There are designers whom I’m very friendly with, whom I personally respect, but who have produced work that I have serious reservations about, or that I find objectionable or lacking. Many of these people are responsible for designs that have attained great notoriety and influence, that are commonly cited as important works, but that in my estimation are detrimental to the field as a whole. There’s lots of design out there that I frankly don’t like.
And yet, if I might betray disdain more than I would like — if I’m less discreet about these opinions than I think I am — then it’s also true that I’ve bitten my lip, held my tongue, smiled and offered some empty, meaningless or flatly dishonest compliment in lieu of speaking my mind truthfully. This has happened more times, many more times, than I care to admit. It would seem that essential to the compact that affords inclusion into the small tribe of design is the notion that one shalt refrain from criticizing one’s friends within the profession.
And yet, those critiques are so important. The notion of speaking openly, honestly and objectively about work is inherent to learning how to be a better designer. That’s why every design school uses critiques as a core tool of teaching design. Critiques conducted amongst peers, people you know, people that you have to see again the next day in class, that you have to build relationships with. If you’re learning design, then you’re giving and receiving criticism regularly. If you’re not engaging in constructive criticism, then you just aren’t learning about design. And yet, at some point when a designer achieves some modest level of notoriety or establishes some foundation of peers in the industry, the critiques stop. If you’re a practicing graphic designer of more than say five years, it’s a pretty good bet that no one outside of your design practice actively and regularly provides you with objective, rational and lucid feedback.
Living in Bubbles
The other side of the coin, of course, is the notion that there’s lots of criticism out there that we willfully ignore. It’s not hard, in design, to reside in a frictionless environment, ignoring or, when encountered, dismissing criticism. Beyond the abovementioned incident, I probably don’t need to dig much deeper to find further complaints about the design that I do: my slavish aping of Modernist masters; my formulaic distillation of serious, grid-based design into a stylistic shorthand; the limited range of my visual vocabulary; my hedgingly conservative approach to digital design; and, no doubt, my claustrophobic tending of NYTimes.com. Unless I’m completely paranoid, it seems reasonable to me that all of these thoughts have crossed the minds of some of the people I know at some point or other. Maybe quite often, or even all the time.
I’m a little to blame for my own blissful ignorance, as are we all. But we could say also that it’s a symptom of the still-immature state of the design industry. There is very little serious criticism of design in the public square. To be sure, there are very good design publications and Web sites that do a very good job of writing seriously about design, but if you take a good look at the contributors listings for any of them, you’ll see almost immediately that they are largely written by practicing designers.
Like it or not, you can’t have a serious discourse about an art form until you have people whose sole involvement in that art form is criticism. You need, in effect, an independent press. Actually, to be clear, what you need is an economic model that can support a corps of passionate, clear-thinking individuals who are dedicated to vigilantly watching over the progression of the medium. Recent troubles aside, this is why art, film and architecture have achieved such great heights in our society: those art forms are economically robust enough to support a vibrant critical class.
Design is far from having that. Especially the design forms to which I’m closest: graphic design, Web design, interaction design. We have lots of smart people writing actively about design, pushing ourselves to do better design, but we have very few design critics who remain apart from the practitioners. We need more.
Critically Speaking… to One Another
All of that’s digression, though, because it’s a long way off, if it’s ever coming. For now, for better or worse, this is our lot in life: a small community of peers whom we rely on for support, encouragement and inspiration, whom we can’t avoid even if we try.
It’s not that bad a deal, really. We’re lucky to have the design communities that we do. Personally, I have found them very rewarding. But I’m pretty sure they’ll be even more rewarding if we can be more open about what we think about the work we’re all doing, more honest about constructive criticism, less hesitating when we come across work that we just don’t like.
That starts, of course, with us, each of us. It starts with not getting pissed off when one of us lobs complaints about another’s work. It starts with remaining calm and objective in the face of critiques from people we know, listening to the core of a complaint, without becoming distracted by personal familiarity. When we can separate the critique from the friendship — when we can hear the feedback without confusing it with the relationship — then we’re getting somewhere. I’m going to try my damndest.
I gotta agree with you on this one. Starting our as a freelance, self-taught designer the first few critiques I received from a fellow web worker made me feel insecure, inadequate and plain angry!
But with a little time I realized that these critiques came from a good place. There’s quite a bit to be gained from openly accepting a point of view you haven’t considered.
I’ve definitely become an advocate of honest feedback, you can’t take it personal (even though most of the time our craft is our life).
Irony: reading this post, then being faced with “Please be nice.” next to the comment box.
Haha, fair enough Sean. But being nice and engaging in constructive criticism aren’t mutually exclusive at all.
Great points, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to what your saying.
It’s hard to find real honest constructive criticism, there is no real place on the web to find it, it feels weird to goto a forum and ask random people to view your work. There might be a couple that will give constructive criticism but most don’t.
I think constructive criticism is rare as some people take it to personal, and therefore most people will just say something nice.
Thanks for the great read 😀
Thanks Khoi, a thoroughly thought provoking article. My “training” is from the Fine Art perspective, so peer review was an every day casual affair tempered with weekly formal critiques.
It was a system that allowed us all to re-examine the “message, meaning and method” of what we were doing. This flows from a train of thought that can be found in the semantics disciplines, i.e. Saussure’s ‘Sign, Signifiers, Signified’.
The critiques were conducted in an atmosphere that allowed for a range of peer expression, meaning for the most part that my peers “played ’em as they saw ’em” – at times rather robust exchanges.
Not that we really took offense at the opinions of others, as these were most definitely constructive sessions that shone a torchlight on the work we were doing. As is often the case with creative endeavours, there is the risk of losing ones self and objectivity into our own orifices, particularly when working in relative isolation. These critique sessions were a great way to head off this solipsitic practice and product.
Critiques of this nature don’t happen anywhere near enough in my opinion. There are any number of examples in the web of where isolationist practice has present a result that isn’t quite as well executed as it could have been or indeed case where the end result may be the antitheses of what was intended.
Not sure of what the answer is, other than for designers to do as you suggest and ask that hardest of all questions, “Would you mind looking at my work and give me and HONEST opinion of it?”
