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Design is a complex
endeavor—one resistant to simple metrics or measures. In design education,
instructors rely heavily on a subjective form of review known as “critique.” As
a design student, learning how to give and receive feedback effectively is an
essential skill that extends beyond the classroom. Here are some suggestions for students and critics on
participating in an effective critique.
Generally speaking, instructors and students often think
poorly of those who are unprepared for critique. There are
exceptions—professors who think, “Great! Now I can leave class early!”—but they
aren’t the faculty members you want to cultivate as mentors. Even if you don’t
have any work to show, it’s still best to come to the critique, share feedback
and participate by looking closely and listening carefully (also known
as “learning from others”).
If you are unprepared, it’s best to acknowledge that fact to the instructor, but do
this in a straightforward manner, without making elaborate excuses. You should apologize, express that you feel badly about the situation and assure the
group that it won’t happen again. Try not to cry or freak out; this tends to kill
the mood for the rest of the class.
Some design projects
are self-explanatory, and in this case, your instructor and classmates can
immediately respond to your work, without preamble. However, if complete
silence falls over the class, it usually means one of two things: no one can
figure out what they are looking at or the work is truly dreadful. In these instances, consider
jumping in and explaining what you had in mind when you made the work. Keep
it brief: The more you talk, the less time there is for feedback.
Using your rationale as
a starting point, the group can then discuss whether or not your basic concept
is compelling. If the concept is viable, participants should try to offer
suggestions that might improve the design execution. If the concept simply
isn’t worthwhile, the critique usually concludes quickly. There’s no point in
“polishing the turd.”
The fact is that most students
are pretty nice—too nice—during critique. Some hesitate to give any negative
feedback at all. If that’s the case, you or your instructor can encourage participation
by openly inviting constructive criticism: “What do you think is the least
successful part of my design—and why? Where do you think I can make
It can be painful to
hear critical or even negative comments about your work, but the
most important thing you can do during the critique is listen. You want to be
aware of all the different reactions people have to your work, both good and
bad. Most importantly, you want to understand why people respond the way they do. This information will enable
you to adjust and revise your design with the goal of making it more
Avoid getting defensive.
You don’t have to justify your work—arguing makes you seem unwilling to accept
input. Try to stay calm. If anger management is a problem, plan in advance. If
necessary, make a voodoo doll that you can stab when you get home!
If you have a
particularly bad critique during which you receive overwhelmingly negative
feedback—the critics tear up, tear down or otherwise crush your work—try not to
take it personally. There are always some mean-spirited individuals, but
usually instructors and fellow students are just trying to help. In an
ideal world, those offering criticism are respectful and focus objectively and
rationally on both the flaws and merits of your design solution. However, this
is not always the reality in the classroom.
Get in the habit of
recording the feedback that you receive. Instructors like to see you write down
their suggestions (Tip: clients like this, too). Critiques move quickly, and
it’s easy to forget ideas and references to other designers or related design
projects after the event.
Even if you feel totally
crushed, thank your colleagues and the instructor. Phrases like, “Thanks, I’ll
think about all this,” or “I appreciate the input,” encourage people to keep
helping you in the future.
Not all the suggestions
you receive will be useful. Some input may actually be in direct
conflict. For example, one person told you to make an element larger, but
another person said to make the same part smaller. Now what?
What matters is
analyzing why people make conflicting suggestions. Often, a problem has
multiple solutions. After the critique, it’s up to you to decide how to address
the issues that were identified. To do this, you need to think critically about
the objectives of your design—what exactly the design needs to accomplish—and
determine how specific changes can move you toward a more effective solution.
respond well to intense, combative and competitive situations, but they are in
the minority. Studies find that most students prefer environments that they
define as “supportive.” Furthermore, teacher behaviors such as humor, affinity-seeking (“a positive attitude toward another person”) and self-disclosure (“sharing
personal feelings and information with others”) have been found to reduce
defensiveness, hostility and anxiety in students. Psychologists theorize that
students can better direct their attention toward specific tasks—like improving
their design work—when they are not preoccupied with “fight or flight”
responses, which are triggered by threats to their egos.
Try beginning with a
positive, constructive comment on something that works well in the design that
is being critiqued. Next, get to the meat, which is, of course, the constructive
criticism—what could be improved. Finally, end with another positive
faculty members dismiss this method as superficial candy-coating—known more
colloquially as the “shit sandwich.” But candy-coating isn’t such a bad idea. It
makes it possible for students to absorb negative feedback. As long as the hamburger’s “buns”
are comprised of genuine, accurate observations, students benefit from
receiving feedback that addresses both what is and isn’t working in their designs.
In a productive
critique, critics must explain why they do or do not accept the solution being
offered by the designer. The entire raison d’être for critique is our desire to
analyze and debate the success of a design. In the analysis, participants need
to determine what components are essential and how those components work
together toward success or failure. If the design is flawed, does the error lie
within the individual components themselves or in the way they have been
combined? A detailed analysis of “why” is essential in enabling the designer to
improve his or her work. Simple statements of affinity, whether positive or
negative, are insufficient.
Many design students, especially
novices, love direct suggestions. That way, they can simply point back to the
critic and claim, “It was your idea!” when the result is awful. Of course,
there are ways to deflect. Some instructors say, “Well, if that’s what you got out
of what I said…” However, such a strategy doesn’t build rapport for future
Perhaps the best
solution is to first point out the problem, then offer several possible
solutions, hedging your feedback with phrases such as “it might not work in
this case” or “this is just one idea.” In this way, the critic provides
specific examples to consider without assuming total responsibility for
A good critic responds
to both the work and the person who made it. The best instructors recognize
that some students are fragile and need support and encouragement to do their
best. Other students are bold and require blunt, strongly worded feedback to get
them to shift their perspective. Still others are indifferent or preoccupied
with other aspects of their lives that are not design-orientated (What’s for
lunch?). For instructors, running a successful critique requires managing these
issues and the variety of personalities, motivations, backgrounds and cultures
of the participants.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of ARCADE, a quarterly publication dedicated to architecture and design in the Pacific Northwest.
Professor Karen Cheng received her Master’s Degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Washington in 1997, she worked in Brand Management at the Procter &
Gamble Company and studied Chemical Engineering at Penn State University (Honors BS, 1991). Her work has been published by
Communication Arts, the American Center for Design, Critique, the Society for Publication Designers, and the SEGD. Her book,
Designing Type, was published by Yale University Press in 2006. She is currently Chair of the UW Division of Design.
Harris Creek Connected is a design project to raise awareness about
individual and collective actions that can improve the environmental
health of the Harris Creek watershed, the Baltimore Harbor and
ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
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