Critiques, giving and receiving useful feedback

Funnily enough, a couple of days before Mark Boulton said to critique design effectively." says Mark Boulton on Twitter”) and wrote his piece on design critiques, I’d been thinking about that same topic. I’ve been struggling through an iPhone app icon design, and had asked Twitter for help. I’ve got an app icon design that needs some criticism as I’ve lost sight of it. Anyone free to give me some time via email today?" by Laura Kalbag on Twitter”) Knowing that the 160 character limit wasn’t going to help me much, I emailed everyone who offered me assistance and sat back waiting for the criticism.

I wasn’t expecting in-depth critique. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going wrong, and some gut reactions on what might be the problem was the kind of feedback I really wanted.

What I was surprised to receive was quite a few responses just telling me exactly what to do. This wasn’t ‘feedback’, it was direction. There is a great difference between someone asking ‘why’ and someone asking ‘how’. Design critiques aim to give the receiver a wider understanding of their work, and design in general, there really are no magic rules in design whereby you follow them and your project becomes an instant ‘success.’

How I encouraged poor feedback

A critique isn’t all in what the other side says to you. In order to allow the ‘giver’ to deliver useful feedback, you need to explain the context of the work. Very rarely does design work stand without requiring any explanation. The more the giver understands about your work, the greater insight they are likely to give you.

There are numerous elements that may have affected your outcome and will need explaining to the giver so that they might understand your decisions (and these are just a few!):

  • the client
  • the audience
  • your task as a designer
  • your role within the team (if any)
  • any constraints
  • what you aim to achieve

Also, when presenting your work it may help to give your justification behind the design of particular elements that stand out. If you think someone is likely to comment on it, and you can see the problem, then explain it so that people can help you with that problem rather than just telling you something you already know.

This doesn’t mean start with a load of excuses! Often I’m inclined to say “the client told me to do this, and I don’t really want to argue with them…” which is really an excuse for me not standing up for my design work or my principles.

Giving useful feedback

Most important when giving useful feedback is trying to understand the context of the project. It’s ok to ask questions before giving any advice! If someone has asked for your opinion, then they are likely to value it, but this does not mean that you should blindly give feedback without understanding the work.

The design is the designer’s project. They may be sharing their work with you, but they ask for feedback in the hope of understanding better how to improve their work, not to be told what to do. The key to this is really trying to concentrate on understanding the problems together as best you possibly can, rather than offering quick solutions.

However this doesn’t mean that it’s bad to help the designer with ideas. Try to give examples to help illustrate potential solutions, but always back these up with rationalisation, and the reason why you think this would work.

Always be honest, but polite. Egos are no use in critiques, but you don’t want to upset people. Those cruel art school scenarios may be good for destroying the ego that is overly protective of their work, but in a working situation we’re not out to hurt each other. If you find it difficult to honestly convey negative opinions, for fear of hurting a sensitive person, try sandwiching the negative between positive feedback. Negative feedback is definitely more useful, but it can be heartening for a struggling designer to hear the elements of their work that are successful.

Receiving feedback

Listen listen listen. Forget that ego in the back of your mind that is automatically coming up with defensive excuses and try to learn from the experience. People are taking the time to help you, it is only polite to listen to what they have to say.

Take note of everything they tell you, even if you don’t understand it or think it is right. You may come to understand later, and it’s not necessarily the comment that is useful, but the interpretation of your work that helps you understand how potential users may see your designs.

If you keep getting the same comments over and over again, don’t dismiss the additional comments as unhelpful. One person may have further insight, and the fact that so many people are reinforcing the same point should really hammer home any improvements you need to make.

Not having an art education isn’t the end of the world

If you know me, then chances are you’ll have heard me rant about my experiences in formal art/design education. Needless to say, it isn’t always a positive way to start your design career, and I fear it is often a source of snobbery in the design/web design industry.

This kind of education may give people a head-start in critiques because they’ve taken part before, but that really is the only head-start. How does anyone get experience asides from trying something for themselves?

I love Martin’s idea of meeting up for group critiques. I think it would be something that could benefit a lot of designers if we do it regularly, and get an opportunity to understand each other and our ways of working better. So if anyone is local-ish to the Surrey area (and I’m willing to travel for this kind of interaction!) please let me know. For those of us who are also frequent conference attendees, maybe we should have post-conference crits together?! Let’s get on with it!

One comment

  1. I’ve been thinking about this since Mark’s talk too. I’d be up for a meetup group to critique work, although I don’t do much design at the moment, but I do work as a usability consultant so I guess I critique people’s work everyday! I’ve been having occasional thoughts about an online critiquing platform for a while since somebody on an e-campaigning list I subscribe to mentioned it but with the focus on critiquing digital campaigns. I started scribbling down more ideas on this during Mark’s talk. What do you think of a website where people could submit designs and ask for honest feedback? I’ve seen people do it on other forums, but nothing specific. Would you use such a site? (and maybe be interested in a little collaboration project on it :) )