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The Fundamentals of Effective Design Critique

Design Critique Fundamentals

In my previous few posts, I've explored some of the root issues that stand in the way of well-considered critique habits. This post is focusing on the process of delivering design critique, and what specific areas we can improve.

The above chart describes the overall flow of high-level actions that comprise a successful critique situation. Let's explore each of them in further detail.

Initiate: The designer initiates a critique session, either through actively requesting it or by attending a meeting that has been formally set up. Having a standing critique meeting encourages designers to work towards critique, rather than having it sprung upon them—though sometimes it's best to put the designers in control of when critique occurs, so they don't feel rushed.

I've purposely not included the "drive-by critique," where the boss happens to wander by the desk and can't help but comment. That should not happen without the permission of the designer. So ask before you open your mouth.

Reflect: Participants in the critique should actively solicit the intent of the designer if they aren't familiar with the project (and its creative brief), explore the detail of the design, and gauge the level of fidelity based on where the designer is in the project flow. This all happens before verbalizing any immediate thoughts or impressions. Those participating in critique should also consider any previous experiences they've had with similar material. As we'll see later, this may not immediately impact the critique.

This phase can last anywhere from a few seconds to a dozen minutes, depending on how much design work is on the wall and the level of its fidelity.

Assess: There are three questions that I find critical to ask myself before offering comment. If I skip over any one of them, I almost always say something that really doesn't contribute to the critique and causes problems both in the critique session and later on in the project.

"How does the designer's intent match the brief?" Knowing that a design is on strategy, or at least tracing the boundary of it, is a litmus test for measuring creative quality. This question may become less important if you're working from an intentionally unbounded brief. (Ulp.) In those cases, a better question to answer may be, "How does the designer's intent shape the strategy?"

"What tangible design decisions contribute to their intent?" If we start critiquing the aesthetic details too quickly, hammering on technical deficiencies such as poor kerning or lines that don't meet up in an illustration, we may be missing opportunities to align around what specific art direction or interaction decisions may strengthen the work.

There's always time to fix typos and adjust leading. There is rarely enough time to clarify an overall information architecture or art direction too late in the game. Besides, if you spend too much time hammering on the details—forcing designers to become better craftspeople, fostering a detail orientation, etc.—they may not have the space to be more aware of how those details fit into a coherent sequence of designed moments. Bouncing between the big picture and the details is one of the few ways to make sure you don't slide into a habit of thinking small first.

"What do they still need to solve for?" In critique, we're often asked to verbalize or sketch out unexplored paths that a designer could follow from where their work currently stands. Providing effective design critique emerges from in measuring what ideas and specific notes will aid the designer in fulfilling their intent—and personal goals too! From your own experience, and in observing others grappling with similar problems, you may know what is required to help them reach that intent.

Critique: Now that all of this information has worked its way through your brain, you can vocalize, sketch, and otherwise contribute as part of the critique. However, you have a range of actions at your disposal.

You can help to calibrate and otherwise re-align the designer's intent, if you feel it is either off brief or requires a more articulate strategy. These kinds of conversations should be happening early in the process, but sometimes you don't understand the implications of a design direction until it reaches high fidelity. So a designer shouldn't be fearful to scrap everything at the eleventh hour in critique—they should only be fearful that the conversation hadn't been evolving that deep rework may be necessary late in the process.

You can provide notes on craft, either to bring the craft in line with their desired art direction or to help identify and improve any technical deficiencies. Clarifying art direction should always trump fixing tiny details—the latter can be worked out via notes written on paper rather than out-loud conversation.

You can praise what is working in the design, choosing to illuminate what intent- and craft-based decisions resonate most powerfully in the work at hand. This should really be happening first and foremost in the design process, and usually follows a formula known as the "shit sandwich" in writing workshop circles: identifying a powerful detail or feature and praising it, pointing out an area that may require more work regarding craft or intent, then closing with further praise. Even if you work in a corporate culture that offers criticism before praise, you should measure where praise fits into the process and be prepared to offer it in every critique.

You can choose to defer to comment, delaying critique until the work has had more time and energy invested in it. Designers should never interpret this option as potentially harming their work later down the road. Selecting this option should mean that those in the critique trust the designers to further their work, based on their vocalized current intent and art direction. This is any design manager's secret weapon, and I know I don't exercise it often enough. Providing no feedback, or solely positive feedback regarding what's working best, will create the necessary space for creative leaps to happen.

Don't allow delaying critique to turn into a passive-aggressive method of control. And keep in mind that you should also offer your designers the choice of what kind of critique they may want to receive. They may just want you to see where they're at, but no detailed feedback whatsoever. Don't feel like you're required to lob a nuclear bomb at design work that often needs just a gentle nudge down an alternate path.

Again: Let the work be good!


What Good Design Critique Tastes Like

Unlike other types of wines and spirits, there is a unique method of properly discerning the many distinct notes in a glass of quality sake. Compare this to the tasting of red wine, where a person may hold the liquid on their tongue for fifteen to thirty seconds before the full complexity and body of a decanted wine yields full bloom.

When trying a new sake for the first time, take a drink from the glass, then hold the liquid on your tongue and soft palate. Breathe slowly inward and outward for one breath. The sake will open up, revealing secondary characteristics that would have remained otherwise unobserved. The drinker can then swallow the sake, discerning the difference between the first taste, the second taste upon the palate, and then the wine's overall finish.

In a similar manner, reflection must precede analysis if you aren't going to solely "shoot" at creative work. When dealing with complex subject matter, the end product may feel simple, but there is always enough detail layered underneath that requires deep consideration to properly vocalize how it may be improved.

So in this New Year, consider how to create these moments where you can hold creative work on your tongue, savour it, and let it be good in its own right. It is these moments that we will enjoy most and will most nourish us as designers, as leaders, and as members of collaborative teams.

Otherwise, that bitter taste in your mouth at the end of every project won't be the bite of strong, celebratory champagne.

Many thanks to Mary Paynter Sherwin, who helped create the central theme of this series.


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