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Barbarians at the Drawing Board: Cultivating Better Critique Habits

My Way, Highway

I just finished reading the "business classic" Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, which is about how firms on Wall Street competed to buy out one of America's largest companies. The book serves as a narrative history of the back-room negotiations, fights, and late-night shenanigans amongst the executive management, corporate board, lawyers, and investment bankers all hoping to gain a slide of cash from what would be (at its time) the largest monetary transaction in Wall Street history, over $20 billion dollars.

As I worked my way through the book, the following paragraph stopped me in my tracks (page 326):

"In the end… perception was the issue. Perception about who was running a set of bond offerings that, to [CEO Ross] Johnson or any other acquirer, was a detail… Through all of the machismo, through all the greed, through all the discussion of shareholder values, it all came down to this: [investment partners] John Gutfreund and Tom Strauss were prepared to scrap the largest takeover of all time because their firm's name would go on the right side, not the left side, of a tombstone advertisement buried among the stock tables at the back of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times."

This moment rang true to me—not only because I have worked with consortiums of clients where logo placement required delicate political negotiations during a product launch, but because I think that we as designers also enter into the same haggling agreements when we enter into critique situations with design teams.

Have you ever been in a situation where one single detail becomes a deal-breaker amongst a designer and his/her boss? When you know in the grand scheme of life, your audience will likely never know or care that you fought for that detail? While it's often tempting to defer to your boss's judgment in all cases—after all, they're the boss—I think it's helpful to have a quick conversation amongst the project team about what I'll call cascade effects.

A cascade effect happens when a large-scale team is working towards a design goal, and one or two people make a decision that has major impacts across a design system. When not properly informed, the team feels like they haven't had a chance to think through the impact those changes will make.

Often, arguments ensue—not whether the change is good or bad for your audience, but because there was a change at all. The whole team has to freeze and discuss the change, or start a set of never-ending email exchanges that consume more time than just getting into a room for 15 minutes and hashing it out. Or if you're feeling really crazy, exposing the client to the argument and not presenting a unified front about how to resolve the situation, which can be a client service no-no depending where you are in the design process.

It's important in these situations to put your ego aside and think about what's best for the project, both for your end-audience and your client. Some ways to manage cascade effects include:

Knowing whom is responsible for assuring the mandatory details are included in the design work. I've found that it helps to clarify at the start of every project whom is the go-to person for making key decisions about "where the logo goes." Depending on the amount of time any creative or art director has to manage the process, they may not be on the hook for proofing every mandatory detail—so that may need to be delegated to a designer or the project manager. At the start of any project, it helps to have mandatory details catalogued so they can be checked off throughout the process. (Another good mandatory detail: "Is there contact information included in this design?" You'd be surprised how often it's not!)

Establishing the depth of feedback expected from peers and design managers. If you're working on a team with multiple designers, don't make the committee fully responsible for every design decision. Determine which designers should have stronger opinions on specific details, based on their skills and what deliverables they're responsible for completing. So while I may be tasked with offering an opinion about whether I like Typeface A or B better in design critique, I'm not going to be the one that offers up Typeface C and D to the designer as possible contenders after a bit of research (i.e. backseat design it). I'm only going to provide higher-level feedback about what seems to be working and not working.

Creating regular spaces for group feedback. Projects become stronger when three levels of critique are incorporated into their ongoing project process:

1) Peer critique, where designers powwow with other designers on their team—or perhaps not even on the project—about their intent and specific aesthetic opinions. This may include the input of the creative lead on the project. This is often informal, and happens two to three times a day depending on the pace of the project. I've taken to calling this "forming a braid," ensuring that there isn't any late-breaking input that causes "swoop and poop" input at the last moment before a client-facing review. Posting each new iteration as you go, instead of waiting for these critique moments, can also lead to serendipitous conversations that further add to the work's quality without taking time away from the actual designing.

2) Team critique, where a cross-disciplinary project team has a change to discuss not only the design, but also the decisions and impacts embedded in each artifact—whether that's resolving information architecture details or working through the feasibility of implementing a new feature or making sure a color selection will print how the designer intended. This can happen every day for a set 15–20 minutes, and in the morning is most helpful—meaning you aren't worrying after a late-day critique about all the changes you'd need to make before the designer needs to leave the office. Be rigorous about holding to a pre-determined, set time limit, unless the team agrees to enter into a session to deal with major, unresolved issues that require everyone's brain.

3) Informal studio critique, where anyone beyond the project team can explore the range of designs to date and provide input. At work, we've taken to doing this during our daily "coffee time," so it's off the books with regard to billing time. We've been doing this every week or two on my current project, and it has helped to strengthen details that we hadn't considered from an outsider's perspective.

Knowing the politics of specific design decisions. It may not be possible to know this in advance, but on large-scale projects—when you know there are thousands to millions of dollars at stake—it's helpful to let the team understand what dynamics are at play within a client's organization, and what elements in a design may become symbolic of those internal struggles. Sometimes, arguments with clients happen not even because of what color you've used for the logo design or that a key feature went MIA, but even through of the language you choose to use in describing that color or how a web application should behave.

Sussing these dynamics out in advance of designing things is paramount to using your design time most effectively throughout the project. If you hear from a project manager or creative director, "Oh, I didn't think that conversation was important until [situation arose]," then you may be protected from ongoing client conversation in a way that isn't aiding the quality of work you'd like to fulfill.

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