For what it’s worth, I have several people outside the design field to whom I vet my work with, most of them outside the design field, but with an eye for detail and for reading the ‘hidden’ information in the design.
A thoroughly worthy post, one that should be seen as an opportunity to improve further the skills of designers the world over.
one of your best posts ever.
i don’t have much to add other than an individual must decide how to live his or her life irrespective of their tribe. for those that disagree with that, then tribe-think trumps the individual. that’s one’s choice.
strip away the fame and fortune piece of the argument and ask yourself what will people care about (that you did/designed) 20 years from now? my best guess is that if you were known for a specific set of aesthetic moves, you would be located as a blip on a timeline as an example of a zeitgeist. if you were know for something not-aesthetic, then what exactly would that be in the design world?
i think that is the real question and trumps all (petty) concerns about the way things are today, right now. i’ll use you as a guinea pig – will khoi be remembered for his contributions to screen-based grid systems or for his contributions to journalism?
think about it. to be fair, i ask myself this question (to myself, not about you) all the time. and it is a fair question to ask oneself. and of one’s PEERS.
Excellent article! When we see work we “don’t like”, I believe our personal taste plays a role as well. What do you think?
Here’s what I’d be interested to see: you and other leaders in this field engaging in some sort public, honest, constructive criticism of each other’s work. It might help set an example — both to demonstrate openness and to teach people how to critique.
The most effective criticism is both constructive and delivered in a thoughtful, nice way.
It’s easy to say “I don’t like it” or “it sucks”. What is harder is pin pointing what you have a concern with and a possible solution as to how you would tackle it.
Also it’s important to know the circumstances and restrictions on the project as well. It can be frustrated when you are working with a branded colour palette and the criticism is “the colour sucks”, for example.
The goal of critique is to help the designer see the work from a different perspective, not to insult or demotivate them.
@Gong Szeto With all due respect, I think you may have missed the point of the post.
The issues raised by Khoi are more about “the now” – you suggest removing the “fame and fortune” attachments from the discussion, yet then ask what will ‘insert person’ be remembered for in twenty years time.
It seems to me that Khoi’s post is about having an effective method that allows for peers to evaluate what is created, right now.
As Khoi points out, this may be some time off, but I’m more optimistic than this, and believe that with this issue gaining a higher profile, and given the speed at which the internet gives rise to awareness, it will happen sooner.
_This_ is why I have such a hard time getting feedback from people! I’m one who willingly gives feedback / criticism for my friends’ and associates’ works, and I keep forgetting that people take such comments so personally. Oi, we’d much better off if we’d give and take suggestions…
This was why I went to grad school (the painfully honest critiques) and why I miss it so much now. I work in-house and most of the time I feel like I’m designing in a vacuum.
When I feel frustrated at the lack of honest critique in my workplace, I send stuff to my former grad school colleagues. I can trust them to give it to me straight as that’s the only design context we’ve ever known each other in.
Khoi, without any sugar coating, I liked this article.
Here’s the thing.
One of the great things about design is that even though there are definite concrete principals that aren’t up for debate, it’s very much a subjective realm, where people differ in their take on it.
I agree we need to provide more candid feedback when people ask our opinion, but personally I’d never proactively tell someone their work could be better, because that’s only my take.
I would definitely like to see less ‘back-pattery’ going on between leaders in the industry. Because everyone else looks to these people to help form their own opinions (sad, but true), it ends up being this big ’emperor’s new clothes’ situation.
Perhaps I owe Veerle / Duoh an email. *Ducks for cover*
For me it would depend on if it were already published, successful and the client is happy. What would it matter what I thought then?
I mean, if she’s already bought the jeans and she asks you if she looks fat in them, you’d ofcourse not tell her the truth. (I wouldn’t anyway)
On the otherhand,if she is asking your opinion while she’s still in the store, then you would convince her that she has such a great shape, she should show it off in a better pair.
Then again, my husband is also a designer and we can’t seem to get a room decorated with those same boundaries! Oh, what 30 years of opinions, art direction and marriage will do…
I’ll be honest. I’m not honest with most people. Because the community is so small, you do have to watch what you say and who you say it to.
Great post. I can really relate to this — both in a positive and a negative sense. I try, but often fail, in grasping what is really being said by my critics.
One problem that I often encounter though is how to get good criticism. Whenever I go to a person and say “hi, do you mind giving me some feedback on this?” I realise I have already destroyed all possibilities of honest criticism. The person suddenly becomes a critic rather than the general user that my work is meant to attract. He or she fails to see the things that they actually find bothersome with the work and try to — as required by their new role as design critic — put fancy words on their problem. (Fellow designers are already ruined by nature in this regard.)
When I want to hear “it just isn’t interesting enough” I often get “this shade of blue — could you add a little more green to it”. Pointless to the core.
So Khoi, if you feel like you have any advice to give on this subject, I would love to see a follow-up post on “how to get good criticism”.
Nice post, but why don’t you start to make names and critic them? You’re talking of “friends”, but who are these friends?
You are in the same “bubble” you were referring to.
Amazing article Khoi, very well done.
I’ve always thought about this issue of honest design criticism like music criticism. I used to take guitar lessons, and when I started, I was obviously really terrible. People would tell me this all the time, “Alex you are bad at the guitar, stop playing” etc, but it never mattered to me because I knew I was able to improve. I could change my ability and i knew people were just critiquing my ability and not me. Contrast this to critiques about vocal skill. This is something that can improve, yes, but to some extent your voice is your voice. An attack on someone’s voice hits closer to home and is taken more personally. I feel like most people take design criticism like an attack on their voice (too personally), when they should be taking it like a critique on their guitar playing, and be able to understand that the critique is meant to encourage the further development of their ability.
If that makes any sense at all.
@Callie- I am in grad school now and I haven’t heard a painfully honest critique in a long time! I was hoping this might change out in the work place, but I guess not : (
Criticism is important in this line of work. In order for it to work, it should be a two way thing. Honesty is very important if the criticism is to be any help. On the other way though there has to be respect between the persons involved.
