This is a long guide. Feel free to skip around using the table of contents above. The background section gives some perspective on my passion for critique but is not needed to understand the rest of the content.
Throughout my career, it’s become increasingly clear that the practice and mastery of critique is one of the most important skills a designer can bring to their team. The language, the technique, and the impact one can derive from critique will influence and improve all other aspects of a designer’s toolkit. Practicing critique enables one to develop a reflexive gauge for quality. It’s only by looking at and evaluating a volume of work that designers can quickly identify the strengths and weaknesses in their own designs. Quickening this feedback cycle is paramount to evolving as a crafter, as it allows one to shorten their iteration cycles and better shape their work as they go.
Like many designers, I started my career as a freelance consultant, doing primarily contract work for a small handful of clients. I’m going to come back to this fact shortly, but for now all you need to know is that eventually that chapter of my career came to a close, and I started seeking new opportunities to further my experience as a designer. This meant a few weeks of updating my portfolio, updating my resume, and applying to job postings found everywhere, from LinkedIn to Craigslist1.
Before long I had a few interviews lined up. Overdressed and overexcited, I actually started to enjoy this process. I was fortunate to meet many really interesting people, hear about some fascinating organizations, and most importantly, was given the chance to ask questions of them: “How did you get started in design? What did you study in school? Where should I focus my learning next? What makes a good designer?”
The experience of interviewing was an opportunity to share my experience and learn from the person I was speaking with. It eventually led to a job offer—my first full-time, bona fide design job.
This particular company was in the midst of growth. Shortly after joining I was asked to interview some candidates for a role on our growing design team. I thought to myself—“Sure, perfect, I’ve been in tons of interviews and actually really enjoy them! No problem boss, I got this.”
I had 60 minutes scheduled with one of the first candidates, and it went precisely like this: after the requisite pleasantries (“How’s your week been?”), I started diving into some of the topics on my list. We went back and forth, meandering from question to question. “That’s great, thanks, really insightful answers,” I nodded along as the candidate succinctly answered the last prompt I had prepared. I was nervous, certainly, but thought the discussion was going well and I was getting a good grasp of this candidate’s experience level. I thought this might be a good time to wrap things up and thank them for their time.
When I could steal a moment, I glanced at my watch—barely 15 minutes had passed. And it was in that very moment, awkward silence and all, that I realized:
I had no clue what I was doing.
Now you may be wondering how something as simple as interviewing a candidate can be so difficult, but I assure you: it’s precisely these parts of our jobs (and lives!) that seem so simple, so effortless on the surface, that in fact have the most depth to them and which need the most practiced technique and method to truly perform well. Acclaimed science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin elegantly puts it:
A life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details.
I had done exactly this: perceived the act of interviewing—of accurately assessing and comprehending an individual’s fitness and qualification for an inherently complex role in less than an hour—as simple, because I neglected these details. The experience of discovering such depth beneath a seemingly simple activity has shaped how I now approach other common tasks. It’s through this lens that I’ve come to believe that the practice of design critique is another of these skills. Without the requisite understanding of technique and method—when critique is practiced “simply”—critique loses much of its effectiveness.
Most designers know that details aren’t just details — they define the thing itself. Details matter. And with critique, it’s no different.
With this understanding, we can jump into some practical ways to approach design critique. Design critique is primarily about how we assess and talk about design, which is something we actually (hopefully!) do quite often in our jobs—the difference is that we must apply a lens of critical thinking to this discourse.
What Critique Isn’t
As mentioned, the early stages of my career were spent as a freelancer, working primarily on my own from my bedroom in my parents’ house. Almost all of the feedback I was receiving was from clients. They were well-intentioned, but when it came to talking about design they did so simply. Their feedback about my work was pretty simple and basic. In the book Discussing Design2, Aaron Irizarry and Adam Connor break feedback into three categories: reactive, directive, and critique. Perhaps obviously, feedback of the first two forms is not what they’d consider effective design critique.
“I don’t like it.”
“Can you just make the logo a bit bigger?”
