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The Art of the Critique

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Critiques are at the heart of art and design and help the creator to improve either their art or their design. When it comes to design, however, the project client is the one the work is for, so learning to critique, and how to accept criticism is essential for improving your design work and for keeping your clients happy. What do you do when you are the freelancer and sole proprietor of your company? Let’s start at the beginning.

First off, you need to commit to being a lifelong learner. Why? Because technology changes, people’s tastes change, and you change (maybe quickly, maybe slowly, but we are all growing). There are a lot of resources for being a lifelong learner so you need to find what works for you. For me, I chose to go back to school online. I like the format of structured classroom feedback and learning from design professionals who teach but who also have their own companies (my school of choice: Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design). AIGA has quite a number of resources listed on their professional development page. Don’t want to head back to school (or don’t want to spend a ton of money learning)? You can learn at your own pace on a number of MOOC courses from EdX, Coursera, Sophia, and Alison or, if you are in the Appleverse, on iTunes U on an iOS device. If you want more content that is design specific, check out Creative Live and LinkedIn Learning (who took over Lynda.com).

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of learning something new every day (and yes, I DO mean learning something new every day). You need to learn how to give and receive feedback. Telling someone you don’t like their work or someone telling you they don’t like YOUR work isn’t very helpful. Learning how to critique is essential if you want to know why your work isn’t doing so well, or conversely, why it IS doing well. It is also critical to explaining why you chose to design or interpret the project the way you did to whomever might be reviewing your work. There are several techniques that work well.

The first is the “Love Sandwich” technique where you sandwich the constructive criticism part with what someone did well. Open with something you like about the work and be descriptive. Why do you like it? What is it that speaks to you? The “middle” is the part that isn’t working. Ask why they chose to do what they did. Don’t make it personal; talk about the work and limit the “you” words. Close with what is positive and what is working with the design. AIGA has a great article about how to give and receive design critiques.

The second technique comes from the Stanford Design School founders Tom and David Kelley. You can find it, and a boatload of other great tips, methods, and advice in their book Creative Confidence. The technique is “I like/I wish” where you open with what you like and then express what you wish would be different. You can follow up with “I wonder” if you have a suggestion on how to change something. Again, it’s important to keep the “you” verbiage out of the mix. Talk about the design and not the designer.

Finally, learning to take constructive criticism is as important as giving it. First and foremost, LISTEN. No matter how the critique is delivered (and especially if it’s delivered poorly), it’s important to hear what is said. Take the meat of the issue and focus on that. Don’t take the critique personally no matter how difficult that might be. Ask questions, but only after the person has finished what they have to say. If possible, view it as if you were hearing the critique about someone else’s work and not your own. That might give you a more objective viewpoint. And, if the critique is REALLY bad and REALLY personal, thank the person, set the work aside for a day or two, and then see what, if anything, you want to do to change it. Design is not hard science. It’s subjective and you aren’t going to please everyone, but you can learn from every situation.