advertisement
advertisement

Want To Build A Culture Of Innovation? Master The Design Critique

Fifteen years as a design educator has taught Jon Kolko the right–and wrong–way to critique design work. He shares his process here.

Want To Build A Culture Of Innovation? Master The Design Critique
[Photo: Hufton+Crow/Getty Images]

The ability to give and take criticism effectively is a crucial part of the design process. And as companies increasingly embrace design, not just as a feature, but, as a core competency, critiques have become more important than ever. In some cases, they may even be the hinge on which a product thrives or dies.

advertisement
advertisement

But many companies may not be accustomed to the art of the critique. In the past, companies outsourced design to vendors–a firm like Frog might be hired to be a provocateur, but also a garbage dump. If a company didn’t like the design firm’s ideas or the ideas didn’t gain traction, the company could simply fault the designers–and the in-house team could feel vindicated, as if the problem were not their responsibility.

Now, design is getting pulled in-house. Companies from tech giants to banks have robust, internal design teams. That means that “experience owners”–people who grew into their roles from the fields of product management and marketing, not design–are often presenting creative concepts. But they don’t necessarily have the culture or language of critique, and when ideas stagnate or are delivered poorly, there’s no mechanism to course-correct.

Critique is one of the pillars of a successful design team. It walks hand in hand with execution and craft. And it’s evidence of a high-performing team, because it externalizes one of the most important parts of creative execution: trust.

Rachel Hinman, product design manager at Stitch Fix, described the culture shift that’s necessary for in-house teams to really institutionalize this trust. “If someone says something about your work that is potentially negative, you believe it is coming from a place of positive intent. If you don’t have that trust in the team, it’s really difficult to have a productive critique. It’s either people don’t say the hard things because they don’t want to deal with the confrontation because they aren’t sure how somebody will react, or they do say those things and it becomes a passive-aggressive competition almost.”

Ben Fullerton, vice president of design at OpenTable, agrees. To build trust, he says, critique needs to come from someone who is obviously and passionately invested in the work itself. “The problem is that you get designers receiving feedback that they don’t necessarily value or trust, because they feel that it’s not coming from a place of genuine interest in the work.” he says. In his view, criticism needs to be met halfway: “As a designer, you tend to get pretty protective of the stuff you do. You obviously invest very heavily, emotionally, in it. But part of maturing as a designer is being able to detach a little bit from that and say, ‘Okay, cool. I am willing and open to receiving feedback about my work, because I understand that the basic design here is to move the work forward and make it better.'”

[Photo: rawpixel/Unsplash]

So What Exactly Is A Critique?

A critique emphasizes the negative in order to help designers improve their work. During critique, designers present their work to a group. The group identifies places where the work can improve. They discuss alternative solutions, sketch those solutions, and work collaboratively to explore which changes will benefit the work the most.

advertisement
[Photo: Flickr user Josh Evnin]

The pinup

A critique begins as a designer displays and presents her work. When I am teaching critiques to students, I emphasize the physicality of design deliverables–I ask students to print out their work and pin it up on the wall. This is true even for digital items, like screens, presentations, or animations. (For presentations, I have the students print their slides. For animations, I have students print keyframes of their videos.) When the work is displayed on the wall, several things happen.

First, the entire group can all observe the work at once. This means that they are all baselined on what the designer has done, all responding to the same work, and all sharing an understanding of the scope and breadth of creative material.

Next, the group can see the work in an end-to-end story. Design always exists in a narrative context, and seeing the work on the wall lets everyone read the story. This is often a series of frames; for example, if the designer is presenting the redesign of a mobile application, she can show each frame in sequence. This means that the group can respond not only to the interface on any given screen, but also to the flow a user will experience through the product–it helps ground the critique in both detail but also in behavior.

Additionally, pinning up the work physically instead of displaying it on a screen helps the designer learn the best ways to communicate complex ideas to an audience (a skill she will need constantly when she is working professionally). The first time a student pins up, he inevitably realizes that the work is too small, too light, lacking annotation, and often nearly incomprehensible to other people. This gives us an opportunity to discuss presentation and persuasion, and how every form of presentation (including critique) is an opportunity to shape what people think and understand.

