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Do you know how to give a good critique?

One of my professors made us critique our classmates’ projects at the end of every college assignment. Once we completed a design project, he would place everyone’s design at the front of the class, and one by one, he would select students and ask them to critique one of the projects.

The reason he did this was twofold. He wanted us to develop an eye towards examining other designs to both learn from them, which makes us better designers and seek aspects of the designs we would have done differently.

The other reason he held these critiques was to thicken our skin. As designers, we have to learn to take criticism of the works we create. If you are easily offended or don’t take well to people critically evaluating your creations this way, then maybe being a designer is not for you. Besides, what better way to learn than by hearing our fellow students dissect our works.

I can tell you that I learned a lot from hearing my classmates tear apart my work. But this exercise we conducted at the end of each project had another effect. You see, the professor wasn’t only evaluating our design work. He was also evaluating our critiques. He would point out when our comments were not helpful or ask us to expand on our observations to convey better what we were saying.

Even though every student dreaded these critiquing sessions, looking back, I’m grateful for them. It made me look at design through a different lens. It taught me the difference between giving a critique and offering constructive criticism. And that’s what I want to discuss with you today.

As you may be aware, there’s a Resourceful Designer Facebook group. In this group, or any other design group for that matter, including the Resourceful Designer Community. Designers often post their designs “for review.” Sometimes they are looking for advice. Sometimes it’s for validation. And sometimes, they’re looking for nothing more than an ego grab.

Regardless of their reasoning for posting their work, I can’t help but shake my head at some of the comments they receive. Comments which supposedly come from experienced designers, and yet, they’re of no value to the person posting their design.

So I want to talk to you about my method of critiquing. Is my method the proper right way of offering critiques? Of course not. I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, and you should do it my way. I’m hoping that after hearing what I have to say, you may take an extra moment to contemplate your response the next time someone asks you to critique their work.

When to ask for critiques.

Let’s start with when you should be asking for critiques. In my opinion, there are four stages of a design project when you should ask for critiques.

  1. During the initial concept stage.
  2. If you hit a roadblock.
  3. Before presenting your design to the client.
  4. Before sending the design to print or launching it.

Let’s break those down.

1. Ask for critiques during the initial concept stage.

The beginning of a design project is when the work is most fluid. It’s the point when the design could take off in any direction. If you are working on a logo project, you may sketch out dozens or hundreds of concepts before narrowing it down to the ones you want to develop further.

During this stage, it’s not uncommon to show your favourite concepts to someone to get another opinion. You’re not asking for critiques of the actual designs, but more of the overall direction you are taking. It’s a great way to validate that you are starting on the right path before getting too far down the road.

Another set of eyes can help spot the stronger designs and weed out the weaker ones. It is beneficial for someone who has been staring at them for a long time which diminishes your objectivity.

So asking for critiques during the initial concept stage can quickly help you determine what direction the rest of the design project will take.

2. Ask for critiques when you hit a roadblock.

We’ve all been there, you’re designing away on something you initially thought was great, but all of a sudden, you doubt yourself. Something about the design isn’t sitting right with you, but you can’t figure out what. This is the perfect opportunity to get another set of eyes on it.

Sometimes, another uninvested designer can look at a design and spot the flaws that you’ve become blind to. So any time you hit a roadblock or start to doubt something about your work, ask someone to critique it.

3. Ask for critiques before showing your work to the client.

You’ve completed your design. You’ve polished it up and are ready to present it to your client. Now is the perfect time to show it to others first, just in case there’s something you’re not seeing.

It’s not a good feeling to tell a client after presenting something to them that you need to make a change. It tarnishes the mantle of “expert” they’ve placed over you. It’s even worst if the client points out any flaws to you.

To prevent this, it’s a good idea to ask for critiques before presenting your work to the client.

4. Ask for critiques before sending a design to print or launching it.

There is potentially a lot of money involved in a print run. You do not want to find out after the fact that there was an issue with your design.

If you’re a solo designer, I highly suggest you find someone or a group of people like in the Resourceful Designer Community that can review your work before you hand it off to the printer.

Digital work isn’t as critical since it can always be corrected after the fact. But it still reflects poorly on you if you published something with errors or flaws. To prevent this from happening, ask for critiques before sending a project to print or launch.

Those are the four times when you should be asking for critiques of your work. That doesn’t mean you should limit it to those times. At any point during a project, you can ask someone to look over what you’ve done. But even if you’re confident in what you are doing, these four critique points should not be ignored.

How to ask for critiques.

Let’s look at how to ask for critiques. Posting a design and asking “What do you think?” is not the right way. Without any context, you’re just opening yourself up to a bevy of unhelpful answers.

  • What do you think? I think you can do better.
  • What do you think? I think it should be blue instead of green.
  • What do you think? I’m not crazy about the font.
  • What do you think? I don’t like it.

Not useful answers.

What you want to do is make it easy for the person to critique your work. After all, you are asking them to devote a bit of their precious time to help you. The least you can do is make it easier for them to offer their assistance by giving you the advice you can use. A tiny bit of effort on your part will benefit both you and the person critiquing your work.

The proper way to ask for critiques involves three key elements.

  1. A short brief of the project.
  2. The parameters you faced in the design.
  3. What you are looking for in the critique.

Let’s look at each of those.

1. Give a short brief of the project.

If you are asking me to critique a logo, it would be nice to know, at minimum, in what industry the client works. Is “Bluebird” the name of a restaurant? Is it a bus line? A band? A children’s clothing line? Without this context, how am I supposed to give you a proper critique of your design?

You don’t have to provide an in-depth project brief. But a short description of who the client is, their location, what services or products they are offering and who their target market is will help me greatly when offering my opinion on your design.

