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Practicing Critique: Insights from the Big (D)esign Conference

Big Design Conference Geek Cowboy Boot
“Critique is a life skill, not a design skill,” Adam Connor asserted in his presentation “Discussing Design: The Art of Critique” at the Big (D)esign Conference. His session as well as the critique activities in Dana Chisnell and Jonathan Knoll’s workshop “Design and Critique for Challenging Problems” made me realize how misunderstood and unpracticed this skill often is. Both sessions made the point that critique is about communication. Chisnell and Knoll emphasized that critique is about asking questions, not offering suggestions. The questions should probe whether a design meets the goals for the design and why certain decisions were made. Connor stated that the “best critiques are discussions” involving the designer as well as the people invited to provide the critique.
They also pointed out that critique is not the same thing as criticism. The OED defines criticism as

  1. noun: “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes”
  2. noun: “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work”

The emphasis here is on judgment. In contrast, critique is defined as

  1. noun: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
  2. verb: evaluate (a theory or practice) in a detailed and analytical way

The emphasis here is on analytical evaluation. These sessions offered guidance for conducting analysis and avoiding passing judgment.
After an individual design activity in the workshop, Chisnell and Knoll instructed us to critique the designs of our team members. We found ourselves struggling to not start with “I like that…”. While an opinion may offer the start of a critique, it offers little to move the design forward until we give specific reasons for the opinion that tied to the design goals. If a design is to improve from the critique, these details matter. I’ve reviewed professional work and proposal submissions, which is about evaluating work against criteria and providing detailed and constructive feedback. When approaching critique as a discussion rather than as written feedback, however, I and others in my team found it particularly hard to avoid focusing on the positive (hey, some designs were really creative) and simply being nice rather than constructive and detailed.
A challenge particularly facing a designer providing critique is to really looking at the design presented and not trying to re-design or design a new solution. We want to solve problems. Connor pointed out that, “Critique is the inverse of problem solving. Critique looks at whether a design really solved the problems.”
Project sponsors, leads, and other stakeholders face a different challenge. They must accept critique as part of the process, not the conclusion. A critique is not about approvals or sign-off.
Now over week after the conference, I find myself paying more attention to the types of comments I am making in design discussions. I am trying phrase my comment as questions focused on goals and re-phrase if my first response is opinion or a new design. I have a little more experience avoiding voicing only like or dislike opinions from my review experience, but I’m a bit dismayed that the critique conversation style does not flow more effortlessly. The good news from the presenters is that critique improves with practice and becomes easier over time.
Taking critique may take even more practice. “Release ownership of this thing you just created. This is not a baby,” advised Chisnell and Knoll. And yet it’s so hard not to at least try to explain why your intellectual baby looks like this before admitting it may be ugly. Conner addressed this: “Even if feedback is going in the wrong way, don’t make that a debate. Consider and listen.” A wonderful thing about intellectual babies is that mindful and well-intended critique helps them grow up to be beautiful.
The correct intent behind the communication is essential to successful critique. For those giving critique, the intent must be to improve the design and serve the goals. Receiving critique requires listening with humility and meekness and always keeping the goals in mind. Recognizing that there’s almost always more than one successful solution for any problem is a good starting point in preparing both to give and receive critique.
A productive critique session has a few essential characteristics:

  • a small number of the participants who understand the right intent to approach the task
  • adequate preparation including refreshing the group on the design goals
  • a finite amount of time
  • sufficient but not constrictive structure to encourage all attendees to contribute; for example, requiring each participant to provide a good point and a bad point
  • clearly defined outcomes for the critique

Critique should not focus on the constraints of design, though. A designer conveying the constraints behind a design can seem defensive. Consideration of constraints can also overshadow the imperative of goals.
Thoughtful critique can help refine a design to better achieve design goals. It promotes better understanding and trust on a team and is a powerful collaborative design tool. Honest and mindful practice of critique, both giving and receiving, is an essential skill and deserves prominence in every designer’s toolkit. These sessions provided useful guidance for practicing critique more often and more effectively.

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Karen Bachmann

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