[Photo: College of DuPage Flickr]

The critique process

Once the work is pinned up, the critique begins. It’s tempting for the designer to explain his work. But I encourage him to only describe the “rules of engagement,” and then simply step back and let the group begin. The work should be self-explanatory. An explanation seems harmless, but it actually presents a defensive position, as if the designer needs to rationalize her design decisions. That creates a dynamic of “me vs. them,” and that’s not healthy in a critique.

Instead, I teach designers to describe the parameters of the critique. This might be a description of the type of feedback they are looking for, or the actual mechanics they want for the critique. For example, they may say:

advertisement

“For this critique, I want to focus on the way I’ve laid out the navigation for the user. I would like feedback on if the navigation is clear. Please don’t offer feedback on the graph down here, because I’m still working on that.”

This sets up boundaries for the critique, and says that some things are off limits.

After they establish the rules of critique, I ask the designer to be quiet. Depending on how advanced the class is, I either take a backseat myself, or I start the critique. Early in students’ educational journey, they might be afraid to speak their mind. In these cases, I start the critique by pointing out an element that isn’t working, and I’ll offer suggestions on how to improve it. The benefit of starting the critique is that students see and can emulate the way I phrase my comments. There’s a challenge, though; younger or less experienced student designers will often follow my lead–they will agree with what I say and be afraid to voice a dissenting opinion.

No matter if I start the critique or someone else begins, I exemplify the behavior I want others to have–I sketch directly on top of the designer’s work with suggestions. When a student offers criticism, I’ll prompt her to “show us,” not tell us. Drawing a solution has several benefits. It captures the idea so that the designer has a record of it later. And, it forces a level of specificity from the person giving the critique; she can’t simply say things like “that isn’t working.”

During the critique, I pay attention to, and correct, language from the students. When they say things like “I don’t like that” or “That’s weird,” I prompt them: “What do you mean?” I ask them to focus on problems, not positive elements or things that are working. I ask them to explain why they react in a certain way. What about the design is bad? What prompted the comment that something is “weird”?

Sometimes, a critique feels like it’s turning personal. I’ll see the person who has the work on the wall becoming defensive–defending his work, and ignoring the benefits of the critique. When this happens, I’ll stop the critique and hold a meta conversation. Instead of critiquing the work, we’ll critique the critique itself. I’ll point out how the person became defensive, and we’ll brainstorm ways to avoid this type of reaction in the future.

advertisement

As the critique continues, I’ll constantly remind designers of the rules of engagement and best practices. These typically include prompts to offer suggestions for improvement, to sketch solutions, and to identify problems and not just good qualities.

[Photo: rawpixel/Unsplash]

After the critique

When a critique is over, I’ll often ask the designer if she is aware of what she will change in future iterations. This causes a level of summative reflection–it encourages her to replay the critique, quickly, and make sure she synthesized the content with enough detail that she can move forward.

Less experienced designers will have lost a lot of the detail of the critique. They will feel overwhelmed with the amount of feedback they received, and sometimes they will leave the critique feeling less directed than when it started. I anticipate this during the critique when I don’t see students capturing or writing down the conversation. Again, I’ll hold a critique about the critique–I’ll stop the critique and say “I noticed you weren’t writing this down. You probably won’t be able to remember this all later. As the critique goes on, there are a few ways you can handle this. You can write down ideas yourself, or you can assign one of your classmates to be the scribe. This way, you’ll be able to get more value out of this conversation.”

[Photo: Flickr user Juhan Sonin]

Frequency

In my classes, I hold critiques as frequently as possible. I don’t wait for a student to be “done” with a project before encouraging criticism of it. In this way, the goal of an in-class critique isn’t just to improve the work. It’s also to instill a culture of criticism, so students stop seeing their work as precious. Design is iterative and is never done, and if a student starts to treat his work as “finished,” he will be reluctant to change it even when confronted with a better solution. A culture of criticism means that critique becomes just another part of the design process, just like research, sketching, or user testing.

This article was adapted with permission from How I Teach: Reflecting on 15 Years in Design Education, available for free here.

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Jon Kolko is the founder and director of Austin Center for Design, a progressive educational institution teaching interaction design and social entrepreneurship. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and large-scale industry disruption

More