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.