Secondly we have to see our profession for what it is. Not art but commercial art. It’s the way we earn our living. For that reason many designers (me included I guess) are reticent about public feedback. Getting your work critisized on forums etc., where actual & potential clients can see the oppinions of others about your work is scary, because unpredictable.
So, considering both ideas, I vote for face-to-face honest feedback.
Khoi, have you seen the Cut&Paste; contests? Designing for a screaming audience? Instant feedback and ruthless critique! The best designers wins.
In the end I think it will all come down to the individual. If you solicit honest feedback in an open and honest enviornment you are more likely to recieve it. Right or wrong, the designer needs to take the first step.
I think one way is to insisted that people explain ‘3 things they dislike (not 1, 2 or 4, just 3) and 1 thing they do like’ about a given project. It’s easier to be honest when you’re ending on a compliment.
One of the better posts that i have read and will stay with me for a while
I think right now that the “critic” role is being played by those of us within the community – and perhaps that’s the way it should be since we have the experience and deal with the same reality. Critics in the art world typically are an interface between the artist and the audience, interpreting for the masses that which the artist finds difficult to communicate.
Something else, as noted by many others, much of the design world resorts to the “It sucks” knee-jerk reaction while providing little methodology or reasoning behind *why* a particular design solution sucks or even ways that it could be improved. This is not a good approach and makes it hard to take design criticism seriously.
Another issue is that design is about solving problems – and if the design solution, horrible looking or intellectually bankrupt as it is, solves the problem, then it is still successful! And it’s hard to criticize success.
The final thought that I’d like to leave is that we can be honest…and tactful. There’s ways of expressing ourselves without demeaning others or their hard work, while pointing out areas the individual or their work can improve. That is a bit of an art in itself and one well worth learning.
Khoi, you make an excellent point and it’s something that been bothering me for sometime now. I personally believe that a large part of being a designer is accepting constructive criticism. People tend to get offended way too fast when it comes to their own work but like you stated, you can never advance as a designer without criticism from your peers.
We have a setup in our group where we all critique each others work, no matter your title. It’s very successful and always leads to better design. I wish more of this was done in our industry.
I think that when commenting on an individuals work its important to deliver the critique well and alot of us fall down at this point, it’s not just a matter of telling them what’s wrong or not quite right in your eyes but how it can be improved and moved forward. Make it constructive and with reason. Its always difficult to accept a comment after hours/days of work but fresh eyes see fresh things. Ask respected and trusted peers. A good critique will not just put your work down but help it move forward. and thats want we want right?
Ben: As you might guess, I really disagree with your point that “the ‘critic’ role is being played by those of us within the community – and perhaps that’s the way it should be since we have the experience and deal with the same reality.”
We’re not sufficiently critquing ourselves, in my opinion. We’re nowhere close to being as rigorous as we should be.
And even if we got much better at it, independent critics — people who are thinking hard about the subject matter but who are not caught up in the biases and personal investments that arise from being creators — play a vital, essential and indispensable role in all forms of human enterprise. When the critic goes away, the art form, the media, the platform grows soft, inward-looking and/or inefficient.
As proof, I think your second paragraph is very telling: too often when critiquing ourselves, the level of discourse fails to rise much higher than “it sucks.”
Digital design and the Internet are very different from older media in many ways. But in this way — in the need for structured, thoughtful criticism — there’s no difference, in my view.
This is in regards to “getting pissed off when one of us lobs complaints about another’s work…”
I read a really good book a few years back on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I spent several months practicing it and it helped me to strip out all the subjectiveness of a critique and enabled me to see whatever someone had to say with a clear and objective view.
Perhaps if designers were more mindful, it would help open up the dialogue amongst fellow designers. People wouldn’t have to worry about offending or being offended by others, especially when critting one’s work. When we are mindful, egos end and conversations begin.
Great post. I identify and sympathize with your sentiments.
As you know, I long harbored a hope to fulfill my fine arts degree with a career in the “art world”. One lesson I learned, to my painful disillusionment, was the cynical fact that, unlike in school classroom critiques, your cannot honestly express your opinions about other artists’ work (and, by extension, the curators, gallerists, collectors, and critics who support them) if you fundamentally dislike 90% of the work you see. It’s just not cool, and may in fact alienate you from people who you need to like you.
You seem to suspect that the design world isn’t that much different.
But, I think you may be wrong to suggest that it’s all that bad across all of the “design world”. There are, in fact, many factions, schools, tribes, and divisions across all fields of design, to the extent that it’s hard to even say that there is a “design world”, or even a “graphic design world” or a “web design world”.
There are parallel worlds from all the publications one reads, the conferences one attends, the blogs one visits, the lunches one has, the city one lives in, the circles one travels in. You and I and the readers of Subtraction inhabit but a tiny portion of a tiny portion of a tiny portion of the “design world”. I’m sure we’d find much to disagree with in the other worlds, and in fact the fact that we are in a different world may be the most salient manifestation of that disagreement.
I mean, there are *millions* of people who *hate* Mac OS, and millions who agree that the shade of blue used on a corporate web site should be determined through extensive user testing, and millions who think that lens flares make every design better. These people have conferences, blogs, and all kinds of discourse and theory that I bet neither of us have ever heard of.
Of course, you are focusing on the possible lack of debate and discourse even within the world you inhabit.
But maybe what you should do is not just lament the critical homogeneity and lack of discourse in (your) design world, but perhaps you should consider opening a door to another design world. Maybe what we need is more cross pollination.
But then again, I’m not sure I buy your argument when it comes to the interaction design world. I can think of dozens of voices in that arena who are fearless — even recklessly and at times self-destructively so! — in their harsh, biting, and counter-conventional-wisdom critiques even of the shibboleths of their industry. In recent months I have read (and in some cases written) that John Maeda is a blowhard, Edward Tufte fundamentally does not grasp interactivity, and that 37 Signals apps are annoying and shockingly inelegant.
If you ask me, however, I agree that we don’t hear this sort of thing often enough. For example, I’ve never known a designer who actually liked Michael Graves or Karim Rashid in the slightest, yet I’ve never read a word of critique against either hip designer.