“Make it POP!”
I think we can all relate to these flavors of feedback. While (possibly) oversimplified examples, these embody what is meant by reactive or directive feedback (respectively). This feedback can come from many places: an emotional response, an adverse reaction to change, or even a misplaced attempt to “contribute” to the design process. While in some cases this type of feedback might be fair or even right, it does not fit the accepted definition of critique, which we’ll get into next.
Feedback for approval
A cautionary note regarding reactive or directive feedback: use your best discretion when considering whether or not to incorporate this type of feedback back into your work. Sometimes it will seem like the easy route—you know by making these changes your design will get signed off and you can move on and get paid—but be weary of feedback that only serves the objective of approval. Feedback just to get approval—a checklist of changes to please a client or stakeholder—is not critique and rarely makes your work better.
Critique as Critical Thinking
So what do we mean by critique? A common general definition is “an analytical evaluation of a theory or practice.” Design is about problem-solving, about strategically addressing and solving the needs of humans. Any design work must be constantly measured against these goals—evaluated—and critique is one tool that helps us do just that. To paraphrase Connor and Irizarry (seriously, just go read Discussing Design right now!), we can be more specific when we refer to design critique: applying critical thinking to a design in order to evaluate its expected effectiveness against a set of goals. Or more simply, “How well does this do what it’s trying to do?”
This shift from creative to analytical thinking is also why it’s usually not a great idea to try solving the problem in a crit session—you’ll pull the room from its analytical mode to an entirely different way of thinking.
These goals can take many forms: quantitative changes to metrics or success rates, or something as nebulous as leaving a user feeling more confident or delighted. Discussing Design also reminds us that this shift from creative thinking to analytical thinking happens frequently during the creative process. Picture the painter who (quite literally!) steps back from their work to evaluate and assess their progress. Is it evoking the right emotion or expressing the right idea? Have the small changes I’ve introduced made the system better? This is the artist asking themselves: do I expect this work in its current state to achieve its goals? If not, why?
Why Practice Design Critique
The simplest answer is that it will make you a better designer. Good designers recognize that they need feedback from a variety of perspectives to build the best experience for their users. Communication is also a significant part of a designer’s role—so embrace any opportunity to practice3. So much of what we do through design is communicate: both with our users and internal stakeholders. The ability to clearly articulate an idea shows that you fully understand it. Clear explanations are evidence of deep and thoughtful consideration. Often, articulating the problem you’re trying to solve helps you find the solution, as you are forced to re-iterate basic assumptions and break complex pieces into smaller chunks. Just ask the ducks4.
As a team, there is even a secret bonus benefit: design critique gets you and your peers talking about design frequently and regularly. This alone has many positive outcomes, such as building culture within the group and the development of a shared language. Shared language refers to the vocabulary and values that help facilitate efficient and productive conversation. It’s how you and your longtime friend seem to just “get” each other: the words and way you converse have naturally evolved to optimize those communications. Shared language is a studied phenomenon that most would consider vital to successful collaboration—so seems worth pursuing in any team5.
There are many things you can do to effectively prepare for a design critique, but for now I’m just going to highlight the ones that are either commonly missed or seem to have an outsized impact on the quality of conversation that follows.
Make it a Safe Space
Designers must choose (and feel comfortable choosing) to leave their egos at the door. It’s not beneficial to anyone if we’re reluctant or hesitant to seek meaningful critique because of our pride or confidence. We should feel comfortable actively seeking out critical feedback in order to make ourselves stronger designers. Team members should feel comfortable showing work in progress. Having a safe place to engage in this type of discourse is critical: designers should not feel threatened, discouraged, embarrassed, “called out”, or fear shame while having their work discussed. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak. And remember: critique exists to strengthen the work, not to judge the designer.
“When the embarrassment goes away, people become more creative.” — Creativity Inc.
