How to Survive a Critique: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Feedback

By Karen Cheng

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.

How To Get the Most From Your Critique: Receiving Feedback

Be ready with your work
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.

Be ready to say something about your work
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.”

Invite constructive criticism
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 improvements?”

Listen: Keep an open mind and avoid being defensive
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 successful.

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!

Don’t take it personally
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.

Take notes, or have someone take notes for you
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.

Be positive and polite
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.

After the critique, decide what revisions to make
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.

For the Instructor and the Student-Critic: How To Offer Constructive Feedback

Avoid creating a climate of fear
Certain students 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.

Use the “hamburger method”
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 acknowledgement.

Many “old-school” 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.

Focus on “why”
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.

Make actionable suggestions
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 critiques.

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 failure.

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.