I wonder, for your sake and mine, if what you are lamenting isn’t simply a collective lack of, er, guts. @Gong Szeto is correct to characterize this as an issue of journalism — that’s his way of saying that if we want to be design critics we should be willing to tell a story regardless of the political and professional ramifications of it. It’s hard to be both a designer and a design critic, just as it would be hard to be a journalist and, say, a politician.
no, i did not miss the point at all.
simply replace “20 years from now” with “now” and my point remains.
you either care what the tribe thinks or you don’t.
that’s a much simpler way of putting it.
@Gene Full marks Gene! Mindfullness, Loving Compassion and a sense of selflessness when critiquing would, in my opinion, go a long way in removing subjectivity from a reviewers responses.
@Khoi Was thinking of a similar thing myself and it ties in well with Stefan’s reply. The nature of professional criticism/critique is a highly specialised skill, yet one that is open to abuse – How many times have you read a criticism from an ‘expert’, only to conclude that the expert isn’t?
Thanks Gong (O: In this model, there is no room for critiquing – your either a sheep who changes direction with every opinion(“tribe-think triumphs the individual”), or you’re too blase to care and will go your own way (“irrespective of the tribe”…
Listening to the ‘tribe’ and being independent don’t need to be mutually exclusive, as would seem to be the point you’re making…
Peer review and formal critique should be a daily part of any professional design practice. However, it’s much easier to achieve this in a design team where multiple perspectives and skill levels are represented.
Smaller teams and solo designers can still benefit from critique by “designing in the open” (a la 37 signals) but there are obstacles to this when designing for paying clients.
What are some ways that solo designers and small teams can engage in meaningful critique on a regular basis without exposing client work considered to be confidential until released?
I am a student at a design school and I find that most of the people in my class do not appreciate my honesty. They prefer the blissful ignorance and while I try to speak my mind always, it’s hard when you’re met with heavy opposition from the entire class. Not about the critique itself, but the critiquing in general.
I’m gonna go the brutally honest route on this one, so I apologize in advance for any toes that get stepped on.
1. This is the best piece of design criticism that I have read in years. Makes me have a little hope for the field for once.
2. Designers (and many artists in general) are far too thin skinned. I hated design critiques in school because it was always about what worked, not what needed to be fixed.
After getting a design degree and spending a few years trying to find my place in the field, I’ve settled on becoming a professional cook and I can tell you from experience that the design community could learn a lot from the way that a kitchen operates. When we are getting slammed we can be downright brutal to each other in order to get the work done. But at the end of the day, we leave it in the kitchen and everyone understands that it was for a greater purpose. I’ve never experienced this among a group of designers.
Well, there are already 33 comments here, but I still wanted to add a bit. I’ve been thinking about the way we, as designers, give negative feedback.
I got a surprisingly negative comment on my blog a while back that made me pretty upset at first. When I realized how upset I got, like you, I started evaluating what had actually happened. I was getting honest feedback. It came across a bit immature, but it was definitely honest, and it caused me to take my blog more seriously.
Then, a couple days later, I made a similarly immature comment on a post at Brand New. I felt a little guilty afterword, but it was Eric Karjaluoto’s post from ideasonideas that really made me blush.
The social platform has grown so quickly that we have not quite figured out how to be responsible with it. We forget that there are real people on the other end of the wire. Brand New even had to make a lengthy post just to make some rules around the commenting of their blog. It’s unfortunate that it had to come to that, and I feel terrible for having contributing to the negativity that caused it. I really could have been more constructive.
By the way, Eric’s post is great. It can be found here:
Question: Do you know of any agencies or larger organizations that actively ask for outside critiques?
Asking for feedback may be a good way (without formal critics) to allow people to be honest and frank when critiquing. Because, hey, you asked for it.
One approach, which I prefer, to being a critic (and being critiqued) is asking questions about the work at hand. I have always felt it is a good starting point to gain an understanding about the piece/design before offering opinions. It is through the questioning process that an understanding of the artist’s/designer’s intent is discovered (and even the client’s wishes). Through this approach, questions will be answered and both parties will learn as a result of the critiquing process.
For example, rather than jumping out and saying this particular design element could have been this or that…. I would approach the questionable element with the following “What, if any, were some of your other considerations with your decision with this element?” I, as the critic, may be educated by the artist’s/designer’s response on their design decisions…. which then I may (or may not) then be able to offer some additional insight to.
Although I agree with the living in a ‘bubble’ thingy – after years on the web – I beg to differ on an aspect. I have seen and read so much poo-pooing on others work that in fact, I make it a point to offer ‘positive confirmation’.
The competing state of the industry often prevents true exchange of valuable criticism which should by all means, intended as constructive.
Too easy to destroy.. much harder to build. Probably one of the reasons to jump the gun upon receiving or perceiving ‘negatives’ is that bottom line, we rarely get the encouragement that is much needed to continue our path towards excellence.
Granted there are loads of shitty design out there, but this is not the point. Talent nurturing is a big missing part in our community.
I value constructive criticism. Being a design student I crave the criticism from my teacher and peers. When I get no feedback from my peers or my teacher even — I feel I really haven’t really learned anything. It becomes a bit frustrating because I want to be ripped apart, and this is the time that I need that the most.
I don’t want to be thrown in the industry knowing that there is nothing wrong with my work because I know once I get in the industry I am up for a very rude awakening. That is why I crave for criticism during class critiques, it is something I know that will benefit me.
I recently went to a lecture on Graphic Design here at the University of Arizona. The speaker, Spencer Walters, echoed many of these points. Not so much about the need for professional design critics, but about the need to listen and respond to criticism if you plan to be a truly successful designer. As a rule of thumb, he will spend at least 15 minutes considering a criticism, no matter how absurd it sounds. He also said that if a criticism sticks with you, then there is likely something to it. Both are very good points.
Khoi, you lit a fire that has been smoldering for far too long. I applaud you for it. My most honest experiences of critical design experiences where when I worked with other educated, opinionated people outside of our insular/inbred design world, namely musicians. While spending many years in the game of designing visuals to represent audio, I constantly had very pointed critiques that directly informed design decisions. The role of being the picture guy for the sound guy was always a well informed critiques that lead to representing audio with the differing sense of sight and visual.