The design, not the designer
Thankfully, well-practiced critique focuses on the objective evaluation of how well a piece of work satisfies its intended goals. This abstraction helps shift the dialogue to the work and away from the designer. They are not on trial, having to sweat through a defense of their decisions, but rather part of a constructive discussion about how well the design does what it’s supposed to, and how it could be improved. This shift in mindset helps reinforce the safe space we’re aiming to create.
Critique vs. Criticism
Another thing to build is a shared understanding of the difference between critique and criticism. Tanner Christensen’s great post on critique at Facebook brought my attention to Judy Reeves’ book Writing Alone, Writing Together 6, where she clearly illustrates the difference:
More generally, criticism can often be destructive, whereas critique is intended to be constructive. Be specific, work together, focus on the design and not the designer, and spend energy on the potential and opportunity for improvement.
Set the Stage
It’s important for everyone involved to have a shared understanding of the goals—and anti-goals—of critique. Often this will happen as a team or organization begins to adopt critique as part of their process, but even seasoned teams can use a reminder now and then.
First and foremost, the goal of any critique session should be clear as stated above: to use critical thinking to evaluate a design’s expected impact on a goal or set of goals. The question on everyone’s mind should be, “How well does this iteration of the design do what it’s trying to do?” This should be no surprise at this point. Equally worth clarifying with your team is what critique is not meant to accomplish. It’s not a planning meeting—the problem space and objectives/goals may be in varying degrees of stability, and critique can help refine these specifics—but the time itself should not be spent prioritizing or making decisions about the roadmap or feature set.
This is also not the time to discuss implementation details. While it’s certainly beneficial to include people from all disciplines, this is not the time for engineers, designers, product managers, or otherwise to begin thinking about who will work on this, how this design might be built or which framework or library could accomplish something similar to the proposed design7. I’d even caution against using this meeting to start exploring alternative solutions—this shifts the mindset from analytical to creative and can easily derail focus.
You may want to experiment with the number of people involved, but generally I’ve seen critique work best with anywhere from 2–6 people, including the presenter. Varying this group’s makeup of engineers, product and project managers, designers, researchers, content strategists, and other stakeholders will help ensure the goals are being considered from multiple perspectives within the business. With any combination of people, strive to maintain a focus on the design work being presented and an analytical approach to critique. Also, encourage everyone to contribute to the design process!
Bias is something that, once understood, helped me improve my work as a designer. Bias is not an inherently negative thing, though that is often how it’s perceived. In fact, UC Berkley cognitive professor Tom Griffiths explains8 how the opposite can be true in some cases:
The only way to solve inductive problems well is to be biased. Because the available evidence isn’t enough to determine the right answer, you need to have predispositions that are independent of that evidence. And how well you solve the problem—how often your guesses are correct—depends on having biases that reflect how likely different answers are.
Also of note is that we are all biased. Most of this bias exhibits itself unconsciously—simply as the result of us each having unique and incomplete perspectives through which we view the world. We all have experiences, memories, and ideas that shape how we perceive things, understand things, and how we prioritize things.
This inherent bias is not in itself a bad thing—but it’s crucial as someone who designs things for other humans to understand how these biases will influence and impact your work (and in the case of critique, how your biases may affect your reactions or how you perceive another designer and her work.) Unchecked, they can also become a nefarious force that will limit both your work and the conversation around it.
The presenter is most commonly the primary designer of the work in question. This is often the role we consider most easily when thinking about design critique. Most people are introduced to critique as the receiver, by getting feedback on their work. But there is equal (if not greater!) value in developing your skills as an audience member in a critique. For now, let’s look at how you can get better feedback when you present your work.
Critique is part of an important feedback loop—it’s a key component in the creative-analytical cycle that makes up much of our process. Earlier, we divided an effective creative process into two phases: the exploratory, generative creative time, and the analytical, focused time of critical thinking. This cycle will often turn many times within each step of a larger process.
Unsurprisingly, the points at which you choose to engage in critique are important. Most important is ensuring that you have time to revise your work based on the feedback you receive. If all you’re doing is seeking validation or approval: it will not make the work better and can be achieved in other ways. Some things that will help you with timing:
Don’t be afraid to show early, unpolished work
This is often the best time for critical thinking, as often it is the (important!) larger ideas and concepts that are discussed.
