7 posts categorized "Critique"

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.

Starting with the Double-Black Diamond

Turning the Apprenticeship Model Upside Down

When considering a change to our critique habits, we often think it's just a matter of getting everyone on your team together and agreeing upon new ways of working together. However, the way a design organization is structured can have a major impact on how critique is conducted.

Many traditional design organizations have been constructed via division of labor, with the "brains" at the top and the hands at the bottom. When teaching craft first and conceptual thinking second, this type of organization forces designers fresh out of school or without a great of professional experience to grapple with the nitty-gritty details, slowly maturing their way into informing and driving more of the conceptual thinking behind a project. This is known in the craft-based trades as the apprenticeship model.

This line of thinking is becoming old school. and not all agencies function like this anymore. But for large-scale marketing agencies and in-house groups, this type of model is common because—just like a Ford assembly line—people fulfill specialized tasks as part of their daily roles, as cogs in a larger profit-generating machine. This is partially why designers often move swiftly from agency to agency, as they can be a larger cog or leader within another organization sooner than they can vacate their defined roles and responsibilities at their current jobs.

Not all designers (or leaders) believe that "better" ideas come from those with grey hairs at the top. New methods of coaxing the best thinking out of everyone on a design team, whether every person's title is Designer or not, are required for dealing with more complex, ambiguous design problems and ambitious solutions. This requires designers and their cohorts to collectively design the situations in which they collaborate to successfully integrate the best thinking in an emergent fashion from everyone involved. Essentially, flip the pyramid upside down, placing the apprentices in charge.

Pulling this off successfully, over and over again, is harder than it may sound. Let's pursue a wintry analogy to elaborate.

Continue reading "Starting with the Double-Black Diamond" »

Let the Work Be Good

Let the Work Be Good

When pursuing the lofty vision of a creative leader, we often lose sight of what's right in front of us: the work.

We begin to critique, poke at, and otherwise prod the work in the name of iterative improvement, without stopping to reflect that the work is already good. Really good. At times, so strong that if the first pass your designer took against the brief was let loose into the world, few would be the wiser.

So, as a New Year's resolution or holiday gift to yourself, let in the possibility that what you've created is good. Feel free to even say it out loud: "What I've created is good."

Now, what's probably right on the tip of your tongue is the following question: "But what if I know it's not good?" If we're seasoned design professionals, we've been around the block two million times. We think we know a thing or two about good design, and this ain't it.

I'm not preaching radical acceptance, more so than critiquing the ever-dissatisfied design leader, paternally finger-wagging that we can always do better. Besides, we've all had days where the inner critic starts tearing the wallpaper off the walls of your freshly decorated room—or on worse days, calls in the wrecking ball to trash the whole building we're trying to construct. In these situations, we make ourselves feel like crap. And it's not just our own psyches. The people we work with feel like crap, especially if they're always on the receiving end of endless "make it better" criticism.

Dreams of success, populated by happy clients singing the hosannas of powerful design solutions, may hedge us into pursuing greatness at the cost of fostering compassion and humanity over time. From a process perspective, the final product sounds to the client like there were a number of musicians playing individually beautiful melodies that weave into gorgeous harmonies.

However, in reality, we've conceived a jumbled performance corrected in post-production to sound sweet, while wearied musicians slog home after dozens of takes that never sounded quite right to the producer's ear. It doesn't need to be this way.

Over my next two posts, I'll be sharing some perspectives on how to return some of that compassion to your daily work, as well as your interactions with your design team—in the form of better-considered critique habits.

Until then, have a happy New Year!

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

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.

Continue reading "Barbarians at the Drawing Board: Cultivating Better Critique Habits" »

Plotting the Impact of Creative Ideas

Plotting the Impact of Creative Ideas

The wall has twenty or thirty sketches pinned to it, and you're in a big group of designers, account managers, project managers, and other creative types trying to determine which ideas make the cut and get executed for the big client meeting. The creative director turns to the group and says, "So, which of these ideas do you like the best?"

Always a loaded question.

Does it boil down to how I feel about it -- the gut level reaction?