The rigorous critical eye we all need to take to the people at the top of the design world feels missing. We don not try and poke holes in the Design Stars arguments and work before we accept it. I’m the most guilty of this. With that said i think anyone who sheepishly adores Paul Rand’s work has not scratched the thin veneer of his work. It’s good. Not great.
Yup I said that. I will await public stoning.
I’m somewhat surprised that at higher levels of involvement with design, people aren’t receiving critiques, nor that they know how to handle them. (I’m a grad design student at CCA for context). At my previous job (as an inhouse designer for a publisher), many of the designers sought each other out informally to receive feedback on their work. It was just part of the culture.
Surprise aside, critique is good, especially critique from other designers you trust (both to give a fair opinion and whose work you respect).
All that being said—and I’m sure this is a dead horse—I don’t fully understand why people are interested in defining design as art. I have a ton of thoughts on the subject, but I don’t even know why it’s a question in the first place.
I worked at a “hot” design firm (Design with a big “D”), filled with very smart and creative folks. However, the design division took great joy at devastatingly personal critiques of other folks work with the excuse that they had come from the world of academic “crits” where honesty = painful. That would have been fine, I guess, but often their suggestions were personal opinions of style and technique, rather than constructive, useful and innovative criticism that would have moved the project forward.
So, I’m all for honesty, but don’t mistake “I wouldn’t have done it that way” with useful information.
To the extent that design is about appealing to the tastes and fashions of a target audience — and let’s face it, it is more than many of us might care to admit (or wish to know) — then a critique along a personal level is perfectly acceptable.
Some of the very best creative and design directors hold those jobs precisely because they have a proven track record of having a gut level sense of the appropriate taste and style that works for their audience.
And a great deal of what comes across as objective design critique is actually no more than personal taste gussied up with depersonalized design-crit lingo. Adjectives like like “strong”, for example, generally are used as a crutch to make “I like it” sound more rigorous.
In any case, I’d rather people at all levels of the design career ladder expressed their personal-taste critiques, and qualified them as such, than having everyone keep quiet and offer no critique at all except when they have some scientific justification of their opinions.
This is the real thing that differs designers to developers in our industry. Our different philosophies are often unable to find mutual ground for appreciation and it’s often the case because we purely go on our instincts.
I believe great designers will do one of three things or even a mixture.
Ask the question what the goal and focus of the work is and then to try to understand it from their point of view. Then work your way back to your own view. Some designers don’t even have a focus so it’s almost like you want to pitch the tent near the woods and they’re pitching near the little water stream with no shelter whatsoever. I believe this is why disagreements begin.
The second is, with our medium on the web – what’s the worst that can happen? We have the potential to do multi-varient testing and find out what’s the best solution to achieve the goal.
Thirdly, say your piece and let the other person run with their idea. The majority of the time spent on discussion over who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or which is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ could be spent doing something.
End of the day, work is work. We’re professionals and should totally try to seperate our personal feelings with the work. Olж.
Interestingly enough, in the field of illustration and concept design, ‘crits’ are embraced as a way of life. Having been in the web industry for over a decade, I too have found many occasions where an individual respected not necessarily for their skill can produce a poor design and not get the proper feedback but just expected praise. I agree it’s a disservice and I feel that people are too timid to provide the honesty necessary to make one another better; more designers need to employ and ask for crits as a way to improve.
Thanks for this article. In the past I have been blasted on blogs and forums for creating “negative” input via my comments and such. Personally although I am a dedicated designer who thinks, lives, and breathes this stuff everyday I tend to stay away from the popular design community because of this noise. When I attended SXSW friends and peers could not understand how I did not care to go to the hot parties and have dinner with the in crowd. My reasons have always been the lack of real criticism amongst those crowds. Why would I want to sit around a table or bar telling Zeldman, Santa Maria, ..etc. how awesome they are… boring. I rather soak in knowledge that they might have that I might need and move on. I do not know them nor care to pretend to know them. I have no interest in the “in” crowd I only have interest in creating better work. My personal work only improves if and when I criticized. Yet dare anyone criticize the “masters” and I come off as a asshole. This is one of the reasons I love the writings of Andy Rutledge, he is an ass but a brutality honest ass. Criticism is the most important part of our profession and I am glad to read about other designers who I indeed respect realizing and commenting on that. Great post.
This is a fantastic essay. I think you have something Ё the profession does need more critical analysis, of sorts.
Obviously, we do this well in the classroom. But constructive criticism should extend beyond the college experience. As the student develops and grows, so should the professional in the field.
No designer is that island unto herself or himself. Design, on the whole, thrives on collaboration, evolution and individual creative growth.
Ever thought-provoking, Khoi. Thanks.
I totally agree that giving and receiving constructive criticism is absolutely crucial for designers, however, I am skeptical that independent, non-practicing designers are needed. I studied fine arts and took many courses on critical theory and read Art Forum and other art rags religiously while I was a student. This criticism you find in theory courses and art rags has much more to do with Freud and French literary theory than the practice of art making. These theorists have co-opted the conversation of art and is part of the reason why American art is so lousy these days–students (and artists) are too focused on how to make art that critics can write about and the only work that is shown is work that can be written about using known constructs. Designers should look to each other, and not outsiders, to develop a rigorous culture of critique.
Really smart post, Khoi. Thanks.
I can’t help but think this has been dormant in your mind, when the seriousness and realisation of this topic has constantly been challenged already. I don’t seek actively seek criticism because the people you want like to seek from are immature and are unfit to understand the context and principles of design. Which is why I critique myself and understand how my design can better approached. It is an approach that is constantly turned in revolutionary cycles so that when it comes to the judgement of my work, when at an interview for example I am well prepared for the real design world.
It seriously all starts from study and learning to observe, accept, object and objectify notions or ideas that may help you or not. If you listen at school and you listen to your tutors who are guides and those that can give you the critiques to your work, it helps you to achieve the standard of work you desire.
