This is a great article for designers and clients! Vague or nonconstructive criticism is difficult to manage in the design process not to mention in life!
Something that is missed in that phrase is the word constructive, with the root word being “construct,” meaning to build. Communication is very important, and we have a tendency as a society not to use precise language. Nearly everyone reading this has heard the dreaded phrase from a client “make it pop.”
Three more vague words have likely never been spoken. “Make it pop” could mean anything from “increase the amount of contrast” to “create depth” to “give it a sense of motion” to even “make the font bold.” There isn’t really a specific course of action to be taken.
Aside from vague notions and a lack of direction, there is another form that design criticism often takes… destructive criticism, a criticism specifically meant to be harsh and negative, or to devalue the work of an individual. It is phrased as constructive criticism often to mask this intent, and project or shift any offense to the individual it is direct at, under the guise of them being “overly sensitive.” This is not to suggest that designers or any other creatives are not in fact overly sensitive in some instances. However once again, this form of criticism lacks any thing actionable that can be done. It comes down most often to “I don’t like it, and I’ll know it when I see it.”
The intent of true constructive criticism is to be helpful, to give guidance or direction that can allow for improvement or a different result. The phrase that I use to sum this up is AAA: Accurate, Actionable, Advice.
Having an Accurate Appraisal of the Design
Having an accurate appraisal of the situation is important when critiquing a design. Designers should consider this when reviewing their own work. One should ask, “does this design satisfy the brief?”
It is one of the most important questions to consider. If the answer is yes, then maybe the changes should be minimal or subtle if they satisfy the brief while lacking in some other way.
When making critiques, one should try to provide actionable information. Simply saying, “I don’t like it,” maybe truthful, but not very helpful. If you encounter this situation with a client or employer and they are not giving you the information you need to take action, try asking them questions. Help them understand that you can’t make changes if you don’t know where to start or what specifically they don’t like.
Consider questions like, “Is it the color scheme you don’t like, or the entire layout?” or “Which parts of the design don’t you like? It will help save time and budget if you show me what you want to keep and what we need to change.”
Positioning yourself and the client/employer in away that allows you to execute is the important thing. You need to be in a position to be successful, and their critique/criticism should have the intention of helping you get there and do what is best for the project. Help them to understand this if necessary. Make them aware than you not only want their input, but need it to achieve the best possible result, while also making them aware of the type of input that will be most helpful to you in accomplishing what they are hiring you for.
Is it Advice or an Order?
This is one of the more difficult things to navigate. There are subtle instances where a client or employer will give you criticism that is not for evaluation purpose or advice, but to communicate to you what they expect. There is often not room to compromise here. If you’re unsure of which situation this is, the best thing to do is politely ask.
If there is room to navigate and explore this and it truly is advice, you can try to get a sense of why they want changes made and whether it makes sense. If not, and this is an executive decision, then you will be expected to execute on those things whether or not you fully understand or agree with them.
Giving Constructive Criticism
When giving your own critiques as a designer, you should keep the idea of Accurate, Actionable, Advice in mind. Be sure that before giving your criticism, you understand the situation and the intent of the design or the brief behind it, rather than just making subjective comments about the aesthetic qualities of a design.
Make sure your criticism is done with the intention of giving the creative the opportunity to improve and satisfy the brief or properly align the design to its intended purpose or outcome. Don’t give them vague suggestions that don’t have a clear execution attached to them.
Finally, be sure that the person you’re critiquing understands that this is just helpful advice, and they are not obligated to take it all. Sometimes we can unintentionally offend someone by making them feel that if they do not take our advice, that somehow they are doing something wrong. Respect the other person’s right to reject your advice or not follow through on it, while not taking it personally. Give advice with intention of providing a developmental opportunity and genuinely wanting to help.
Taking Constructive Criticism
The important thing is to be able to identify constructive criticism vs. destructive criticism. Constructive criticism will have good intentions and be actionable. Destructive criticism will be derogatory, belittling and/or vague with no clear actionable execution to be taken. Take the former with a grain of salt and look at the situation objectively, ignore the latter whenever possible.
It can be difficult for creatives to distant themselves from their work, especially when it is something they have a passion for. This can make it difficult to take any type of criticism, constructive or not. Try to maintain perspective, and think about what it takes to get your best work and whether or not you honestly feel there is room for improvement, and if you could benefit from an outside opinion.