At its most basic level, a critique is a conversation aimed at identifying—and fixing—problems. You probably have sat through a conversation that turned into a free-for-all, with everyone piling on some poor team member. A critique can feel like a pile-on because its purpose is to point out things that are wrong. But a good critique leaves both parties—those providing critique and those receiving it—in a positive emotional state.
Good critiques are hard because creativity is multi-layered. It's impossible to discuss a creative solution intelligently and constructively without intimate knowledge of that solution (and the framing of the problem). Arriving at that knowledge requires two major changes on the part of many executives:
First, executives must commit to dedicating attention and time to deeply understanding the customer experience. That behavior represents a change because most executives operate at the 20,000-foot level. Second, and most important (because it's linked to the first change ), they need to build trust.
Unless creative team members trust the people offering critique, they will find it hard to hear (and believe) what they did wrong. Only a trusting creative team can hear that their work is bad without feeling as though they are bad.
Art, architecture and design schools have always had a reputation for “tough love.” Classes take place in a studio, which is a creative, dynamic and highly creative space. Most people who have gone through formal design training are passionate about their experiences in the studio. They talk fondly of endless critiques, long nights, and a few hours of sleep caught under their desks before the final review. The critique is what's particularly memorable about that studio experience and what drives so much reflection.
One of my colleagues, reflecting on a favorite professor, recalled a critique on a graphic-design printed piece. All of the students had put their work on the wall and were waiting for the professor to arrive. A few minutes past 9 a.m., the professor walked in. He looked at the wall for about 30 seconds. The students grew quiet. He turned and looked at them, slowly panning across the room to look into each student's eyes. He looked back at the wall, turned, and walked out of the room. The work was so bad that his critique was silence.
Another student, now a visual designer at frog, said that her most vivid memory of design school was “getting a D on my first project in Fundamentals of Design my freshman year. It was my first D ever—I cried in front of my professor and thought I needed to quit school.”
This rough treatment isn't just fodder for funny stories. It helps students to understand the value of feedback and to thicken their skin. So it has immediate and practical value for these designers when they get into the harsh real world of the consultancy or corporation. In these environments, clients and creative directors don't pull punches or sugarcoat feedback; there's no time. Creative work becomes a point of departure for iterative revisions, so a thorough critique is the best outcome one can hope for. Detail that emerges during a negative design review brings valuable opportunities for corrections during subsequent revisions.
Critique happens throughout the entire creative process, starting with strategy. In this example, the product team is knee-deep in the execution of a new piece of software for our fictional education company. They are all gathered in the design studio looking at a wall pinned with pieces of paper. These papers show wireframe flows of a user's navigation.
As you read the critique, imagine that you are the creative director and project manager. Think about how you would drive a productive and useful conversation like this one.
Creative Director:“Can you describe what's happening here?” [points at a wireframe showing large, bubbly letters and a number of vivid balloons and streamers]
Designer: “Well, when the student finally picks a college major, I wanted to celebrate the choice by recognizing it as important; this element here [points to balloons] is congratulating them on choosing an academic plan.”
Product Manager: “That doesn't make any sense. Why make it a celebration? It's just one step on the long hard path of the academic journey. Wouldn't something more subtle be appropriate?”
Engineer: “Yeah, I mean—this is education; it's not like a greeting-card company or something. It's not working at all. [in a mocking voice] ‘Congratulations on your major—now you can pay the school hundreds of thousands of dollars!'“
Creative Director: “It makes a lot of sense to overtly recognize that the user made a big decision because it will help them understand state—that they have moved from ‘no major selected’ to ‘major selected’—and reinforce personalization. But is celebration really the right emotive quality?”
Designer: “Yeah, maybe not—I was trying to make it more happy to form a brand relationship.”
Engineer: “But that relationship can come over time. It's not going to happen on this particular screen.”
Designer: “OK, so if I keep the idea of recognition, but shift toward something less playful… ”
Product Manager: “Yeah, save the playfulness for appropriate times, like maybe if they score well on a test, we give them a way to share it on Instagram. That's a celebration. Instead, let's put something here that directs the user back into the flow, so they can make additional tweaks to their course plan. This is an opportunity for us to sell ‘course plan customization' to schools, too.”
The critique is taking place in a conference room with a variety of participants. It's a dialogue, where the conversation flows from open-ended questioning (“Can you describe what's happening here?”) to rationalization (“I was trying to make it…,” “I wanted to…”) to very detailed value judgments (“That doesn't make any sense,” “That's not working at all”). The dialogue works for a number of reasons:
Although the example above was about software and involved at least one person who went to design school, the value of critique extends beyond digital products and designers. No matter what your level of corporate influence, your job is probably becoming more creative. Critique can help you with things that you might not think of as designed artifacts.
Think about all of the decisions you make each day. Nearly all of the big ones have a creative component: Are you planning to acquire a company? The acquisition process creates value. Are you planning to reorganize your company? You'll create the resulting structure. And that new go-to-market strategy? It's created—typically tied directly to the creation of a new product or service.
So, learning to critique and be critiqued is critical for advancing an idea. In a traditional corporate setting, it's up to you to demand critique and define the rules of engagement . Your teams probably won't understand what you are asking for. Explain that you actually want people to describe what isn't working. Then prepare to be open to hearing the bad news.
It won't be pretty. Most design students struggle through years of criticism before finding a confident voice and appetite for review. As a leader, you and your team will have to become comfortable without the forgiving safety of academia. But you'll find it worthwhile to do so because critique adds immense value to any part of the business—advancing or refining an idea and ensuring that quality work gets the attention it deserves.