Sadly, the design profession is not immune to vanity, self-interest, ego and perpetuating tones of arrogance. The reality is, not every person involved in design can be approached in the same way of design critique. Some it is a business where they can best utilise their design skills for the benefit and their clients. Others like perhaps some of us are actively looking at Design in a bigger picture . The content, the socio-environmental circumstances.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to makes things right. ‘Know thy self’ I think sums it well. People who want to make better design will know they want to receive feedback and it’s often from practicing designers. I am not talking about high-profile designers, I am talking about someone such as Ellen Lupton. An insider but also an outsider. Someone who actively teachers but also observes in succession.
If you want my honest feedback, your role in the NYTimes website particularly the Fashion / Style section is bad. It’s so text heavy that when I view it, it looks like I am looking at The Matrix code. The section Fashion and Style for which I am most interested and IHT.com is meant to have an engaging and insightful tone and now it’s as many of the other news sites, proliferated with streams of information that bewilders the end user.
To me, it seems arbitrary that that section is now covered by NYTimes writer Cathy Horyn and not Suzy Menkes who covered all of IHT.com’s Style section. Cathy’s prose of critique is too serious and analytical which is a serious disengagement with readers. Suzy Menkes approached it with light-heartiness and an observatory tone that you could understand and read intuitively. I think in part, this needs to really be reviewed.
about bloody time! honest feedback is a must in this fine field of art & design what we think works in our heads might not work in someone else’s. but if that person/persons give us reasons why they don’t like it. then as an designer we can give informative reasoning why this works and why ‘we’ the designer has gone down this path.
more honest feedback makes BETTER deisgners! ( in my opinion 😛 )
Critique to me is not very important. It all depends on the situation as well.
In my position, I accept critiques if my subtle opinion of that person is respect worthy. Or is better than me.
If I view you quite equally, then I will alway think that my design, my way, my work is better than yours.
But if it is a no brainer and a no choice to be collaborative, then key communication is needed to find a solution between equal designers.
I believe the key to communication is to question each motive, each design piece, and process.
“Ask Questions” are my answers and response to criticism, as criticism is to me is a discussion.
As a practitioner (currently an EMR software designer), former AIGA board member, critic, student, and professor I really have to question this statement:
“Here’s why I’m saying this: almost by definition, design is a small community”
On the contrary, it is one of the largest communities in the United States. And I am comparing it to all of industry. I think the heart of what you are saying is “The trained professional” vs “the layman designer”?
1. Unlike almost all other design professions, however, we don’t have a lifetime of hoops and accreditation to go through (Architecture).
2. There is a glut of Graphic/Visual/Information Design schools, in fact, thousands of programs in this country that crank out mediocre students. It is easy money for colleges. In fact, this situation creates instances where some unbelievable crap is coming out of the so-called good schools because the criteria for acceptance into these programs becomes a question of your academic merit, and not, your personal experience or talent. I am thinking of the Metropolis article from a decade ago where the writer sat in on an crit at the top architecture school in the states. The students and professor found enormous value in a skyscraper design in which each floor shifted orthogonally based on its mapping to the sin curve of a horse’s gallop expressed along the y-axis. So brilliant in it’s uselessness. Perhaps this is the exclusive members-only community you are referring to?
3. Some of the best designers have no formal training. But, they had to learn and do the hard way. And this is why for me, Information Design’s abstract data constructs are so much better than the Ivory Tower’s of Architecture.
4. I avoid all working environments that present themselves as exclusive, elitist, or entitled. Some of my best design work was for 3rd tier manufactures from the midwest that big agency’s wouldn’t touch. What is the challenge of working at a company like Nike when you are surrounded by design perfection? Or IDEO where you have no vested interest in the product you are designing? And worse yet, a sense of entitlement that may not be justified.
5. Almost all of the responses to this sound like the familiar diatribe on a legendary interaction design board. Including my bulleted list 😉
I think this is a great post. It also makes me feel a little less frustrated with myself for doing this once and awhile… (It happens to the best of us?)
If I were to give my honest feedback of this post, I would say it left me wanting some good guidance for how to give effective feedback and honest constructive criticism to your friends, coworkers, anybody. Many people confuse “honest” with “rude” — but the best feedback seems to be presented in a way that doesn’t piss people off in the first place. One can be extremely critical without being intensely infuriating (although our emotions are always at least a little involved).
I think the design world needs more tools and shared knowledge for how to share and critique each other more than it needs critics to do it full time. Although learning from example works too. 😉
As someone who went through an illustration program of constant critique I have to agree with you. Our teachers basically helped us be teachers by upping our design/art eye to their level. So there was no excuse NOT to ask your peers who have at least the same knowledge of you. This is dangerous as the constant abuse your ‘art ego’ takes can take a toll on you. But then again we all have thick skin, right?
There’s so much here to comment on here I’m not sure where to start. I guess I’ll just try to delve into one idea specifically
Critics in Art, Film, Architecture, etc.
(Note: Here I’m discussing “criticism,” not “feedback.” While the latter is certainly important on a day-to-day basis for individual designers, I feel the former is perhaps more usable by large audiences and the arc of design as a profession as a whole)
I think it should at least be mentioned that to discuss critics in these areas needs more than just a brief explanation. There’s a big “chicken vs. egg” going on here. Did critics make these practices important or did important practices demand intelligent critics? I would argue there is, in fact, some very good design criticism IS going on, but 99.99% of us never read it (why designers may or may not read is another topic entirely). Journals like Design Issues or Visible Language (is this still being published?) have a broad amount of writings, research and criticism in them, but they are generally focused toward academic, research-based institutions. University-like institutions build publishing into professional advancement, but many major design schools proclaim “professional” experience over “academic” experience and are not tying things like tenure into their institutions, therefore many of us are never asked to approach these writings because our professors don’t have any interest in them either. Most major critics in other fields are involved in major academic institutions and therefore are actively engaged in this dialogue, therefore raising the bar in general criticism. Look at most major starchitects today, they all cut their teeth in academic writings in the 70s. Its also worth mentioning that most University-level Design programs are focused on ethnographic-like research, which means their writings favor that rather than cultural leanings…adding yet another reason for why most of us don’t read it or even know it exists.
Of course criticism is necessary, but there’s criticism and there’s *constructive* criticism.
Constructive criticism is the process of identifying something you don’t like – then suggesting how it could be better. That’s how peer critique works, and it’s exactly what professional critics *don’t* do.