Bake in time for iteration and to address the feedback you receive
Make sure you have time to consider and when necessary, iterate upon your work to make it better.
Critique late in the process can still be useful
Don’t excuse critique from the process even if it’s too late to implement the feedback you receive in this cycle. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your design will certainly help you with the next version/iteration/release.
Context & Framing
The best feedback comes from those who have the necessary context to assess the expected impact the work will have against its goals. It’s often helpful to begin each session with a quick overview of the project’s objectives, priorities, and constraints. If it’s important, any relevant background information or research that informed the decisions you’ve made can also be useful for the audience to gain context.
Often part of sharing context is providing insight into your process. This will help the audience understand your decision-making process. It will also help them avoid providing feedback that you’ve already considered or on something you’ve already explored.
From experience though — cut to the chase as early as possible. Keep the background and context concise, and jump into the work quickly. I’ve sat through far too many critiques and reviews where we don’t get to the actual design work until the last 15 minutes or so.
Framing is a related but different technique. Framing refers to the method by which you present information so that you elicit the type of feedback you are looking for. Framing doesn’t mean asking leading questions9. It’s about focusing the conversation on the problems you are trying to solve and the problems you’re facing, and avoiding distractions or rabbit holes.
Don’t elaborate decisions or debates you’ve already had, or focus on details that aren’t relevant to what you’re looking to critique. Focus your presentation on the areas you want feedback on and perhaps neighboring design work if necessary. Don’t give a full tour of the product or share information that doesn’t move the conversation forward.
Fidelity & Feedback
Another strategy to help focus feedback is to consider the fidelity of the work you present. Just as we considered the best way to frame the problem, the fidelity of our work can also guide the discussion to where we’d get the most benefit. A general rule of thumb I’ve observed is:
Feedback will correlate with the fidelity presented.
So what does this mean for a designer? Perhaps most importantly, it encourages you to engage in the feedback cycle early. Often when we use low-fidelity tools like Sharpies or whiteboards (hopefully not together!) to sketch out early ideas, it helps us focus on the problems we’re trying to solve without adding too much detail. By its quick and crude nature it encourages us to explore a broader solution space—if ideas are quick to render and the cost of starting again is low, we are more likely to produce a collection of ideas rather than fixating on one, detailed solution.
Just as we use low-fidelity techniques to focus on the higher-level concerns of the problem, presenting this type of work at a critique will provoke feedback that is at a similar altitude. When we see pixel-perfect mockups with polished typography and illustrated icons, it is challenging to see past the details and evaluate the underlying assumptions and solutions. Things look more set in stone than they likely are. Be mindful of not distracting your audience with details that are unnecessary to evaluate your work, or that are superfluous for the stage in the process you’re at. I’ve seen far too many conversations spiral into these types of details when we’ve yet to spend the requisite time evaluating the hierarchy, architecture, or even the validity of the solution being presented.
Worse still, these superficial elements can easily mask deeper issues with the work—you are doing yourself a disservice by (consciously or not) “dressing up” a mediocre or unsubstantiated solution. Early design work often explores rough, general concepts and directions—working at low fidelity makes this quicker and provides the right amount of information to get feedback on the idea.
Remember, design is a process not an artifact.
Design systems are fantastic for abstracting and codifying design decisions at scale—attention can rightfully be given to the problem at hand instead of (again) defining type scales or color palettes.
However, with an overwhelming emphasis on design systems in many organizations, be careful not to fall prey to the above trap. It’s easier than ever to quickly produce design work that looks much more solid than its foundations may be. It’s faster than ever to skip important steps in our process and instead assemble some Lego blocks into work that appears sound.
Resist the temptation and do the work.
Of all the strategies I’d suggest to get the most from a critique session, this one is probably the easiest and most often overlooked.
First, a fact: if you invite someone to provide feedback, they will give it to you, even if it means just finding something to say.
