The Backstory

After I had been designing professionally for about 6 years I decided to go back to school and get a degree, and possibly learn a thing or two.  I ended up in Jim Godfrey’s Intro to Web Design because it was a prerequisite for the advanced class.   It was horrible. Jim made me use… (*sobs) Dreamweaver. And I wasn’t allowed to include javascript or anything dynamic.  Talk about torture. Jim turned out to be  an amazing teacher so I swallowed my pride and followed the rules.

The real fun started at the end of the first assignment when we all put our designs up on the big screen for a classwide critique.  By the time we were about 5 designs into the critique I knew one individual in particular would be my arch nemesis.  We’ll call him Larry.  I sat where I could see Larry’s screen as he worked but he couldn’t see mine.  I knew that Larry’s work was typical for a beginning class but his opinion manifested itself as rude and overbearing during the critique and just made me want to punch him.  Larry talked like he knew what he was talking about to those who don’t know better and he made everyone feel horrible for even trying to attempt the assignment.

Soon we came to mine.  I couldn’t wait to see what Larry would say. Surprisingly he didn’t say anything.  But as soon as the next design went up he was right back at it.  I began to stew.  I didn’t even notice the quality of work that was on the screen, I just noticed how wrong Larry was.  I put together my plan.  I knew what his project looked like and I planned my comments.  Making note of many of his comments that applied to his project as well.  I couldn’t wait to throw it all right back in his face.

Finally the moment came.  His design went up.  A few people raised their hands and offered praise on how well it was laid out, good white space, blah blah blah. My hand went up.  I’m normally not a harsh critic but this day was different.  This wasn’t a critique, this was war.  So I calmly began to go down my list.  Everything I said was right.  He could have paid attention to fonts, consistency in border widths, leaving a single point of interest, etc. etc.  I went on for a good 2 or 3 minutes.  As I spoke I could see the heads of all the intro students begin to nod and see that this was indeed a very poor design. I could also see Larry slide down lower in his chair.  This was supposed to be an anonymous critique so no one knew whose design we were looking at but I knew.  And I think Jim knew.  He gave me that look of “I wish I could get away with saying what you’re saying. Except I’m not that mean”.

By the time I was done I think I had destroyed Larry’s self esteem.  He didn’t offer up any more advice for the remaining few design projects.  He just slouched in his chair and sulked.  I had won.

I should have felt the joy of victory but I didn’t.  I felt sick.  Never before had I singled out an individual and systematically whittled down his work until it was a festering puddle of goo.  I had done what I had wanted to never do.  Sure I put him in his place but I think I could have handled it a lot better.  If I were to go back knowing what I know now what would I do different?

How to Critique

First acknowledge what they have done right.  Every designer, no matter how novice or how inartistic, starts with good intentions and for some part at least they accomplish it.  Start by finding what that is and give it a nod.

Second, ask questions.  Find out what they were going for.  Maybe they wanted to use so much white space that it would leave an unsettling feeling and make the viewer take a specific action.  Design isn’t about being pretty, it’s about solving an issue.  So find out what problem the designer is solving, it might not be what you are expecting.

Third, make suggestions.  Don’t tell them what they have done wrong. Suggest that they go back and try approaching it from this angle or that angle.  Try giving a little direction rather than just pointing out errors and mistakes.

Finally follow up all the advice with some more praise.  I don’t remember who told me this in school but you should treat a critique like a sandwich.  Keep all the meat in the middle and sandwich it in between two good pieces of praise.  I have used that philosophy since I got out of school and it has always worked well.

So what works for you? And what good critique horror stories do you have?

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