A professional critic is someone who waits until you’re done then says, “oh, see now, you’ve made a mess of that. If only you’d asked me, it could have been perfect, but now I’m going to tell everyone it’s shit”. There’s no support, no suggestion as to how it could be better. Critics are parasites; nasty, snide little lowlives who contribute nothing to our great community.
After all, we all know prefectly well that if critics really knew as much as they claim to about what makes goo design – well they’d be great designers, not critics, right?
great stuff khoi.
such a champion of diplomacy. i had a similar, thought indirect, chorus of boos shouted my way after that AIGA small talk i gave a few years back (someone who will go unnamed accidentally fwded me the url where i could see/ read comments/ opinions related to the lecture). most were somewhat positive (+ boring) and the negative ones were from the designers i most respected (i found the honesty exhilarating). ironically the “big shot” who shot me down had hired me the year before. we’re a competive bunch.
While I’m generally appreciative of this post, and feel it promotes ideas worthy of repetition, I can’t help point out that I read something like this every couple years—and nothing changes. The lack of historical awareness of what has already been written is one stumbling block to a design critical literature. Anybody out there read Massimo Vignelli’s 1983 article, “Call for Criticism”? The wheel has been invented (over and over), what’s needed is for someone(s) to act.
That this post mixes two different initiatives—acquiring substantial professional critiques from peers with an independent critical press—muddies the waters. Designers will put up with credentialed peers evaluating their work but will not tolerate an “outsider” passing judgment. What’s still needed is a move away from regarding design as a profession to being a discipline (see Rick Poynor on this, someone who has regularly written on the subject at hand for years). If a designer only sees design writing as PR, why should they support potential bad press?
Derrick Schultz is 100% right about 99.99% of designers not reading what already is out there. So read it already. Another action would be giving some shout-outs. Vihn says that there are a “few design critics who remain apart from the practitioners.” How about naming them? (I want to compare lists, mine won’t occupy all the fingers on one hand.)
When I see AIGA branches regularly (well, once) feature non-celebrity, non-practitioner design critics for lectures solely because they are smart and articulate, I’ll know a change has occurred.
Interesting post–from the standpoint of someone outside the field, it has seemed abundantly clear to me that many, not all, “star” graphic designers do not want design criticism/history to come from outside the rarefied world of AIGA medalists/practitioners. I don’t feel you will ever get a critical mass of objective criticism as long as the “critics” are essentially people put in the position of praising their own friends.
I agree whit quite a few people here, indeed Rosscot has a relevant point for me. Here in Spain, the community is even smaller.
You got to watch your back and care what you say on others work, since it ALWAYS is taken personally… and, chances are, you are gonna face that person more sooner than later… maybe even in a recruitment proccess…
On the other hand —and I’m talking only on the scenario I know best, that is Spain—, I cannot get out of my mind that lack of (or poor) criticism comes from an undereducated commnity. I swear I could mention more than a few who doesn’t know who Z. Licko is or never heard about Pentagram…
Such things happen the most in the student community, fortunately Pentagram and such are well known in the stablished companies or studios
However, it is a shame that many design students are more concerned about wearing cool designer-made or even make-me-look-like-a-designer outfits than for the basics of typography…
How could we be getting a solid critic mentality on that?
PS. I’d like to repeat I talk only from my experience here in Spain…
However, Spain has got a growing community of great graphic designers of global recognition that excel in both their creativity and their companies management worlds…
One of the first things I had to develop when starting working professionaly was a thick skin.
There were times early on when criticism (especially from non-designers) would make me angry and would sometime properly loose my rag.
However I soon learnt to treat criticism constructively and approach it either as a challenge to prove myself or as an alternative view I hadn’t really looked from previously.
Now user testing and gathering feedback early on is an essential part of my own design process and now know which kind of criticism to take on board and which can be dismissed. Thankfully I’m still doing the job I love a decade on.
Thanks for the article
It’s as important as honesty.
I remember hearing about some successful ad guy (Bernbach?) who kept a card in his pocket that read “Maybe he’s right.”
But trying to keep humility top-of-mind is not the same as learning it.
When Portfolio Center’s department heads and a bunch of us students left to start The Creative Circus, our goal was to not only do it better — but also to create a much more nurturing environment. So, every advanced student had to teach/assist a beginner class for an entire quarter.
Seemingly minor at the time, Norm Grey’s brilliant idea has made a huge difference in a heck of a lot of careers — by making each of us see damn quick:
A) How you express yourself determines how you are heard.
B) No matter how talented or experienced you are, others are too. Quite often your ideas will be bested (and/or thoughtfully blown apart) by someone who hasn’t yet earned your respect. So respect everyone.
C) Words have lasting effects.
Bottom line: Learn to play by the Golden Rule, or you’ll get kicked out of the game. And the advertising & design world is damn small, so learn quick — because it’s a long game.
My tutor in University (design) said that all social interaction online is *agreement* or *disagreement*. Niether of these really falls into the category: ‘constructive feedback’ though does it. So therein lies the problem.
Personally I stopped looking to others for feedback on my work a while ago. Coincidently around the same time I started to have confidence in my design abilities and ‘excel’ (I don’t want to make this comment too egocentric, so I’ll use quotes around that one), as I’m no doubt you’re aware is so important. Ego is design IS important.
I make a point of only asking people for feedback when I respect their work, otherwise it just seems pointless. I’m always aspiring.
I’m 24yrs old.
I have had a reoccurring conundrum recently… designing for designers. I’m a web designer, and when a designer friend needs a website, naturally, they come to me. However, they won’t relinquish control. Somehow I have to create EXACTLY what’s in their head. This is getting tiring. Any suggestions?
@ohbrooke – When you don’t need to hold a client’s hand work with them, learn something, educate them too. It’ll become much easier that way and you’re likely to get a better end process.
Go with the flow.
Hope that helps.
PS. @Khoi – man, I need to visit your blog more often.
This is a terrific article – with some equally terrific comments.
I especially agree with your statement:
“When we can separate the critique from the friendship — when we can hear the feedback without confusing it with the relationship — then we’re getting somewhere.”
