or on screen. Does the background need a wood texture instead of a brown-colored box? Can you make the illustration interact with the photography that shakes up the grid? Play around with it...

7) Is there a story that sews the piece together? If I can't see and explain the narrative of what I'm working on, I have to coax out the right elements to tell that story. Select a different pull quote or caption. Swap the photos or flop them. Bring in a different texture or pattern that conveys the right emotion.

8) If you say less, will the work function better? You can't cram it all in, so cull out what's unnecessary. Be ruthless about it -- less copy, less photos, less distraction. (Unless your concept is all photos and big headlines and no white space.)

9) Is it produceable and within the realm of reason, costwise, to produce? You can't sell it to the client if it has 14 PMS colors. Get at least a blurry idea of how the work will be produced and develop rough specs. Make sure your design won't fall apart if you remove that embossed logo, foil stamped flower pattern, and the laser-cut fleur-de-lys.

This last question is new to many designers, but thankfully it gets asked all the time now, in tandem with the previous question:

10) What kind of impact will this design have on the environment and how can I minimize it? Can we reduce quantity? Only print using soy-based inks by a printer that uses wind-power and FSC-certified, recycled stock? Can we use an aqueous coating that's water-soluble and avoid the whole varnish taboo? There are a number of important questions to consider here. Don't let your client choose what to do. Give them options that are always socially responsible and sustainable.

If I know I haven't ticked off all these boxes, then I note it in the critique as a point of discussion. I let go of the work at that point and let the team own it and help me evolve it so the design moves forward.

This last point on my checklist is something that can't be quantified.

11) Did I let my design mistakes inform the work in an artful way? Sometimes, it's possible to hold the work too tightly in your hands and craft the life right out of the idea. I liken this to when a studio musician is playing a guitar solo on the new hit single and he accidentally misses a note. "Let me go back and fix that," he says to the producer behind the glass. "No way!" the producer buzzes over on the studio intercom. "That note made the song!" Designers need to be prepared to fail on a layout direction or hit a wrong key and be open to the discovery that comes with the unanticipated gift of a fresh idea.

If I don't take those moments to step back and reconsider where I'm going, then I know I need to actually step away from my desk, throw on my coat, and step out into the winter cold. Maybe I meander down to the Olympic Sculpture Park and watch the crows land on the tree made of polished steel. Or I walk up Queen Anne Hill and leaf through some CDs at Easy Street. Either way, I'm getting far enough from what I'm doing to make sure that I can let it start being.


The comments to this entry are closed.