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The Art of the Critique

Computer and cat

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

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.

Type Games

Fire and Ice, hand kerned typography

I love typography. It’s one of the things I most like about graphic design. Do you obsess over type shapes? Do you think about how you can kern something better? Have you watched the film Helvetica more than once? Or, maybe you look at newsletters and cringe when you see Comic Sans announcing anything other than a preschool event. If so, then you are a type junky, too.

I confess, I can spend hours (and do sometimes) looking through type foundry portfolios for the perfect font family (or just because it’s so fascinating). So, what is even better than reading through typography blogs? Playing typography games of course!

Two excellent games that will help you master typography are Shape Type which trains your eye on how a particular letter is formed, and Kern Type which trains you to see how the letters interact with one another. Both games are by Mark MacKay and María Munuera. They have some other cool games they have co-authored too, so check their websites out for more fun. Do you have a favorite type game? If so, leave me a comment, I’d love to know what they are.

Kat Lehman

Thinking about objects

Have you ever seriously thought about the objects you surround yourself with daily? Do they just exist and you use them? Or do you think about them and why you own them? What meaning do you ascribe to the stuff you have?

I just finished watching Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified. If you haven’t seen it, you really should rent it, especially if you are interested in industrial design. It had been on my watch list for a while (the film came out in 2009), but as industrial design isn’t my area of focus, I hadn’t taken the time to watch it until this weekend.

For those of you who have watched Hustwit’s other great film, Helveticahe uses a similar format. He interviews designers on their thoughts about what objects mean, what design means in relation to those objects, and what the impact industrial design has on all of us. One thing I was really heartened by was the focus on sustainability and the fact that today’s industrial designers if they are good at what they do, will design products cradle to cradle not cradle to grave. In other words, whatever they design should be endlessly reused and recycled and not dumped in a landfill.

While Hustwit interviews a number of designers and design teams, the two that really stood out for me were the interviews with Dieter Rams and his principles on good design, and the segments with IDEO’s staff. Rams is legendary in the product design world, and for good reason. His products are innovative and unobtrusive. They also don’t feel like they are designed; they just are. IDEO’s interviews, whose human-centered design work is transforming numerous industries, was equally enlightening when applied to product design. The care they give to each challenge is amazing.  If you are interested in human-centered design, check out their non-profit wing’s field guide.

What objects have meaning to you?

-Kat Lehman

New Year, New Ventures

Can you believe it’s almost 2019? No? We can’t either. Where in the world did this past year go? It’s been a whirlwind one for us and for everyone we know. How about you?

With each new year, we always take time to look back where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and then plan what we want to accomplish in the upcoming year. This year has been no exception. With trips to Iceland, Scotland, North Carolina, and Texas, we’ve had a full travel schedule. Anna and Kat are finishing degrees in 2019 and we look forward to all their fantastic ideas reaching fruition in the upcoming year.

So, are you looking for something new? When was the last time you updated your website or branding? If it’s been a while, give us a call! We would love to meet you, get to know you and your business, and help you with your redesign or refreshing your web content. Should you want unique pictures for your website or product line, we also offer custom photography. We specialize in designing for small businesses and solopreneurs.

What has us excited

Being here for one. We are a new company in eastern Pennsylvania bringing good design to small businesses and non-profits. Does that sound like you? Are you struggling to get your business up on the web? We’re here to help!

We offer photography, web design, UX prototyping, copyediting, copywriting, and illustration. We believe in community and giving back. We believe in sustainability and creating the cleanest code we can. We work hard, and we’re here to help you be the best you can be in all that you do. Want to learn design skills yourself? We’d be happy to show you! Yep, you heard that right, we’ll help you learn what we know. We believe in transparency, listening, customer service, hard work, and making the world a better place than when we got here.

Not ready to give us a call? No problem, watch this space for design tips and tricks, what we’re up to, stuff we’ve read recently and what we are working on.