In fact when presenting work (finished or in progress) to other professionals in the field, many of whom are my close friends, I find the need to preface the conversation simply with “Tell me what you hate, I’m not interested in what you love.”
There can be a tremendous amount of ego joined by a tremendous amount of insecurity within this profession.
I suppose it is to be expected to a degree though, when our livelihood and success is built around a system of peer/client acceptance.
With a bit more transparency though, I think we can all create stronger more communicative work.
I’m late to this party, but I did want to add a pointer to the Mozilla foundation redesign being done by Happy Cog. In the open source spirit, the entire redesign process is out in the open for feedback from the wider community.
Obviously not every project can implement (or benefit from) this kind of open design process, but this example goes a little way towards having these types of constrictive design discussions.
@Neil – Yea man, good point. I’m aware of this.
On a similar vibe my man Andy Clarke (CSS guru) is doing, what I’ve been doing for the past year with websites, and getting feedback on his latest web designs.
Obviously not doable all the time – what with client work and non-disclosures – but great way to get quick feedback on stuff – and all the better if they’re your contacts and design people you respect too!
I agree, we need some critics.
How perfectly ironic it is to see an article calling for more criticism and honesty in design… followed by endless remarks agreeing unquestioningly with exactly what it said and kissing the author’s ass.
I have written extensively on criticism in interaction design, so I absolutely support the idea promoted here.
For the curious, I have what I guess you might call a white paper, called “Interaction Criticism: How To Do It.” Its target audience is the HCI community, which styles itself as a science, so much of the paper involves an effort to explain what criticism is, how it differs from empirical science, and how to do it.
Anyway, for the curious, the paper is posted on my blog.
I dont know why but i?m usually more critic and honest to the people I believe is better then me than to the people with less experience…
Khoi, great idea!
I’ll start right now.
The body font size is too small on this page. Enlarging the type size doesn’t make the column any wider. Would be nice if it was em-based.
That aside, your ideas in this article are spot on. Critics, bring ’em on. I’ll be thinking of ways to encourage criticism at work and on my personal site.
Thanks for everything! Keep it up, Khoi!
I couldn’t agree with you more.
Let’s not forget that there are trends in design that also inform critical thought. I still remember the 80s and 90s when legibility wasn’t seen as important as the “new typography”. i.e. the Cranbrook school and Emigre’s work. Overlapping type was the style du jour. With the invention of postscript software designers were freer to use as many typefaces and add bells and whistles to their designs that would have been too time consuming B.C. (before computers). At the time the critics were falling all over themselves to congratulate the skilled outliers such as David Carson—while others criticized their inventiveness as being self indulgent. Remember when Massimo Vignelli wrote a harsh critique of Emigrж’s remarkable typeface designs? Those typefaces now look completely mainstream to me.
Helvetica is actually back in style and I am seeing the Bauhaus referenced in many designer’s work. Print design from the 40s and 50s looks surprisingly contemporary to me. Alvin Lustig is the new black.
Nice article! I totally agree, and with that I will start off by saying I LOVE your work, but dislike the homepage of NYTimes.com, I’m one of the ones shouting that it is too claustrophobic for my taste. I’m in favor of more padding and more space between objects to allow each entity to live and breath in it’s own space freely. Which I also feel helps better establish a hierarchy of content and information. Which leaves the content more inviting and easier to digest. I find myself getting very overwhelmed with the homepage of NYTimes. I never know where to start, and where to go.
I started my career in design and have since left the field. I think that designers are “nice” to each other because they recognize (well, at least the ones who’ve been around the block) that there is design that wins awards, and design that gets written up in magazines, but for most designers the only kind of design that matters is the kind that clients pay for.
And clients come with a huge array of preferences. When I was a designer I remember thinking about many better-known practitioners “god their work is terrible” but a lot of clients were paying for it, so who cares what I thought?
That doesn’t mean that designers shouldn’t aspire to standards beyond what their clients establish. But I’ve seen too many new designers come into the profession with a predilection for navel-gazing. Encouraging designers to have more “feedback” among each other is only useful if they’ve already learned how to accept that feedback from clients. If they haven’t learned to do that, then what’s the point?
I’m reminded of David Ogilvy’s story of coming in to see two art directors in his agency arguing over whether the type in an ad should be red or blue. His question was: which one tests better with readers?
Designers often prefer to convert matters of fact into matters of opinion. It’s not a good habit. You can always justify anything (or knock anything down) with opinion. “It sucks” is valid criticism if & when you can explain why it sucks. Clients are often better at that than designers.
I am a student on the MA Design Writing Criticism course at the LCC. Please check out our website: http://www.designwritingcriticism.co.uk/
This course (one of 34 most interesting design programs in the world according to Print magazine!) addresses the concerns raised here. We are holding an event called ‘Why I Write’ at the Design Council on 3 June. More details on Twitter @WhyIWrite for anyone interested in the debates surrounding Design Writing Criticism.
I must say that the graphic designer in our company is someone to fear; he seems really upset when someone goes against his criteria, even if they expose it politely and give reasons for the critique. So everybody just ends up saying that his work is “cool! great!”, and sometimes we all feel like we should concentrate in our own job and stop making enemies (besides, the client is more interested in functionalities than it design, which they consider to be “the pretty side, something to relax from work on”, and I quote). That’s a pity, that we have to shut up, afraid of hurting the designer’s ego, which is a very extended prejudice. Nobody sets limits when it comes to point out how I should do my job (programming), seems like there’s no ego to hurt — I’m a machine. But the creative professional — he’s human, he’s a spirit. There are many things that this guy at my company doesn’t know about usability and I feel I could help him, or at least I feel we could engage in a productive conversation that might derive from a constructive critique that eventually might slip out of my mouth. But no; we all must agree, yes, that tone of blue is NOT killing my eyes, and the horizontally-centered text elements in that vertical menu look great; all the more in 8px, #999 color on white background. Gee…
That being said, I don’t want to make general assumptions or conclusions (I’ve been a graphic designer myself), but really, this field is so crowded with professionals that think so high of themselves that sometimes it stinks. Sorry about that! Couldn’t bite my tongue!
don’t feel offended, anyone.
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