If You Want the Best from Your Designer, Don’t Criticize Their Work — Critique It

(The following is adapted from the book Everyone’s Guide to Designers, by designer Clarence Bowman.)

One of the trickiest arts in world is the art of critique. But learning it is important to clients who wish to have good working relationships with their graphic and Web designers.

How can you tell a designer about their work’s shortcomings without alienating them — especially after they have invested a great deal of care and effort?

How can you consistently convey a constructive and helpful evaluation of a designer’s work?

How can you keep a designer from getting defensive and refusing to listen?

The answer is critique — not criticism. Knowing the difference can make all the difference in the success of your next creative project.

Always Room for Improvement

Designers, like all of us, want to hear that everything we do is perfect. We hope our work is exactly what the client is looking for — no changes needed. But that rarely happens.

There are almost always things that can be improved. Nothing is perfect. Perfection is a path, not a destination.

So, we try to create the best solution we can for the client, recognizing that it must be altered, tailored and improved over the course of its lifetime before it is accepted as final.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not human. Criticism is never easy to take or pleasant to hear.

I’ll admit it. Even after working as a designer for more than 20 years, I’m still occasionally rattled when clients criticize my work.

If only they knew how to offer critique rather than criticism.

Criticism vs. Critique

Author Judy Reeves has articulated the following eight differences between criticism and critique:

  • Criticism finds fault/Critique looks at structure
  • Criticism looks for what’s lacking/Critique finds what’s working
  • Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand/Critique asks for clarification
  • Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue/Critique’s voice is kind, honest, and objective
  • Criticism is negative/Critique is positive (even about what isn’t working)
  • Criticism is vague and general/Critique is concrete and specific
  • Criticism has no sense of humor/Critique insists on laughter, too
  • Criticism looks for flaws in the [creator]/Critique addresses only what is on the page

Criticism is negative and unhelpful on its own. Telling someone what you think is wrong with their project is really only useful when it’s followed by the reasoning behind your opinion — your critique.

“This Will Never Work!”

Saying you hate a logo treatment, for example, isn’t constructive. Saying you dislike the color of the logo, and for this reason would prefer something sunnier or darker, is constructive. It gives your designer the information they need to make the design more to your liking.

And the more detail you can provide, the better.

Like most designers, I’ve had clients who sit across a table from me and say things like this:

    “I don’t like it.”
    “This will never work!”
    “That’s not what people want.”
    “My boss will never go for that!”

If such criticisms aren’t accompanied by constructive feedback, they’re worse than useless. Because, in addition to failing to contribute to the creative process, they can also demoralize the designer and cause him to tune you out.

And that’s bad for both of you.

If someone were lambasting your latest project, ask yourself how motivated you would feel to give them your best effort? Most designers I know would hurry to finish the project, then hope to never hear from you again. Life’s too short.

Articulating What You Don’t Like — and Why

Unlike criticism, critiquing means to objectively review a project, identify areas for improvement and then articulate exactly what it is that troubles you and why.

The ability to critique well is a powerful skill and a difficult art. But even if you’re the most abrasive person around, you still must learn how to critique if you want to get the best work from your designer.

4 Responses to “If You Want the Best from Your Designer, Don’t Criticize Their Work — Critique It”

  1. Ummmm, let me find faults with this... 🙂

    Formally, the list is practically a solecism. While it's true that "criticism" does mean "expressing disapproval", it also means "a serious examination or judgment". And "critique" is just the written form of "criticism".

    The distinction made here is typical for the tendency to euphemise everything. Usually, it's mildly annoying. In the worst cases, it's extremely unhelpful. Like "Criticism looks for what's lacking/Critique finds what's working". So you (generic you) don't want to hear what areas still need work but are willing to blunder about trying to guess? Isn't it more helpful, and kinder, to have specific dislikes listed?