When the request for feedback is left open and unstructured, the conversation dies quickly. In the best-case scenario, the audience will be confident and experienced and the feedback may be constructive but only occasionally relevant. In the more likely case, the audience will feel uncomfortable as they strive to find something meaningful to say, which in my experience rarely leads anywhere productive. Remember, you should be coming to critique with clear questions you’d like answered. Don’t leave this up to chance.
So how do we do this? Be specific about two things: what you are looking for feedback on, and what you aren’t. Just as you should be considering the fidelity of the work you’re showing as a way to help align feedback with your stage in the process, go one step further and make explicit anything that may not already be clear.
If you’re looking for feedback on the hierarchy you’ve chosen, say so. If you’re concerned about the visual treatment of a certain element, let your audience know so they can focus on the right things. If the copy in your design is a placeholder, or the icons are temporary, make this clear to your audience to allow them to safely ignore any concerns or questions they might have.
Don’t lead the audience
One point of caution: practice asking for feedback that doesn’t lead the audience. A leading question is one that suggests a particular answer, and can quickly transform a meaningful problem into a biased solution. Consider the following (contrived) example:
What colour of blue should I change this icon to?
Is this icon clear and does it accurately represent what it does?
The former question suggests that changing the color of the icon, and in fact changing it to a shade of blue, are the boundaries of valid feedback. That if you are suggesting something different, you are now actually providing unsolicited feedback. The second question, however, focuses on the actual challenge: the designer believes the icon may not be effective enough and is seeking her peers’ analysis and insights.
Focus on the problem rather than the solution and the feedback you receive will be much more helpful.
Hopefully it’s clear that seeking feedback and critique of your work is of value to you as a designer. It will have immediate, practical implications and your work will get better by engaging in critical thinking. Being able to clearly communicate the goals and decisions that define your work is also a skill that can indicate how experienced you are.
What took me by surprise was how powerful the other side of critique is. What initially seemed like something I had to do to reciprocate with those who were providing feedback to me slowly became something I took just as seriously as presenting my work. And later in my career, it became the primary tool at my disposal with which I could aim and shape the design work of our team.
What it comes down to is this: you need to develop your eye as a designer. You must continue honing your ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a particular solution. Developing this sense of how to make design work better and what good looks like is an invaluable skill in the designer’s toolkit.
Focus on the Problem
If our stated goal for critique is to assess “how well this iteration of the design does what it’s trying to do”, it’s critical to first establish a shared understanding of what it is in fact trying to do. Good designs have clear objectives: measurable outcomes that the design is expected to accomplish. It can be helpful to discuss the goals and challenges your design is trying to solve during critique. Even if you feel confident in what you’re trying to accomplish, discussion may point you in a new direction or help you reframe the problem.
Focusing on the problem can also help define the solution. Jared Spool is fond of remarking that “design is the rendering of intent10.” If the intent isn’t clear, and the problem we’re “solving” isn’t well defined or well understood, both our ability to discover solutions and effectively evaluate them will be diminished. How are we supposed to answer “how well does this do what it’s supposed to do” if we’re not even clear on what it’s supposed to do in the first place? A misunderstanding of the intent—of the problem we’re trying to solve—is one of the most common sources of misalignment in a critique or review that I’ve experienced. Feedback that assumes a certain goal will not align with design work intending to advance separate objectives.
Making sure that you intimately understand the problem your work will address, and doing whatever possible to ensure those responsible for critiquing and assessing the work share this understanding is one of the most powerful tools a designer has available to them. As part of the audience, if you’re not confident this shared understanding exists, it’s your responsibility to focus the discussion here until that alignment is reached.
It’s worth noting that this process can be cyclical. It’s not uncommon for the exploration of a solution space to result in the need to clarify or even redefine the original problem or objective. The more we examine a problem, the more we break it down into its constituent parts, the closer we get to the core of what we’re trying to accomplish. This often requires us to redefine the objective. We may discover secondary objectives or develop a clearer understanding of why the particular problem exists. This can reset how we approach the solution.
