February 27th, 2009

Bits On Crits: A Primer To Getting The Most Out Of Your Critiques (Revised)

By Eric Heiman

As a student, I learned the most through engaged and passionate discourse, not isolating myself in a studio or the library. While the joy and struggle of making design is usually a solitary and internal experience, the process of understanding and making sense of what we create happens in the discussion of the work with others. This discussion happens in the arena of the critique.

You know the scenario: The class is huddled around the work on the wall, giving it the once over. Then the instructor says, “Any comments?” Dead silence. Eyes wander, looking for the one person brave enough to start. Finally, a lone voice breaks the tension and comments on the piece in question. And then — as if this person’s bravado is a contagious airborne virus — a discussion has begun.

So speak up as much as you can. The excuses that I’ve heard for not speaking up are many and uniformly weak: “I hate the way I sound when I talk.” “I don’t have anything to say.” Or “I hate those people who are always speaking up.” The ability to verbally comment on design is a skill almost as important as creating the work. Inevitably, the quest to create great design depends on your ability to clearly and compellingly present the work — whether to an instructor, boss or client — and then to also be critical of its failings in order to make it better. There’s no place more apt than the critique to practice and hone these skills.

Be honest. Give praise where the praise is due, but acknowledge weak areas as well. No one takes criticism well, but this process is about making better work, not making new friends. An effective way to approach honest criticism is the good first, the bad second and humor all around. Starting with positive aspects of the work being discussed usually helps any negative comments go down a little smoother. Design is a serious endeavor, but critiques don’t have to take on a solemn tone. Humor and brevity help the person whose work is on the chopping block to relax. By endearing yourself to the presenter, he or she is more likely to listen to what you have to say. “While I don’t love the image you used in the poster, you must have almost gone blind trying to hand set all that cool little type!” Laughter and sighs of relief ensue.

There is speaking intelligently and clearly, and then there is speaking to show off and exclude. We’re in the communication business. No one benefits if your goal in commenting is to show off your advanced vocabulary skills and obsession with obscure postmodern theory. Critiques are about helping each other. This doesn’t mean you’re anti-intellectual, but is about speaking as smartly AND inclusively as possible. Don’t make an analogy to an obscure Jean Baudrillard theory if you can instead cite an example in everyday life that is equally insightful and helpful.

Just because a fellow student made a comment about your work doesn’t mean it’s a good comment. Is your instructor’s word the design gospel? Hell no! Stick up for your work. Yes, your instructors know more than you and have more experience. Yes, maybe that fellow student had an interesting point about your choice of typeface. But they impose their personal biases on your work whether they mean to or not. Challenge their assessment if you feel strongly that your design decisions are sound. Your reasons are as valid as anyone else’s. The range of subjectivity involved in design begs for you to stick to your guns. Everyone’s opinion can be disputed, even the instructor’s. Your confidence is vital to convincing others that your ideas deserve notice. Avoid being too overly antagonistic, though. It’s good to have allies in class, and your instructors deserve respect for their professorial status. No one is out to get you in a critique as much as it might feel that way at the time.

Lastly, your critique is your critique. So, direct it like a movie. Take control. Pass out a nicely designed project statement to everyone at the critique. If you want your work to be presented in an unconventional way, reserve that large wall space or courtyard outside. If a short interpretive dance will enhance our understanding of the project then screen a filmed excerpt or perform it yourself. The work is yours. Make your own show of it, too.

Starting in the hunter-filled woods of rural Pennsylvania, Eric Heiman embarked on a labyrinthine journey through the Carnegie Mellon architecture program, late nights of DJ spinning, record store employment and week-long vows of silence in the mountains of Maui that eventually led him to design school in the Bay Area. At the dawn of the new millennium he founded Volume (www.volumesf.com) with Adam Brodsley. Volume’s work has been extensively exhibited, honored and published around the world, and Eric’s writing on design has been published in Emigre, Letterspace and the AIGA’s online journal, Voice. Eric is also a Professor of Design at the California College of the Arts.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.