Design Critique Culture
Creating a professional culture for design feedback is an essential factor for the success of a project
All creative disciplines — be it music, art, dance, architecture, or design — share an elemental form of evaluation and assessment: the critique. These feedback sessions are deeply ingrained in each disciplinary culture, and they form the backbone of creative education. Critiques are fundamental to the development of a creative professional. They provide an opportunity to present skills, ideas, and ambitions — and they immediately provoke a reaction from teachers and colleagues.
Outside academia, the practice of design critique feels a bit neglected. The entire design process has been strongly examined and formalised — but design critique is rarely discussed. Neither Design Thinking nor the popular Double Diamond Model explicitly mention design critiques. It seems to be an implicit and unimportant task that can be taken for granted. Critiques appear to happen along the way, and they do not seem to deserve the same academic scrutiny as a Persona or a User Journey.
My impression is that this neglect has a direct effect on the way design critiques are run. Often, critiques take place unannounced, unplanned, and sometimes unaware. The distinction between meeting, presentation, workshop, chat, and critique is frequently blurred. I believe that design critiques deserve more attention. They should be more appreciated and cultivated in every design project.
But if every creative professional knows that good critiques are essential for the success of a project — then why are they so neglected? Why are they overlooked by most design methodologies?
I believe the answer is quite simple. Design critiques are difficult to formalise. There is no easy recipe that guarantees a productive design critique. The intricacies that decide about the success (or failure) of a design critique cannot be encapsulated in a simple to-do list. There is nothing mysterious about design critiques. However, they require a high level of design skill and social competence, a deep understanding of the subject matter, and the ability to adequately express criticism.
In this essay, I would like to stress the importance of critique as a distinct format that is essential for a successful design project. While it is almost impossible to strictly formalise design critique, there are several factors for a successful critique.
I am neither the first nor the only one that has noticed the recent imbalance between methodology and critique. In the last few years, there have been some contributions to the way we run design critiques — notably the excellent book ‘Discussing Design’ by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry and the highly controversial talk by Natasha Jen. Furthermore, Bill Buxton and Saul Greenberg view critique as an alternative to usability evaluation in their seminal paper ‘Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful (Some of the Time)’. However, the role of critique is currently not very prominent in the design discourse.
The following thoughts are neither technique, guideline nor to-do list. They are considerations on how to integrate critiques into the design process of your team, your institution, or your company. In short, this essay is about establishing a design critique culture.
Good design critiques are not only useful but also inspiring, passionate, and stimulating. They are at the very core of what makes design such an intellectually and aesthetically fascinating profession.
Design critique is often regarded as utilitarian. In their book ‘Discussing Design’, Connor and Irizarry always emphasise the relevance of the overall project objectives for a critique. According to them, feedback should always be centred around the question: ‘how does this design support the overall goals of the project?’
This approach is perfectly all right. But I would argue that every design project should also be discussed in a broader aesthetic, conceptual, and cultural context — and not only in regard to the current objectives. There is more to design than utility. And a design critique is an ideal setting for looking beyond the narrow scope of the briefing.
Outstanding reference projects — or ‘design classics’ — achieve exactly this. They have distinctive conceptual and aesthetic qualities that go beyond the original objectives. Obviously, not every project will turn out to be a design classic and achieve such a level of excellence. But a design critique is the right place to stipulate this kind of thinking. Even if excellence is hard to achieve, it should always be the point of reference.
Every critique is different — and every critique will address different aspects of the design space. It is important to note that design critiques are not only about aesthetics, but also about concept, systems, meaning, and culture. Sometimes participants will talk more about abstract ideas — another time more about typography and colour. In any case: don’t shy away from aesthetic questions. Even in app design you should strive for beauty.
So, the purpose of a design critique is both utilitarian and idealistic. It identifies problems regarding the scope of the project — but it also opens up the discussion for visionary ideas and perfectionist convictions.
A design critique is a focused discussion and analysis of an artefact resulting from an ongoing design process. Simply put: a designer gives a quick and concise presentation of her or his current work. After the presentation, colleagues give coherent and convincing feedback. The timing can vary — however, a presentation should not be longer than 15 minutes and the feedback should not exceed 45 minutes.
The roles in a design critique are fairly simple: there are presenters and contributors. The presenters show their work, the contributors give feedback. This sounds simple enough — but there are a number of factors that complicate matters.
