The Power of a Sound Critique

All through school, we critiqued each others' work. Sometimes the feedback was great, and other times it was useless. Some students would just echo what another person said just to get participation points, others would give the same critique to everyone, but the ones I took to heart were the ones that offered me a clear path for improving the work. Two of the most important things I learned were how to offer a sound critique, and how to discern which critiques I should choose to value. Interestingly enough, it's very similar to how I book travel arrangements online.

Let's say you're going to book a hotel. You want to know where it is, the rate, the amenities, and if you're like me, you want to know what other people have had to say about it. Online reviews run the gamut, everything from people spewing out praise to the point where it seems like they're kissing up, and those people who tear everything apart and just vomit up negativity ("The rug was BLUE! WHO DOES THAT?! NEVER STAYING HERE AGAIN."). The reviews I look for are the ones that are written with an objective voice ("The rug was dirty, but the bed was super comfy and staff was really helpful when I needed to find a place to eat!"). If several people are saying the same thing, then I take it seriously. And that's when it clicked: Online product/service reviews are critiques.

This realization, combined with asking why, made me a better designer. If someone says the same thing every time I ask for a critique, I have to wonder if they really know what they're talking about. If they say, "I don't know, it just doesn't work," and can't really support that with why it doesn't work, I may begin to suspect that they're basing their opinion on personal taste, or perhaps they just aren't familiar with the nuts and bolts of design. They'll have given me no reason to think they are evaluating my work objectively based on technical criteria, strength of concept and how well it meets the clients needs. Empty evaluations such as these offer the designer nothing to go on. A good critique offers direction, and at the very least, clearly articulates what isn't working.

The other key element to delivering a helpful critique is where that critique comes from. The best evaluation of my work came from Brian Sauer of Saturday Mfg. in Des Moines, IA. He saw one of my pieces and told me I was selling myself short as a designer, and that that particular piece had way more potential than what I'd done with it. He spoke enthusiastically about the piece, and he spoke like he believed in me as a designer, even if the piece left much to be desired. It was sincere and encouraging. Most importantly, his words didn't just make me want to improve the piece, they made me want to become a better designer. They fueled a hunger for growth. In this way, a critique is a small investment in someone else's work.

Lastly, we must consider the source, i.e. the person offering feedback. Much like anything else we mentally digest, a credible source of feedback is crucial for the critique to be effective. If the person evaluating your work doesn't demonstrate proficiency in the advice they're offering, it may be wise to take it with grain of salt. On the other hand, the perfect source of criticism may be someone who may know nothing about design altogether: your target audience. If your target audience expresses that they aren't convinced by your work, you know for sure that changes may be necessary. The best sources from which to seek feedback are the audiences whom our work serves, and fellow creatives who understand the work we do.

Ultimately, as Brené Brown discussed in 2013 at the 99u Conference, creative work requires vulnerability, and receiving feedback is no exception. When we ask for constructive criticism, it ceases to be exclusively about the work. There is a very raw part of us that is exposed when we are subject ourselves to critique. In addition to humility and an open mind, we also need to come to the conversation with the ability to discern which pieces of advice we should take to heart, and which to discard. Because vulnerability is a mandatory part of receiving feedback, how that feedback is delivered matters. If someone cannot honor you in that place of vulnerability by being tactful, credible, and knowledgeable, you don't owe it to them to take it to heart. Constructive criticism that isn't constructive, that doesn't move the project forward, is just criticism.