5 Tips for Better Design Critiques

No matter what type of designer you are, participating in critiques is key to your job. For most of us we learned how to give and get constructive criticism through many awkward interactions in design school. We slowly refined our critiquing skills to provide feedback that would help our fellow design classmates, and then (once we stopped taking it personally) accepted feedback and ran with it.

Fast forward a few years after graduation and design critiques have continued in your real-world job, but perhaps not as frequent. From my own experience over the years of being graphic designer and later product designer, these types of constructive critiques are great in theory, but we rarely have the time for them. When we do have time for reviews of our work, it’s important to take advantage of every ounce of feedback and make sure you’re doing it properly.

Here’s some things I’ve found useful over the years when partaking in professional critiques.

  1. Take advantage of fly-by critiques. It’s important to understand that just because you’re not in a meeting room with every designer on your team, doesn’t mean a 10 minute fly-by session with one other designer isn’t a valuable critique.

    This is something that I ignored for the first few years as a designer, trying to put-off feedback until we had a formal sit-down session for critiques. It hurt my work by ignoring this feedback or not taking it seriously enough, because in truth – this is exactly the feedback I was going to hear in a formal critiquing session anyway!

    Embrace those moments when a creative colleague wheels over to your screen and points out something they like or might change. You may not be ready for it, but your design will only be better in the end.  
  2. Don’t forget to point out some good things. It’s so easy for creatives to be cynical, or product designers to be so methodical that we forget a human actually created what we’re ripping apart. I’ve found that focusing on the bad things or what you would do differently doesn’t just hurt the person on the receiving end, but also has a strange effect on your ego – it makes you think you have all the answers. That’s dangerous because none of us are all-knowing.

    Now, I’m not someone who believes the sandwich approach of ‘good > bad > good’ works for everyone in every situation. You really need to understand the person on your team and whether or not they would prefer brutally honest feedback most of the time. No matter how much someone might say “give it to me straight”, there’s a fine line where you need to understand how to manage someone’s emotions and feelings.

    Trust me, sprinkling a little kindness and kudos goes a long way in critiques. Even I have been that douchebag who thinks his shit don’t stink. It only taints your reputation and can have a long, undesired effect on relations with co-workers or vendors.  
  3. Write down the feedback you get. I picked this up from a product designer at my last job who always carried a notebook & pen with her. That notebook came out during every one of her presentations in our design critiques. Whether she was going to apply that feedback or not, it went down in the book for further review. 
    notebook pen and phone
    Always carry a notebook and pen to write down feedback.

    This not only helped her, but had a profound effect on those of us who were providing the feedback as we knew she was listening and had our comments well documented. Fast forward a few years, and I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying a notebook with me and documenting all the feedback I hear.

    The really nice thing about a paper notebook is it doesn’t disconnect you from your audience like typing on a computer does. Plus, when you have those moments where you’re sharing your screen on a WebEx or projector, you have a way to still keep track of all the feedback.

     

  4. Have fun with your critiquing session. I’ve found that formal design critiques can evolve into a chore that designers just want to get through and be done with. You have a list of who’s presenting > they present > feedback is provided > next person goes up and presents. It doesn’t have to be boring though and it should be fun, especially for creatives.

    These are people you often spend 40+ hours a week with, so start the session off with random chit-chat about something personal, a funny video, a crazy story from another project – anything to lighten the mood and make everyone feel comfortable. Food is also one surefire way to get people to relax and loosen up a little. Also booze (if your place of employment allows).  
  5. Lead by example. When I came into a role at a new company, regular critiques of work didn’t always happen like they did at my previous company. Knowing the power of getting that feedback from my designer co-workers, I decided to host a meeting where I kicked off a critique of a big project that I was tasked with. Basically I showed some vulnerability, opened up my own work, and declared that I needed my fellow colleagues knowledge to make the design better (and I really did need them). 
    sharing work on computer
    Take initiative and start hosting design critiques.

    I followed the cadence I had practiced in past critiques and the session ended up being a success. The great thing about this new team was that like the last team, there weren’t any egos, so everyone was already supportive and comfortable with sharing work – we just hadn’t done it in a formal setting like this. Later on there were other ad-hoc reviews & critiques of each others work, especially on big projects. So if your team doesn’t do critiques on each others designs yet, then send out that meeting invite and open up your own design for review to kick things off.

I’m only scratching the surface of how to make the best of your design critiques, so I’m opening it up to all of you now: what is your advice for having the most effective critique sessions? Leave a comment below and let’s keep the conversation going.

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