    On the other hand, I do agree with quite a lot of things said. But a general negativity and, particularly, ad hominem arguments are still not "criticism" as such. They are the game of one-upmanship, unfortunately so often present in corporate bureaucracy. They are, ultimately, twaddle. Or for you Americans, hogwash.

  2. As an artist myself working in the same business for the past 18 years I've got another take on the problem.

    I don't really think of the issue as a critique vs criticism problem. I'll agree it does slow down the process and most clients do have an issue it seems in letting the designer know what's in their head in ways we can interpret (which may be a big part of the issue) but here's where I see the problem lying. The designer.

    Before you throw tomatoes at me let me explain. Someone building a computer has certain structured steps they have to follow and everyone knows what the outcome will be when it's finished. As artists those steps are tossed and we tend to put ourselves into our work. We take what we think we understand the client wanting and then add our unique touch to it. The problem comes in when the client judges the work which on a deep level judges us and our abilities. Or at least if we allow it to feel as such. We take it personal in other words. That logo, or web site layout is like a child to us and we were just told our child is ugly.

    You need to learn to separate yourself from the work just enough so that when a client claims "this will never do" you understand he's not talking about you or your skills, only about the idea you've placed in front of him. It's not an easy task I'll admit.

    Then as the designer it's up to you to draw out of him what it needs more of or less of. Is it the colors? Is it the overall feel? Is the font at fault?

    We have to remember that we are not dealing with other artist that speak the same language as we do and they tend to use a different part of their brain than we use. Since we are the hired help as it were we are the ones responsible in getting what they want and sometimes it takes a lot of questions on our part that may seem silly to them.

    I'll have clients send me links to other sites or graphics they like and then have them tell me why they like them. Not to steal from but it helps me understand them better and gives me ideas on how to read their minds just a little bit more.

    Once I think we're reading from the same book then I'll make up about 3 designs to submit and let them tell me which they like and dont like and why. It really is more work but it helps out later before you get to attached to the work.

    The second problem I think really exists relates to the first, communication. Recently I did a site and corporate logo for a start up company that converts medical records into digital data. The company is run by 5 partners all of which with high level degrees from Ivy league schools in computer science, artificial intelligence, medical degrees, and the like. These guys think with the side of their brain I shut off years ago and the side I have active they've never accessed. They are not dumb by any standard but they do not understand how to convey their wishes in words that I understand.

    That's where the sample sites they liked and the ideas I made up for them came in handy. It was the one thing we both could look at and discuss with fresh ideas and not just words that were left to interpret.

    As artists we generally tend to work alone and now we're asked by someone wanting to pay us to do something for them. If we decide to take the job we have to understand it is the people that hired us we have to please. If that means building a site using neon green and hot pink colors, well, if that's what they are paying us for then let them have their ugly site. If it means holding their hand while they try to explain what they want then hold that hand.

    If it means that the work they want is something you just can't grasp even after several meetings and conference calls invite in someone who may be able to speak both languages to translate for you.

    And if all else fails, point them to another designer that may have better luck with them and move on to the next client but only use that as a last resort and never point the finger. Always leave them thinking that it's their interest you're looking out for, and not your hurt feelings.

  3. Criticism looks for what’s lacking/Critique finds what’s working

    I don't agree with this, as even with critique it is often finding and explaining what is not working that is the point of the exercise.

  4. @bycostello - did you read this, or just comment? Criticism IS a part of critique... Instead of just pointing at what's wrong (like criticism), you need to try to understand what is "wrong" about it and what can be done to improve/fix it.... ALL while not being attacking, combative, or hostile towards your designer - since you are relying on them for their best work. Pissing them off is not going to get their best work...

    Let's not argue on semantics here, people. Many words in the English language have multiple meanings, don't assume we all subscribe to the one you do as being the most commonly accepted definition....

    This article is intended to be helpful, not definitive.


    Instead of picking shells on the beach - look up! The Titanic is sinking in the harbor. By making pointless, picky comments on blog minutiae you obscure the larger issue of this article: Trying to work with a designer to get the best design work possible.

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