How to Jumpstart a Good Design Critique

by Dylan Thomas

Creation rarely happens in a single iteration.

What happens in-between is critique, a close examination by yourself and others regarding the concept, assumptions, and execution of your idea. A constructive critique is collaborative, creative, and directed. When done well, it can be productive and incredibly gratifying, and it requires only the engagement of its participants. In this post, I suggest some simple strategies for engaging in good critique that also serve to jumpstart a lethargic group. Over time, these strategies will increase your critical awareness and improve both the quality and usefulness of any critique you participate in.

A quick note on groups:

It can be hard to overcome the inertia of silence. Group members can be lazy, distracted, or self-conscious of their opinions. In this situation, a substantive critique is unlikely. Fortunately, it only takes one person really engaging with the material to put everyone on the right track. Take control. By making it a point to speak when others will not, you single-handedly overcome the inertia of silence, and if you say something useful, provide points of reference for others to launch from. Someone who disagrees with your assessment, or who feels validated by it, will feel more comfortable chiming in once the discussion has already begun. Once jumpstarted, critiques tend to feed on themselves and continue until they’ve run their course. More times than I can count, a single speaker, with one or two good comments, transformed a silent room into a cyclone of activity.

But what should I say?

You’re stumped. What now?

First of all, what is your initial reaction?

This is important, because this first impression is the closest you will get to how a consumer would experience the work. Do you like it? Do you dislike it? Are you indifferent? Can you articulate why?

If you like it, say so immediately and, if possible, elaborate on why. You can take your time with the “why” and don’t be afraid to change your mind, but talk it out.

If you don’t like it, hold off speaking until you have something specific, and constructive to say. You can always come back to the piece later which demonstrates continued thinking on the subject.

If you’re indifferent, say nothing and try another strategy.

Find something good. Even if you hate the overall work. Even if you think the person is an idiot.

all of your opinions more, and it softens the blow when you have to deliver the really bad news. Additionally, positive comments tend to garner solutions, while negative comments breed more negative comments.

Ask a leading question?

Any piece of work is the result of countless decisions. If you are curious about something, ask about it. Even if you are not particularly curious, asking a question is a good way to get somewhere else.

“How did you decide on that photographic style?”

“Can you talk about your use of multiple font-weights and how it serves your message?”

“Did you think about…” because not only are they yes/no questions, too often people use the construct just to say anything or to make the presenter look stupid. If you find yourself about to pose a question like this, try to rephrase it. You’ll likely get a better response.

What is the one thing you would change?

Ask yourself, if you were to take over from here, what would you do, and why. Try to present your ideas not as suggestions or judgments, but as “feelings.” They should act as a transient jumping off point for discussion, not as point to be argued. Some quick examples:

If you’re stuck, ask yourself:

  • Is the photography/illustration/type best suited for this message?
  • Does the execution fit the stated strategy?
  • Is it eye catching?
  • Which is stronger, the words or the imagery?
  • Is the strategy/execution appropriate for the client/campaign?
  • Does the work say to you what they intended, or is there a disconnect?
  • Is there something in the execution that takes away from the message?

What do you think about the:

  • typography
  • font choice
  • relative type size
  • color palette
  • use of negative space
  • tone
  • contrast
  • copy
  • headline
  • layout
  • placement/size of the logo

Engaging in good and honest critique is rewarding because it not only improves the work, but all of the participants…even the unwilling ones. Don’t waste the opportunity to lead and learn and grow.

This post originally appeared on my old blog, theRail.