A good design critique

How do you thoroughly critique a design without crucifying the designer? What are ways of critiquing that result in better designs, rather than defensive justifications?

Scott Berkun explores a model for design critique in a detailed post, but I’m interested in the little stuff that works for your design team in day-to-day practice.

At Cooper, our teams often work together for a year or more. It is important for us to create a dynamic of cooperation, but great design often happens when we push on assumptions and challenge the first iteration. We want to encourage this critique, but make sure that it doesn’t derail the meeting.

Why is that good?

It’s pretty common to hear a skeptical Cooper designer begin a critique with some variant of the question, “Why is that good?” Many ways to express disagreement have negative effects on the meeting or relationship. “That won’t work because,” or “But what about.” These tend to bring momentum to a halt. Designers must stop, defend their ideas, or chase objections.

As anyone who has faced a blank whiteboard knows, once the ink gets flowing it is important to run with it and see where the idea goes. Communication strategies of design partners can enhance or detract from this process. By asking to see the goodness, we focus on enlightenment, encouraging our partner to help us see what they see. Also, asking an open-ended question is an acceptably naïve way of pushing your design partner to step up and show you what is going on in their mind.

At the core, we want our teams to feel comfortable in expressing healthy disagreement, and to focus on clarifying rather than justifying.

What are ways that your team has developed to critique design while maintaining harmony on the team?

4 Comments

Scott Berkun
I'm convinced the core thing is trust. To give a full depth critique both parties need to believe deeply the other person a) respects them b) has their best interests at heart and c) is trying to be constructive even when it doesn't seem they are. On some teams I've been on we'd regularly ask each other to "tear our stuff apart". We'd ask for brutality because we wanted to hear every possible question and bit of feedback early - before there were any formal reviews or client meetings. We had a culture where asking tough questions was considered a kind of fun activity, and it pushed all of us to do our best work. But it's key this is driven by the designer - asking for tough criticism. Asking to hear the things some people may be afraid to point out. And being mature enough to separate questions about the work from questions about *them*. Finding designers who take feedback well is not easy, but it adds 10-15% to their talent, since they're willing to listen to things most don't want to hear.
Stefan Klocek
Agreed. Because at Cooper we are consultants we don't do ourselves any favors by avoiding hard questions from our partners. If the design has problems our clients are likely to point them out anyway. By pushing on the design early and often, we get a chance to fix the simple problems and reason through our rational for those that are more complex. Having worked in-house before, I remember that tough or brutal feedback could be harder to take objectively. When everyone is on the same side design critiques can feel more like internal politics.
Peter
Hello, I'm a student and often I have to give and receive feedback from classmates I always hoper to give a good feedbacks but most of the times I can't find the words. Could you guys give me any advice ?
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