Most importantly, the aim of design critique is not confirmation. If you are presenting your work at a critique, you should not anticipate applause but criticism. Participants will identify strengths and shortcomings. They will tell you what’s working and — more importantly — what’s not. To put it bluntly, critique is about identifying weaknesses in the design.
It is obvious that critiques are very different from presentations to management or to clients. Critiques are not about decisions, performance, or milestones. The aim of a critique is to open up a design — not to finalise it. So, a critique makes only sense if the design is still in development and the designers have the resources to implement the feedback they receive.
I can’t stress this enough: design critiques must be conducted with the utmost level of respect and politeness while being clear and on point. This is tricky and it usually takes some experience to get it right.
In any case, there is one golden rule for design critiques: always criticise the design — never the designer. Criticising or even insulting a person is completely unacceptable. Being rude is a red flag for a design critique. Nothing good will come from it. This is especially true for senior figures. If a teacher or a team leader is using a critique for attacking individuals, then you have a serious problem in your company or institution.
Once the presentation is over, the first thing contributors should do is asking questions. This gives the presenters an opportunity to clarify their ideas. Furthermore, questions are a good way for the contributors to understand where the design is right now and what kind of feedback the presenters hope to get.
As mentioned above, the aim of a design critique is not praise but analysis and criticism. However, it is always a good idea to start feedback on a positive note. So, if you are giving feedback, point out something you really like or what already works well before you delve into the more controversial points. Most people are much more receptive to criticism if they also received some praise. Furthermore, agreeing on what is good helps everyone to focus on the unresolved questions.
Language is key to a successful design critique. Critiques can be intense — but they should never be uncomfortable. So being polite and helpful is essential.
In a way, design critiques are a team sport. They are only successful if everyone is good at it. So, it is sensible to have a certain degree of consistency in the team. Furthermore, practice makes perfect. It is a good idea to establish regular feedback sessions with the team and encourage everyone to participate both as a presenter and as a contributor.
There is no easy way to come up with an ideal number of participants for a design critique — but don’t make them too big. If people are getting bored or don’t get a chance to say something, then you have too many people in the room. Critiques should be engaging for everyone. If they are not, try to make the group smaller.
Since critiques are about design, they should be run by designers for designers. Participants from other disciplines are welcome to join but they should not dominate. Furthermore, everyone should be clear about the aims of a design critique and the way they are run.
I argue that design critiques have a disciplinary autonomy that should be respected by other project teams. I have often noted that non-designers try to move the discussion into areas they are more comfortable with. There is nothing devious about this — but it can be a distraction. Therefore, topics that are not directly related to the design should be cut short. There is a time to talk about tech, there is a time to talk about money, there is a time to talk about PR. A critique is a time to talk about design.
I like the way Bill Buxton and Saul Greenberg describe critiques in their paper: ‘This [the critique] is a reflective and highly interactive process: constructive criticisms and probing demands that designer and criticizers alike develop and share a deep understanding of the design idea and how it interacts within its context of use.’
Designers are approval junkies. We love it when our designs are used, appreciated, and recognised. Good design is very personal work. We strongly identify with it.
If designers present their design work, they make themselves vulnerable. Especially if they tried something new or unusual. It is extremely important that everyone in the room acknowledges this vulnerability. As mentioned above, critique is always aimed at the design — not the designer. It is perfectly all right to criticise the artefact — but it is prohibited to criticise the person.
For a successful design critique, a certain degree of trust is essential. This applies to both sides: the presenter trust the contributors to value the design and to acknowledge the vulnerability — and the contributors trust the presenters to value the feedback.
Trust is not only about respect and politeness. It is also about trusting each other’s competence. There is no guarantee to get excellent feedback from an accomplished and experienced designer. But in general, it is sensible to rely on experience and expertise.
Trust also allows you to challenge the presenter. If you have established a high level of trust in the critique, everyone can be very open, and ideas can flow very unreservedly.
It takes time to establish trust. It cannot be decreed, and it should not be assumed. Starting the feedback with the words ‘We trust each other — right?’ is not a good sign.
The key element of a design critique is reasoning. Participants use visual and verbal arguments to provide reasons that support their observations. The aim of the contributors is to come up with a consistent, comprehensive description of observable shortcomings and possible solutions. Critiques are not about quick verdicts. Just stating that you like or dislike something is not the point of critique.
