Accepting Design Critique

Here's the deal with being creative: it's completely subjective. I don't care if you're an artist, a design student, a composer or the next freaking Hemingway. Because of the subjectivity of your work, it is completely open to critique—whether you like it or not. Scary? Stop biting your lip—let's talk through this.

Let's think back to the good ol' days. If you were in design school like I was, then you were probably introduced to the concept of critique through the brutal process of 'classroom critique' wherein the entire (relatively uninformed) classroom weighed in on your various designs. It was seldom enjoyable, and not as productive as the professor probably thought it was. It's this rite of passage that often creates defensive creatives—and that is a major roadblock to being an effective creative.

When you are out of the student body and have moved on to practicing your trade in the real world, critique is not only common, but essential to the design process. If you've been negatively conditioned to respond poorly to critique, it can be a major handicap to continual development as a designer. Here are some basic rules to follow when receiving opinions on your work.

Take it in Context

I know this is difficult to believe, but all critique is valuable. You should not just value input from fellow designers—feedback from your client is equally as important, if not more so than any like-minded creatives around you.

"Wait a minute" you're saying. "My client doesn't know anything about design!" That's most likely true—which is why the context of their feedback is important. While they may not be educated on the finer points of typography or the value of using whitespace correctly, they are the leading authority on what they want their design (they are paying for it, after all) to accomplish. Take your client's feedback into account when you design, and you're not only going to be challenged as a designer (that's a good thing), but you'll also have a very happy client.

On the flip side of the coin, you should definitely seek out and take into account critique from your peers. Now, I know we're all perfect designers and never ever conceive bad designs—but in the hypothetical situation where we just might, your design peers can help you notice the flaws in a design because of their objective point of view. You're too close and to emotionally involved in your design to do so effectively and that is where their critique is invaluable.

Don't Think of Critique as Negative

It's very easy to take critique personally; let's face it—the word even resembles its cousin, criticism. However, there is an important distinction between criticism and critique. Criticism is inherently negative, and doesn't often serve a purpose. Critique is criticism with direction. With purpose. If the person offering up their opinion is just trying to get a dig in, then disregard their feedback like a day old ham sandwich. If, however they are attempting to help you create a better end result (however misguided they may seem), then take it as such, and use their feedback to further develop the work.

The fact that someone is offering up critique does not mean that you did anything wrong, initially; as was stated at the beginning of this article, design is subjective. The critique is simply (most often) an alternate take on your direction. A parallel road, if you will, that may (or may not) be less bumpy.

Direct Your Defensiveness

The beautiful thing about critique is that it is only the beginning of a conversation. You do not just sit there and take it silently—nor should you. No one knows your design better than you do, and if you feel like you made a correct decision that is being disagreed with, defend it. Please note that I'm not advising you to be defensive; rather, I'm exhorting you to defend your design decisions with facts. "I eliminated the drop-shadow to simplify the design." That type of thing. If, at the end of the conversation you feel that you are still confident in your decisions, then you can probably assume you've got a decent design on your hands (either that, or you are inordinately stubborn and full of yourself). If not, then perhaps a revision is in order.

Be Nice

This is the last point, and hoo-boy is it important. Critique is a day-in, day-out part of the design world, and as such, you'll probably be approaching (or be approached by) the same people to critique multiple works over time. If you alienate these people by being prickly when they critique, chances are that they're not going to be returning to give you more at a later date. If you are kind, gracious and patient when they are helping you out, instead of defensive and nasty, then they will become an asset that you can lean on for good.

As another pleasant side-effect of being an easy person to talk to (and just all around nice guy/gal), they will probably be coming to you for the same—and critiquing someone else's design is almost as beneficial for you as a creative as having your own critiqued.

Did I help you out?

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  1. Tzvi


    Jun 28, 2013

    Great article. I was thinking of another concept I call Self-Critique. After designing, simply sit down and clearly print out why you did each move. Then just follow the Steve Krug rule of design "remove half the words on the page, then remove half of what's left"

    Reply to Tzvi

    1. Jesse


      Jun 28, 2013

      Totally agree, Tzvi. Self critique is an area that I didn't cover much in this article, because we don't usually get blind-sided by our own critique, or take it personally (with the exception of those of us with conversant dual personalities...). However, self critique is essential as the design process is progressing, and it helps to provide a filter for the critique of others as well.