A Few Bullet Points on Design Criticism

  • Criticism is placing yourself in an earnest, difficult, and awkward conversation. This is mostly unavoidable, but gets easier over time with the same group of people. If you’re in client work, remember: wear a smile and bring snacks. You’re on the same team.
  • Criticism should be described as positive or negative by the goals of the exchange, not by the opinion of the work. Positive criticism can helpfully point out flaws. Negative criticism can be supportive but vague and unhelpful.
  • Feedback is very often a perfect storm of inexperience: clients, co-workers, and bosses aren’t practiced in analyzing design, and designers, while well-versed in giving feedback, are often less experienced in how to productively receive it. Feedback should be a liberal art for everyone. We can learn a lot from the structure of writing groups and the practices of dance.
  • In my opinion, the quality of mid-project critique is not determined by the group’s ability to judge and choose. It is by their capacity to ask the right question and stay with it until the best answer is evident. Some questions are like eggs: you sit on them until life appears and pushes its way out.
  • The most productive question for unhelpful internal feedback is “What makes you say that?” The best one for unhelpful public criticism is “Who the hell do you think you are?”
  • One particularly tricky aspect of criticizing design is that a lot of the work is meant to be quickly read (like logos) or intuitively understood (like interfaces and websites). Does this validate gut reactions or hot takes? I’m uncertain, but it can shift power towards the people who are the least invested in the process.
  • Negative feedback sticks in our mind because it is specific, not because it is accurate. Any defining characteristic of the work will probably be the subject of ridicule. It’s the same move children use to make fun of others on the playground.
  • Here is Simone Weil, who could have been describing shitposting, but was definitely thinking of projection, which finds a cozy home in criticism: “We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, ‘I am suffering,’ than to say, ‘This landscape is ugly.’”
  • Praise is meaningless without specificity. It’s like love without acts. A robust feedback process must be specific in its praise, because succeeding is enhancing good choices as well as fixing mistakes. Remember: 20% of our good choices provide 80% of the value.
  • Helpful criticism is an imaginative act! It pictures possibilities to improve the work. This makes all good criticism progressive.
  • Foucault: “Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. […] It would bear the lightning of possible storms.”
  • Good criticism comes from a growth mindset. We must be like trees and grow towards the light, with the knowledge that that light may also bring heat.
  • “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.”
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