However, design critiques can be opinionated. Clearly stated opinions are sometimes a good reference system for further developments. Nevertheless, opinions need a justification. Why do you have this opinion? What reasons can you provide to support it? Is it well founded — or is it a gut feeling?
Maybe it comes as a surprise that not all feedback has to be constructive. Sometimes it is better to describe the problem in a very clear and comprehensible way and leave the solution the designer. On-the-spot solutions rarely take the complexities of a project into account.
There is a difference between being constructive and being instructive. During a critique, feedback should always be understood as a contribution to an ongoing debate and not as an instruction. As a general rule, directive feedback (‘do this!’) should be avoided. A critique is about analysis and discussion and not about finalising designs.
Furthermore, not all feedback is convincing for everyone in the room. During a critique, you will regularly encounter disagreements, even if you have high level of trust. There will be disagreements between presenter and contributors — and more frequently among the contributors.
It is important to point out that it is absolutely fine to disagree. Not every conflict can be resolved — especially not in the short time of a critique. Disagreements can be very productive as they allow you to view the problem from different angles.
So, it is ok to disagree. In the end, it is the job of the presenters to reflect and interpret the feedback.
Once the design critique is over, the presenters still have work to do. If you participated as a contributor, you can leave the critique and immediately switch your attention to other things. However, if you have presented your work, you should reserve some time after the critique and reflect on the feedback.
Bear in mind that feedback is not always literal. It should not be treated as a to-do list. Feedback needs to be interpreted. Sometimes a design flaw is the result of a deeper structural problem. Sometimes the contributors just encircle the problem without properly identifying it. As a presenter, it is your job to unravel the feedback and make it productive.
When you reflect on the critique, you will remember the really obvious questions ands suggestions. Nonetheless — write them down and extend them with your own ideas. Less apparent feedback or even conflicting points of view are usually more difficult to remember, but they can be just as valuable as the obvious ones.
So right after a design critique, you should sit down and summarise the feedback. Focus on the obscure bits and try to map out conflicting positions. Not everything will be useful, but the conflicts might help you later in the process. The obvious is — well — obvious. But the complicated feedback might help you to create clarity much later.
Good design critiques require a certain amount of leadership. It starts with simply scheduling the critique. Not every designer is eager to present his or her work in front of the team — so somebody has to set up the meeting and distribute the roles. Ideally, design critiques should be regular events in a project plan.
However, leadership during a design critique goes beyond simple management tasks. If you actively participate in a critique your role as a leader gets more complicated. You will find yourself sometimes in the contradictory roles of being a moderator, a referee, and a contributor. If you have a very experienced team, you can relax and just be a contributor. But if the social dynamic of the critic goes awry, it is your job to de-escalate the situation.
Another challenge derives from your multiple roles in the critique. If you are the most senior designer, you will feel the urge not only to participate but also to dominate the discussion. Try to avoid this. Give all contributors space to express their observations. You have to strike a balance between actively participating in the critique and moderating the discussion. Leadership in design critiques is like leadership everywhere else: as much as necessary but as little as possible.
Design critique is sometimes seen in a negative context. It is occasionally associated with harsh feedback and destructive social behaviour. If you are a designer, you probably have heard anecdotes about teachers or design gurus that dominate and intimidate other designers during a feedback session. To be clear: this behaviour is just awful and unacceptable — and it has nothing to do with critique. If a critique is not analytical, fair, and supportive — it is not a critique. If you are leading a design critique, it is your responsibility to establish a safe, collaborative, and motivating environment.
Design critiques are both very challenging and very rewarding. They are about evaluating, examining and exploring aesthetics — but they are also a way to analyse, arrange and work out concepts and ideas.
As discussed, there are a number of reasons why design critiques are a bit neglected. They are difficult to formalise, they cannot be sold to a customer and they don’t fit into a business world that is dominated by ‘key performance indicators’. I believe that these facts are mainly management problems. The design community should embrace critique and consider it as an inherent design activity.
For me, design critiques are an integral part of our professional life. They connect idealistic and pragmatic sentiments. They combine aesthetic proficiency with intellectual rigour. They make design better. When they are successful, critiques are at the very heart of the design process.