2. Mention the parameters you faced in the design.

Was there anything that limited what you can or cannot do with the design you’re creating? Did the client insist you use a sans serif font? Were you limited to specific corporate colours? Was there a particular element you needed to incorporate into the design?

Knowing these things will help people form their critique. If I know you were limited to sans serif fonts, I won’t recommend a serif font. I won’t comment on the colours if I know you had no choice but to use the ones you did. And if I know the client wants a nautical theme; I won’t recommend you use a train in your design.

Knowing what parameters you face will help people give you a better critique.

3. Mention what you are looking for in a critique.

Finally, if you want an overall opinion of the design, great, say so. But if you want to know about a particular aspect of it, let people know.

If all you’re interested in is whether or not the size of the icon is appropriate to the size of the logotype, then say that’s what you are looking for. There’s no sense in someone dissecting the rest of the design if that’s all you want to know.

Suppose you are designing a poster and want to know if the visual hierarchy is working. Ask people to list in order what they think are the most critical areas of the sign.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a critique of an overall design. But if all you need is for someone to verify one aspect of your project, then save both of us some time by saying so up front.

Giving Critiques

And now the good part, giving critiques.

Critiques are a learning experience for both you and the person you are critiquing. It helps hone your design skills by spotting ways you think a design can be improved. It may also show you things you may not have considered before. And it helps the person receiving the critique by offering them a different approach to their design.

Design is subjective. No two designers think the same way. Just because it’s not how you would design it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong or doesn’t work. It just means that you would have done it differently.

As the title of this episode states. A good critique should offer constructive criticism: meaning, the suggestions you make. And keep in mind, a critique is just that, suggestions. The suggestions you offer should have a reason behind them.

Here are four key ingredients to a good critique.

  1. Identify what you believe can use improvement.
  2. Explain why you believe the current way is lacking.
  3. Offer suggestions on how you would do it differently.
  4. State why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

That’s it. If you can offer these four things when giving a critique, you provide helpful advice to the person asking. Let’s look at each one.

1. Identify what you believe can use improvement.

It’s tough to offer a good critique of an overall design. Most likely, whatever you have to say pertains to a particular part of the design. Therefore, the first thing you should do is identify what part of the design you refer to.

Say you think the website header, or logo icon, or newsletter masthead needs something. Pinpointing areas of a design allows you to break up your critique into actionable sections.

  • This is what I think of the icon
  • This is what I think of the logotype
  • This is what I think of the sizing
  • This is what I think of the colours.

Critique individual elements, not the design as a whole.

2. Explain why you believe the current way is lacking.

It’s much easier to convince someone to change something if you can explain what you believe is wrong with the way it is now.

For example: Explaining how the connecting letters in a script font are hard to make out and could be interpreted in the wrong way will go a long way in helping you convince them to change the font in their design.

Or pointing out that the colours of the font and the background it’s on are too similar in hue and may cause legibility issues for visually impaired people. It helps strengthen your argument towards changing the colours in the design.

So whenever possible, please explain why you believe the current way is lacking before you offer suggestions on how to change it.

3. Offer suggestions on how you would do it differently.

Remember how I said that no two designers are the same? That means that what you think is the right way may not be what the next designer thinks is right.

Sure there are some things on which most of us agree. But innovative designers have successfully challenged tried and true design principles. It’s how design evolves.

Do you know the saying “Blue and green should never be seen except for inside a washing machine”? There was a time when no designer would use blue and green together. And yet, nowadays, it’s a common combination.

So just because you think something doesn’t look right doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. I’m personally not a fan of the street art grunge style of design. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable design choice. Just not something I would choose.

Keeping that in mind, form your opinions as suggestions when critiquing someone’s work. Let them know how you would do it differently. Then let them decide if it’s something they want to pursue.

And don’t be offended if they choose not to listen to you. After all, no two designers…

4. State why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

Finally, state why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

The best way to win an argument is by offering your opinion and explaining why it’s so. No designer should change their design without a good reason. And “I think it would look better in red” is not a good reason.

Explaining that red is a more passionate colour that encourages people to make spur-of-the-moment decisions is a convincing argument for why they should change the colour.

You don’t have to get philosophical with your answers. Sometimes the “Why” behind your suggestion is simple. Increasing the space between the text and the underline will make it easier to read when reduced. Simple.

So whenever possible, state why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

Conclusion

Critiques are hard. Both receiving them and giving them. But critiques are also how we improve. If nobody ever critiqued your work, you would never get better at what you do. And if you never take the time to critique another design, you’ll never learn new things.

In fact, I bet you critique other designs all the time. I know I critique every billboard, website, bumper sticker, t-shirt, etc. that I see. I’m always thinking of how I would have done it differently or mentally filing away a good design idea so that I can steal it for a future project. I can’t help it. I’m a designer. You probably do the same.

Critiques. They’re the bane of our existence and the fuel that propels us. We wouldn’t be designers without critiques. But always remember, Critiques are just suggestions.

As I mentioned several times already, no two designers think the same way. So, just because someone says a design element should be changed doesn’t necessarily mean you should change it. You need to weigh what you know about the project, about yourself as a designer, about the client, and what you know about the person whose recommendations you are thinking of following.

The best and most valuable critiques come from people you know and trust. If a stranger says something should be green, however, your trusted design colleague thinks it should be blue. Chances are you’re going to lean towards making it blue. That’s why being a part of a design group like a Facebook group, or even better, the Resourceful Designer Community, can be such a benefit. Listen to and learn from the people you know.

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I want to help you.

Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business, please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at feedback@resourcefuldesigner.com

 

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