Part of the value a design-led process can offer is a rigorous examination of the goals we’ve set out and the problems we think we should solve, to ensure that we are in fact solving the right ones and thinking about them in the right ways.
The alternative to this rigor is a well-executed solution that just doesn’t quite hit the mark, or misses it entirely.
(Also) Be Clear
Just as we encourage presenters to clarify what exactly they’d like feedback on, and what type of feedback would be helpful to them, our role as the audience is to achieve clarity when delivering this feedback.
Above I’ve discouraged presenters from making vague requests such as “so what are your thoughts on this?” As the audience, the same rules apply: telling a designer that “you don’t get it” or that “it just isn’t working for you” is not going to be effective (even though this may actually be true). Rather, try to clarify what isn’t working for you and what you don’t get until the feedback you’d like to deliver becomes clearer. If you don’t understand a particular interaction, consider why that might be. For example, you may realize that you don’t get why something is happening because the affordance to trigger this action isn’t actually that intuitive. Now you have feedback that is worth sharing—it helps the designer better understand the effect their work is having.
Part of a good critique is interviewing the work itself. Ask questions, seek a deeper understanding, and allow the crafter to explain her decision-making process. Together, probe and investigate the work to look for opportunities to improve.
Objectivity & Subjectivity
Without an intentional focus on providing clear, objective feedback, a critique can easily spiral into a debate of preference or a conflict of personal values or opinions. The value of objective feedback over subjective feedback is important to keep in mind. There are two main things to consider when providing feedback:
- You have developed taste, and this can be beneficial to the work.
- You are (almost certainly) not the user.
We have all developed a sense of taste. When I refer to taste, I mean the ability to intuitively assess how good (or bad) something is based on the culmination of past experiences, knowledge, expertise, and training. Knowing what good design looks like is one of the most important skills for designers to develop—having this “eye” for what will work, what may be missing, or what needs improvement is of great value. It’s also important to understand this distinction—our taste does not refer here to our individual preferences or arbitrary values, but rather our learned ability to know good design when we see it. Sometimes it can be helpful to think of it as a shortcut.
Second, it’s (thankfully!) become a common design practice to constantly remind one another: we are not our users. This may seem obvious, but is an important bias to remind ourselves of as we’re the ones making the myriad decisions that ultimately define the products we ship. It is our responsibility to leave our own preferences, opinions, and requirements at the door and focus on the objective realities of our users when critiquing work.
So how can we balance these two truths to formulate strong, objective feedback?
- Avoid feedback based on our individual preferences or assumptions
- Avoid emotional or reaction-based feedback; think about the why
- When possible, pose thoughts as questions (“Have you thought about…”)
We can also do our best to align our feedback with design principles. Design principles exist at many levels. There are a set of universal principles11 (such as affordance, balance, composition, etc.) that can help strengthen any design work. You may also have organization-level principles, such as Shopify’s Polaris, Apple’s HIG or Google’s Material Design guidelines. In some cases, you may even have project-specific principles available to you (i.e. mobile or VR projects that have unique considerations.) Aligning your feedback with these objective best practices and principles helps us focus on strengthening the work and avoids debate based on preference or personal values.
Being Nice is Encouraged
So far I’ve touched on the many ways the audience can poke, prod, challenge and question the decisions of the primary designer. I’ve encouraged honesty and objectivity, and have gone to great lengths to help us remain focused on improving the work and avoid judging the designer at hand.
What we should all remind ourselves of each session is that it’s just as valuable to point out what is working. In my experience, it’s easy for a critique to focus on the areas for improvement, and can often leave by the wayside all the things that have been designed well and are worthy of praise. Make a concerted effort to point these elements out—not only does this help build confidence and strengthen relationships on the team, it also just plain feels good. Designers who feel good, and are confident that nothing is on fire, are going to be more open to receiving the critical feedback that follows, and more inclined to incorporate that feedback into their work. And it does serve a purpose beyond the emotional—having a sense of which parts of your design are working and which areas need more attention is absolutely valuable.
