By Elysa Soffer
This is very NOT Good
A tall, thin, blond woman in her mid-50s, with a thick Swiss-German accent condescends: “Class, come here, everyone, take a look. See this example on the wall? Does everyone see? This is very NOT good.” This was the voice of the typography and design studio teacher who I was both cursed and blessed to have for three years during design school. This voice has echoed in my head for almost 10 years.
Critiquing happens like this – your work is posted on the wall for your entire class to judge, poke and prod at like a science specimen in a lab. They deconstruct the piece and, if you are lucky, help you put the pieces back together by offering some encouraging ideas. It is in school where your skin thickens enough to get you into the real world and strengthen your ability to accept critiques from your future design director and coworkers, who typically have no problem ripping your work to shreds.
What if you never had this typical design school experience? Imagine, working on something for days, pouring your passion into it, and trying to impress your team. Then you pin it up on the wall for your first critique. How would you react to having your team point out all of the areas that need attention?
My background is in graphic and product design. I interpret and solve problems by means of a design process. Studying to become a design strategist, I am learning how to analyze the bigger picture, utilizing the appropriate tools from both the design and business process. As a designer transitioning into design thinking and strategy, what role does the critique play? How do you get critiqued in the business world? Do you pin up your proposal on the wall, invite the major stakeholders over to take turns commenting on what they see? I believe the critique is an imperative tool that should be utilized in strategy to observe the bigger picture through an unbiased lens.
The importance of a critique is to take a step back, analyze what you have created and try to understand the areas that aren’t working. By inviting the rest of your team in to comment and understand your thought process, they will be sure to notice something you alone couldn’t see. They will contribute an outside perceptive. If the critique process were removed, a whole series of issues could unravel, such as the inability to properly meet most of the user’s needs, failure to communicate the message, or the inclusion of careless mistakes. It is then too late and costly to fix once the concept is accelerated to the next phase in the process.
Comparing subjective vs. objective information is a major difference between design and business work. If I post an interface design concept for the software of a camera on the wall, I may hear, “I don’t like the shape of those buttons. Try a shape more like this, so it communicates high-tech.” The designer will sketch a thumbnail-sized button on the corner of your printed piece and the proper etiquette is to thank them or ask a question and engage them in a conversation about it. You can choose to accept or deny the suggestion because the information provided is subjective.
If the same concept was presented to the team in order to make a decision on whether to move forward with the release of the camera project, they choose to look at numbers. “How much can we improve our bottom line by releasing this product now?” The information becomes a more objective decision-making process. Thus, posting on a wall and standing around it to comment would be unnecessary, and providing a subjective statement at this point wouldn’t fly with the people in the room.
But what if there was a major critique of the concept at that point from a business perspective? Would that not help the team stop and think, is this really the direction we want to go? Push the concept through a rigorous critique to ensure its stability in the market.
My innovation team in the Design Strategy program at CCA spent two months developing a system to solve environmental issues for a major automaker. Two weeks remaining until the deadline, we halted the project abruptly. Our intuition told us something wasn’t right. Now I realize that the critique was built into our design strategy process. As a team we reevaluated the research findings and honed in on each aspect of the system, evaluating its importance and opportunities in the future. Upon arriving at the area that most fulfilled the project’s goals, we made a decision to move forward with the team’s suggested improvements.