The Art of the Critique

March 8, 2019

A critique is to a creative what a lab is to a scientist or a proposal to a businessman: exhilarating, integral, oftentimes stressful, and absolutely unavoidable. In art and design studios, critiques begin as soon as there is something—anything—to critique, and if you don’t know what to expect from it, it can be incredibly overwhelming. The critiques that I had my first semester as a graphic design student brought me to tears at least once a week. Now, critiques are something I look forward to in class. The difference is both learning how to receive a critique and how to critique others and at no point in the process is either party required to actually be a creative person.

Ultimately, the art of the critique is shaped by four guidelines.

First, step away from the work, figuratively and literally. As the designer, you’ve likely been staring at this design blown up to 300 times its normal size on your computer screen for days, if not weeks. Print it out in, pin it to the wall, and take a walk. If you’re the one critiquing, putting some space between you and the work helps you to picture it in different spaces and sizes. Visually, it’s going to work differently in each of these iterations. Keep that in mind when you’re critiquing: is your critique only valuable in one or two of these conditions, or does it apply globally to the design?

Second, keep the critique objective. No matter how much of your heart and soul you poured into making this design, you need to view it as a separate entity from you for the duration of the critique; the design is now a problem you need to solve. As for those that are critiquing the piece, the critique should work a little like politics: keep your eye on how to improve the workings of the design, and don’t make personal attacks. Obviously, this is usually where things go awry in both scenarios, but the more objective and focused you are, the better the results.

Third, try things. Try them in real time. No matter how stupid the critiques you receive sound, try them out before you bin the idea completely. The point of the critique is to gain insights into your design that you as the designer haven’t thought of, so try things you haven’t thought of. You’ll be surprised how one seemingly bad idea can push you in the right direction.

Fourth, come back to the board for another critique. Critique is part of a cyclical design process. If you only do one critique or none at all, you’re wasting the opportunity to glean valuable outsider opinions and viewpoints, as well as running the risk of losing the project’s ultimate end goals in the all-consuming design process. Additionally, the more critiques you do, and the more honest and helpful they are, the more trust you build between presenters and critiquers. 

Point blank: critiques are valuable to everyone. Even if you don’t design in the traditional sense, everyone creates some kind of work. Pin it up on the wall, grab a couple people, and keep an open mind; these four guidelines can apply to anyone. And if you are a designer, don’t worry about it—critiques will grow on you like a shiny fungus.

Although good design isn’t made by committee, good design is improved by committee. Critiques, as harsh as the name sounds, aren’t about judging designs, but measuring them up against the objectives of the project, and making sure that it works—prettiness momentarily be damned.