Don’t skip over positive feedback—make sure it’s shared whenever the opportunity arises.
Why are we spending so much time and energy applying our critical thinking skills and articulating our impressions to one another? Hopefully by this point the answer is clear—to help improve the work. With this goal clearly stated, it would make sense that the best feedback is actionable.
Whenever possible, try to conclude your feedback with some to-do items. It might include questions that should be answered or new approaches to try. It could be research or testing which might provide insights on how best to proceed. It could be another product or experience that solves a similar problem, and might help the designer better understand the domain if studied. Or it could be another stakeholder or discipline expert that the designer could meet with to gain further context on the scope of their work.
The emphasis here is to leave the designer with clear, tangible next steps, rather than leaving them with a cacophony of thoughts and ideas that may have been discussed during the meeting. These action items could come from either party (presenter or audience), and are often co-formulated. It helps if someone in the critique volunteers to take notes—these action items can be listed there and shared with the group afterward.
Critique is not a one size fits all solution, so expect to see this formula in various shapes and sizes across the teams you may be a part of. There are techniques and formats that I’ve not included, and almost certainly some best practices that I’ve left out. Experiment with what works best for you and your team, and don’t be afraid to share what works with the world. If you maintain a focus on objective, critical thinking, and apply this thinking to assess how well you think your design will satisfy it’s primary objectives, I’m certain that with practice the benefits of critique will reveal themselves.
I’m not exaggerating when I claim that practicing critique is among the few things that have tangibly made me a better designer. Not only has the feedback from peers helped me improve my own work, but this practice of critical thinking, of measuring solutions against known objectives and articulating my thoughts on how they could be improved—has strengthened my problem-solving ability. I’m now able to apply this rigorous approach to evaluating design work to my own practice—with each step I take forward, I can also take a step back to objectively evaluate it’s impact on the system.
Intentional critique has become fundamental to any team I’ve led, and it’s one of the main ways these teams have helped each other grow and improve. It’s how I build confidence in the team’s ability to consistently produce strong work, and how they build trust and confidence in one another to hold each other accountable to this shared standard. The standard for quality—and the accountability against this standard—should not be placed on any one individual’s shoulders or funneled through any particular bottleneck or rubber stamp. Ideally, it should become something the individuals of the team hold themselves accountable to. The feeling that each of us is both responsible for and empowered to influence how we accomplish high-quality work is a powerful one.
Teams that mature to have a shared belief that everyone is accountable for individual and collective quality can do incredible things. Critique helps foster this attitude. Critique takes designers off their project-islands and reminds us of the common craft we all practice and love. Critique provides a framework to build one another up, to lean on one another and depend on each other’s honesty and expertise. It requires that sooner than later, a safe space is created within the team so that a shared language emerges.
And perhaps most importantly: it gets us talking about design. I’ve seen very talented designers produce great work, but fail to successfully communicate the value they’ve created with others. If we can’t articulate our design choices and convince others of how to best solve a problem, we’ll struggle to gain alignment and agreement from our clients, influential stakeholders, engineers, or other involved parties.
Critique teaches us to articulate our decisions, rationalize our compromises, and speak honestly about the strengths and weaknesses of our work.
Being able to speak clearly about our work shows a depth of understanding—this is invaluable as we go on to share our work with others.
This is worth practicing.
Seriously, Craigslist is where I found the posting for what later became my first full-time role in design! ↩
Or really, any creative work. Being able to communicate your process, rationale, and thinking behind your work is critical in ensuring it has maximum impact. ↩
This is known among programmers as Rubber Ducking, which works for two reasons: 1) It forces you to slow down and spell things out; 2) By assuming the “duck” in question knows less than you do, you will explain things in more basic terms and examine much more carefully that which you may have taken for granted before. ↩
To be clear—this meeting should happen at some point, but typically separate from the design process. ↩
This is an easy trap to fall into, especially when approval is the goal of a critique session. Watch out for it. ↩