Friday, February 6, 2015

Critique as Conversation

In the office and school alike, critique is a moment of dread - one met with anxiety and fear, and often ends in defensive, passive-aggressive outbursts or complete silence.  It is hard to look at a logo or web page and articulate what you see, or what you meant for others to see. Designers often express that they want to "get crit over with" so that they can get back to designing.

But critique IS where the design really starts to happen. It is a conversation where you finally include an audience, preferably one with the people that will use your design, and students and design professionals benefit from having more critique more often.  From a User Experience Design point of view, having people involved in every stage of the project insures a better end result, starting even before there are any visuals to speak of.  It does not mean that everything the client, audience or user says is something that needs to be addressed in the design, but it is important to really understand what you are making and how it fits into the life of who you are making it for.  Technology, culture and skill sets change, making the days of designing because "it worked for the last project" obsolete.  If you don't include people in your process then you are just designing for you. 

This is where critique comes in.  Having feedback helps your process, and having ground ground rules can keep the conversation remain fluid as well as make the event less anxious and more productive for everyone involved. The first place the designer should start is with a solid explanation of their design, perhaps even discussing some of the research they have conducted and how various parts of the design address a specific problem.  Also realize that you may be educating your less design-savvy clients and may want to talk about color theory or hierarchy to help then understand that elements of your design exist where they are for a reason.  Believe it or not, your design does not always speak for itself and often needs you to be the advocate.

You can try one or more of these in your workplace or classroom the next time you need feedback on your designs. Sometimes setting up a framework for discussion helps make critique feel more like a game and less like a mob lynching your work.

Don't Hate. Or Like.
Avoid using "I like" or "I don't like" when talking about your own or other's work, but instead describe what you see and say why it is or is not successful.  This small shift in language changes the conversation from a polorized, opinion based one to delineating what you see. Plus the moment a boss, or someone of authority, says they like or don't like something in a design, others in the group will want to follow suit.  

So instead of saying, "I love how open and clean your design is", you can say, "There is a lot of white space that draws my eye right to the photo of [blank] really emphasizing the meaning of [blank]".  Or instead of, "I hate the colors, they are just off to me", a more productive statement might sound like, "The colors are not harmonious and don't seem like a scheme based off of the color wheel.  They feel random and give the impression of an amateur design".  The latter statements sound more detailed and less like a judgement just by avoiding discussing "likes and hates".  It's kinda like the difference of saying, "You've got a booger", then saying, "You are disgusting".  One is helpful, even if embarrassing, and the other is a judgement. 

Use Small Storkes and Fine Lines
Be very specific when talking about what you see in your own work or in someone else's work. By this I mean in two ways; be specific about the elements in the design you are talking about, and use exacting language to describe the mood and emotion you are feeling from the work. Using broad strokes and saying the whole web page is "good, modern, sleek" is not that helpful if you just stop there.  What one person describes as "tasteful" is what someone else might think as "boring". Start with these works and then move deeper to describe what "boring" actually feels like to you concerning this design. Speaking specifically about the way the handwritten font feels whimsical and adds an air of "DIY" to the design, is more helpful.  You do not have to talk about every detail of a design but instead pick two to three items, like font, flow, texture, or hierarchy to get your point across.

Don't Design for Them.
How many times have you presented your work and your client says something like, "It's great! Now can I see the whole thing in maroon"?  It's bewildering to try to convince them that maroon will not work for this design, and does not answer the real question of, "Why maroon anyway"!?  This once happened to me and I dug deeper to find that my client thought the colors I used looked too much like  a company they wished as their future competitor.  Know "why" let me work with the design in a way that kept its original integrity and intention while getting the client on board.  This technique works the same way in the classroom - if you are telling peers or students what should be moved and changed or deleted in the design then you might be ignoring the larger issue.  Sometimes it is just as simple as saying, "this design feels incomplete and empty [insert specifics about design here]". There are many ways to solve a design problem and if the designer does not understand the problem, but only hears what elements need to change then they are probably going to fall into the same trap again.

Find Mindfullness
Critique really is a conversation, albeit sometimes a tough one.  It helps to frame it this way because it helps keep a session more productive by minimizing the feeling of judgements (which naturally happens in this situation). In the classroom I go one step further and have my students take a few moments of mindful meditation in order to be in the present moment and calm themselves so that they can think more clearly.  Afterall, managing creativity and burn-out is necessary for a design professional. Being in the moment, above all, can lunricate a discussion centered around design.  And if critique is more pleasant, in both the work place and in school, it will more likely occur more often. Sometimes even spontaneously!

Hopefully you are interested in trying some of the above ideas, and perhaps you want to even share what works and doesn't for you. 

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