A negative but structured design critique helps people learn that creativity is not entirely subjective or about beauty or the eye of the beholder. Particularly in a strategic sense, creativity has rigor, structure, and method. Even preparing for the critique forces that rigor because there has to be an artifact to critique.
The actual mechanics of a critique seem simple. A group discusses a displayed artifact and explore suggestions for improvement. Printed out or projected, the artifact can represent an idea, a strategy, or a tactic. It can represent a simple feature or a series of function vignettes. You can critique anything you can embody in an artifact, including brand campaigns, microsites, products, services, business models, and organizational plans.
The “group” part of the critique is essential because of the goal of a critique: to extract as much content as possible. Multiple viewpoints—particularly competing ones—best serve that goal.
What's also essential is explicitly stating the rules for the critique. Tell the group how you want to run it and how you want them to participate.
First, because the intent is to identify problems, ask your team to focus on the negative. This runs counter to normal behavior—many of us were taught that “if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.” So you can expect to feel a strange dynamic in the room. Think about the power dynamics at play in any meeting where you have a title that conveys expectations of authority or expertise. You need to explicitly reset those expectations: “You may view me as the de facto expert on this topic or feel too intimidated to offer negative criticism. For the purposes of this meeting, consider me just another contributor. I want you to identify problems with my solution.”
Next, instruct the team to constructively present negative comments—not just to say what's wrong but to give very specific suggestions on how to improve it. Tell them that for each comment they make about something not working, they need to explain how to fix it.
Explain that you want to focus the criticism on the artifact—the representation of the idea—not the idea itself. The artifact both represents the idea (or strategy) and grounds it in reality. That grounding tends to enable a specific conversation , so the team can say “this, not that.” If the conversation drifts into the theoretical realm, though, it's up to you to reground the conversation in specifics.
Most important, urge the team to sketch solutions whenever possible. Explain that you'll give the marker to the person speaking, and that you'll constantly prompt drawn comments. If you are critiquing an organizational diagram on a PowerPoint slide, print the slide and sketch directly on that piece of paper. If it's a business model, redraw it in real time on the whiteboard. Recognize that some people are not comfortable drawing in real time, though, and that you may need to draw for them.
Having established the rules, begin the critique. As the critique starts, resist the temptation to rationalize your decisions. This will always come across as defensive because it is. And that defensiveness changes the conversation from a way to produce new knowledge to a verbal debate that prohibits idea evolution.
Additionally, when you rationalize particular creative decisions during a critique, you steer the conversation in two ways:
Transition the group to the critique—“Let's get started. Who would like to begin?” Then be quiet, and take notes. Speak only to remind the team to keep talking and to draw.
Some of the best parts of a critique come from small, nuanced details and the many ideas that the conversation sparks so taking notes and saving sketches is vital to retain them. For example, a participant who is looking at an Excel model of an acquisition strategy might say something like, “When we describe acquiring these companies over here, instead of treating them like a ‘rollup,' it seems like we could ‘sunset' three of the products and focus on moving customers towards the fourth. Then we could slowly increase the price of the core product and provide ancillary benefit from our services group.”
There are at least four suggestions there—sunsetting products, consolidating customers, increasing prices, and engaging the services group. Without notes and sketches, it's unlikely that you would remember all of that or a part because you'll be actively considering so many ideas.
During critiques of my work, I take notes on my laptop, and I sketch on a stack of paper. I number each item, component, or artifact on both the paper and in the typed notes. As a person is speaking, I try to type the exact comment and link to its number. I also try to log who said what, so I can follow up later if I need to. In a few instances, I've found written feedback to be politically useful, too: When teams wonder where seemingly irrelevant decisions came from, we can identify whether we hatched them.
A critique can feel overwhelming because it can generate a large quantity of comments, suggestions, and complaints. As a group gains momentum and sometimes seems to rip apart your core idea, you'll again be tempted to defend your work. Instead consider that those comments and your recording of them don't mean you have to act on them. It should be libertating to recognizing that a critique is not a mandate and that comments are only suggestions.
The end of a creative meeting is just as important as its beginning and center. People tend to leave the critique with very different views about what happened. If you quietly listened and took notes, one view they're likely to share is validation—that you heard them. That builds and reinforces trust and teamwork.
But be warned: Because the participants talked and drew their ideas into existence and saw you paying attention, they will come to think of their ideas as facts. If they don't see them reflected in the next round of revisions, you'll frustrate them. They'll feel as though you ignored them and they wasted their time.
To prevent this reaction, also set ground rules at the end of the critique: Explain how the post-critique synthesis will work. Say something like, “I heard all of what you said, and I wrote it all down. You've given me a lot to think about. I don't agree with everything, so you may not see your comments visualized in the next iteration. If you feel strongly about what you said today, let's talk about it in a one-on-one setting.”
If you're in a big or politically volatile group, email everyone both your notes and this disclaimer: “These notes represent what was said during the critique, not what was committed to.” Then, no matter how strongly you emphasize the value your future work, be prepared to explain why you choose to ignore specific design suggestions.
To recap the importance and role of a critique—
It generates many ideas. It helps you escape the typical blind spot of an expert and see things in a new light. In expanding the canvas of potential, it also expands your solution set.
It acts as a way to narrow, refine, and improve the ideas you already came up with. It focuses and sharpens the solution set.
It builds comfort among the team by helping to manage the creative ambiguity and anxiety around a new idea. That's because the critique shares the idea—it now belongs to the team, no longer only you. Because team members own it, they will support it, align around it, and champion it through the rest of the process.
Takeaway: Hold critiques regularly, and be sure to articulate and enforce their rules to ensure the productive transmission of negative criticism.