Critiquin’ ain’t easy. And when you’re working as a designer, it’s part of your day-to-day. It’s how you ensure the project outcome is the best it can be. But it can be tough teetering on the line between constructive criticism and absolute self-esteem annihilation, and with so many ways to give feedback, how do you know where to begin? Well, in the words of John, George, Ringo and Paul, “I get by with a little help from my friends at Sex, Drugs & Helvetica”.
It’s the uncut version. You’d know that if you were a true fan.
1. Understand the project’s goals
Before you can give feedback, you need to know what the project is trying to achieve. Don’t make assumptions – ask questions. This way your critique is based on facts. Once you’ve nutted out the project’s end goal, you can ask what type of feedback would be helpful. Are they looking for critique on the user experience of buying a product in the online store they’ve designed or design feedback on the visual and branding aspects? Keep asking until you have enough answers to understand what you’re working with.
2. Print it out
Sorry, tree lovers, but it’s the rules. Even when you’re dishing out digital work, it’s important to print out concepts, ideas and inspiration – it allows for more open communication and discussion. It makes it easier to take a step back and look at the work. And whether you’re doing the critiquing or being the critiqued, write down notes. Have those post-its ready. Write feedback on them and stick ‘em on the project. Or, for the mavericks among us, just get right up in there and write directly on the page. This can be particularly helpful for projects with copy – “Add an indent here. Add a space there. Is that a widow? You disgust me.” And so on.
3. You’ve got to got to try a little tenderness
Being on the receiving end of critique is something many designers, especially graduates, can find a little nerve-wracking. It shouldn’t be. It’s a necessary process. But no one likes being told the work they’ve slaved over for three days is bad. While that blunt, brutally honest feedback is like spinach to Popeye for some designers, the majority of us benefit from that extra little bit of encouragement and a scratch behind the ear. A way to minimise the fear factor is to avoid using negative connotations where possible. For example, “You shouldn’t use that typeface, you should be using Type A, Type B or Type C.” is very different from, “You may want to consider changing the typeface? Maybe try Type A, Type B or Type C.” A little cushioning goes a long way.
4. The “what” and “why” factor
Be specific. You’re critiquing design, not wine tasting. There’s no room for “meandering top notes of regret” and “floaty airs of red wine breath”. Look at what is or isn’t working in the design and make direct, actionable suggestions. And, remember, rationale doesn’t just apply to projects. There should always be a ‘why’ behind your feedback. Simple positive and negative responses don’t make for an effective critique. “This typeface and shape doesn’t do it for me.” is an example of bad critique. It needs a ‘because’. It needs reasoning. For example, “This typeface and shape doesn’t do it for me because the contrasting weight of the line work in the shape and the typography make it feel a bit unbalanced.”
5. If you’re still at a loss, wrap some buns around it
Ah, the “hamburger” method. It starts with something positive. Pointing out something genuinely good about the design. A big ol’ hunk of that fluffy, friendly, feelings-sensitive bun. Then comes the meat. The tofu. The soy protein. The substance, in other words. Ways to improve the project, things that need some work, where some changes could be made. And then we’re back to the bun. It’s a slightly soggier comment, but still pointing out those positive points.
How it looks in practice: “The lockup of shape and typeface are a good start. Although, the contrasting weight of the line work in the shape and the typography make it feel a bit unbalanced. But the decision to use a serif instead of a sans serif really ties together the overall concept.”
At this point you can offer some suggestions. Some say the critiquer should identify the problems and the critiqued should be the one figuring out the answer, but suggestions can be helpful in moderation. As long as your feedback (both positive and negative) is honest and with rationale, this can be an effective critiquing solution.
We all need a helping hand at times and, in the words of John, George, Ringo and Paul, “I get by with a little help from my friends at Sex, Drugs & Helvetica”. Each month we’ll be talking you through the “How To” of those tricky day-to-day tasks we all have to tackle.
Image by Magdalena Ksiezak