To me, a great concept will always inspire some sort of emotion, twanging the heartstrings, so to speak. It also has some kind of poetry or sizzle that takes it to a place that demands some form of attention.

But is that what the client wants? Is that what the creative brief demands? And is that what the audience needs to hear?

All valid questions, which lead to great concepts being spiked before they reach the light of a Web site or a billboard -- and if unasked, allow the wrong kinds of concepts to slip through to the client.

After going through a few hundred of these concept evaluation meetings, I decided to get smart about forging a process to focus my concepts before they're evaluated.

Before I concept, I look at the chart above and determine in my head where my design work should land based on the business case. Different marketing needs call for different kinds of ideas. Before I go off into dreamland, I have an idea of where I need to steer to fulfill the client's objective.

Then, after I've got a few awful sketches and well-refined umbrella concept rationales and headlines, I'll pin them up on the wall and I'll ask myself the following three questions, keeping in mind the baseline strategy I've staked for the project:

1) What kind of emotion is evoked through the communication?

If I'm creating a product brochure with dry descriptions of enterprise-level accounting software, the kinds of emotion I'm seeking to express may be quite different from a global campaign selling soap. Understand where you need to land on the scale between logic and emotion ensures that the audience receives the right effect from the communication. Ideally, you're using the right blend of the two to address an audience's need or "pain point."

We always groan when we see the mother making the Prego spaghetti sauce, but it does evoke the right emotion and I remember the ad enough to write about it here. Plus, it addresses a real pain point: do I really have the time to go spend two hours in the kitchen making slow-cooked tomato sauce?

2) How tangible are the benefits in the messaging?

How many commercials have you seen where you remember the gimmick, but not the product? Usually the gimmick is only tangentially related to the tangible product.

At some agencies I've worked at, the art directors have said, "Be sure to make the product as small as possible in the corner." That umbrella solution sure doesn't work in the long run if you need to show tangibility, which in the long run points to sales, not awareness.

Remember that Infiniti car commercial campaign where they never showed the cars, just natural forms like leaves floating on the wind? The press positively glowed about it. Quite a good idea, but the lack of tangibility proved to be the ads' Achilles heel. The ads were found to be ineffective when it came to selling cars.

3) Is it evocative or just an echo of the mundane?

If you don't create something expressive to market your product or service, you aren't going to keep audience interest -- your work will veer from the poetic to the mundane. It's hard to create poetry with a tangible expression of a product like, say, toilet-bowl cleaners.

This is where real understanding how your audience approaches your product makes such a big impact on the quality of a creative idea. If it's evocative, you've reflected the audience's mindset and tapped into their impressions and emotions. And by evocative, I mean that it ceases to function in the realm of the literal and becomes figurative, metaphorical, or expressive in a way that transcends our notions of our day-to-day lives.


I think it's easy to play on the axes between logic/emotion and tangibility/intangibility. Where we really show our stripes as creative thinkers is where our ideas land on the axis between the mundane and the poetic. This is why many designers struggle when they can't create a communication that has a measure of poetry in it.

In my estimation, if you've come up with a really poetic idea and it creates the right emotional reaction in your target audience, and the tangibility of your product's benefits are visible in some way, you've found the "sweet spot" for your concept. From our recent bevy of Super Bowl spots, ones that caught my interest were the Monster ad with the two guys on bikes at the center of the Earth and the Tide commercial with the talking stain. Both of them expressed these three criteria in a measure that worked.

If the client just wants a rational comparison between three types of software, then you know your concepts need to speak to rational decision-makers. It's not going to veer into the poetic.

If you're selling a politician, you may veer into pure emotion and poetry and for a time, forgo all those things like, say, facts.

If your client sells security systems, you'll likely have an ad that implies that someone tried to break into your house, inspiring fear and playing on the literal risk of being hurt by a burglar, then it isn't likely you're going to shoehorn some kind of poetry into it. I can imagine it now... Security Alarms: The Musical.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether this model holds up beyond advertising and also can help designers determine their best work in areas like branding, identity development, and designing compelling environmental graphics. Thanks!

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.