The things we design are usually not intended for the world as it is today, so context plays a very important and dual role. Firstly, there's the imagined context where the work could or should exist, and secondly, there's the context in which the work is actually shown — or sometimes, encountered.
Dunne and Raby
Critique is one of the most fruitful activities in design practice and education; it's also one of design's trickiest, most misunderstood and under-practiced skills. Whether you'd like to improve your work and presentation skills, support your colleagues, become a better collaborator, or even express a unique perspective on design itself — learning to think critically and give effective feedback will transform your design practice.
Fundamentally, critique implies a simple but radical idea: that by interrogating what we make today, we can design things that enable a better tomorrow. By its very nature, critique can and should be a collaborative effort, one focused on improvement, trust, and respect. But, all too often, we ignore, forget, or perhaps never even learn to consider, this idea.
In this short essay, I'll share a practical, practitioner-centric way of understanding the value of engaged, intentional design critique. Much of this was written in the context of our studio design practice at Manhattan Hydraulics, but it should also apply to independent designers and in-house teams.
What is design criticism for, anyway?
Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of [people]. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.
Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World
Okay, first thing's first: why talk about this at all? Let's take a look at critique from three perspectives:
- Design work — The things we make and others use or encounter in life
- Design practice — The relationships that create a contribute to a practice
- Design culture — The meaning and intentions we bring to our practices
Critique as studio practice: How we improve our work
Through critique as a studio practice, we improve our work. This makes clients happy, can grow our business, and helps us improve and diversify our skills.
Many of us have had bad experiences with critique, either in school or in the workplace. Designers often feel that critique is too competitive or prescriptive. In a studio, we're often getting feedback from clients in isolation, which can also make critique feel transactional.
What's important to remember, though, is that critique is a tool for learning.
Jacob Heftmann once mentioned that he feels the best design work is produced by studios that operate in the context of an art practice. When we look to art practice, we see a very active and engaged process of critique, not only of the progression and final execution of an artwork; but also of the progression of the artist’s craft and ideas.
This process is unique as compared to the way most people do design critique, because it not only serves to improve the work, but also to help the artist think in new ways, and to contribute to wider discourse around art itself.
Now, ask yourself: how have you experienced critique in the past? Has it been mindful, deliberate, and helpful in your growth? Or has it been passive, transactional, and useless?My experience with critique has been passive and unorganized, isolated to the client revision process, and often without input from other design experts. Critique has seldom felt truly collaborative, actionable, and liberating. It just hasn’t helped me grow as a designer in the way I’d like.
Intentional, collaborative critique helps designers iterate and take action. It helps them grow and learn by seeing their work from an outside perspective, and gives them more agency by allowing them to decide how to integrate feedback into their work.
Different folks may want to get different things out of critique, which is another great reason to approach it more thoughtfully and holistically! Critique could be used to explore concepts in a brainstorm; finesse details before production; asking or discovering new questions; celebrating successes; learning new processes. It’s a glorious buffet for designers who want to improve their thinking and work.
It’s all too common to treat design critique as “passive feedback”, where we’re constantly bombarded by the next nitpick from a client, or only hearing feedback from our direct collaborators.
If we choose, instead, to place emphasis on the value and style of critique as a studio, we create new opportunities to improve our work. We break that cycle of bad feedback, disillusionment, and burnout.
Critique as social practice: How we improve each other
Through critique as a social practice, we improve our relationships with each other, and our relationship with our work. This helps us develop trust, inter-reliance, and positive energy.
Any design is a kind of education.
Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World
Design is a collaborative activity, one where lots of voices come together and mediate conflict, misalignment, challenges, and goals. If design is a collaborative practice, shouldn’t critique be, too?
Sure, the purpose of a critique is to improve our work so that our clients can be successful. We want to put our best foot forward. But critique, when we frame it as a foundational element of design practice, one that is highly collaborative, also serves to help us grow as individuals. And by strengthening individuals, it strengthens the team. Through improving our work, we improve: ourselves; our relationships; and our team’s culture, process, and mentality.
Think of critique like a gift exchange. A gift exchange is a ritual defined, in particular, by a time and place chosen by its participants; maybe by a theme or shared occasion like a holiday; and by a shared desire to demonstrate tender understanding of one another.
By focusing on our framing and methods of critique, over time we learn how to become better gift givers, and how to more gracefully receive gifts from others. We improve our shared rituals and enhance our understanding of each other.
So, beyond the immediacy of improving our work to satisfy clients and fill a portfolio, critique is valuable as a social practice. It brings us together to elevate and challenge one another as experts, outsiders, and valued collaborators. Critique can be the foundation of a care-based, collaborative design practice.
Critique as cultural practice: How we improve design
Through critique as a cultural practice, we improve the way the design discipline talks about itself and relates to the world. This helps us produce better, more socially conscious, and in the end, more impactful designs and processes.
Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical.
Our role is changing to that of a facilitator who can bring the needs of the people to the attention of manufacturing, government agencies, and the like. The designer then logically becomes no more (and no less) then a tool in the hands of the people.
Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World
Okay, so now we know how critique elevates our work, and pushes us to challenge and enrich each other’s thinking. But there is one more facet of critique that many designer practitioners — including studios — choose to ignore, or maybe have not even been exposed to. This aspect is the cultural impact of critically thinking about, discussing, and challenging design.
Whether you’ve thought about it or not, it’s easy to see that design is a cultural practice with tremendous influence over the world, over the way we interact with and view ourselves and each other. When we talk about “design criticism” we’re not only speaking of feedback on pictures and prototypes; we’re also implicating design itself in a historical discourse. We’re talking about how we talk about design, and about how the way we talk about design affects our impact on the world.
“Design criticism” is not just part of the design process, it’s also part of the design practice — as in, the history and impact of our entire discipline. Pick up any design history book and you’ll probably find a through-line of academic discourse criticizing design itself, inspecting the things designers make, how they make them, and in turn, what the things we make do in the world.
In a studio, the most immediate value of critique is usually to improve our work and each other. But we can also look at criticism and feedback to improve our discipline at a systematic level. This kind of critique is a bit different from what I broke down in the first two sections:
- Critique as a cultural practice engages with not only our own work, but also with the work of other designers in our industry.
- Critique as a cultural practice engages not only with our own processes, assumptions, and impact, but also with those of all designers.
- Critique as a cultural practice “draws design into crisis” so as to define its internal logic, identify its fault lines, and improve it as a holistic cultural practice.
This view — that design criticism matters to culture itself — breaks the idea of feedback and critique out of the confines of an individual design practice. By opening ourselves to the idea that criticism as a cultural practice is part of our responsibility — perhaps even our ethical duty — as designers, we can begin to engage with the world in a new way. We can think “beyond the design process” and turn a critical eye toward other studios and practices, disciplines and processes, worldviews and cultural contexts.
Why should this matter to a studio?
Well, why start a studio in the first place? In an ideal world, a studio practice comes together to express a point of view: a perspective on how design ought to be done, and what it ought to accomplish. When creative people come together to this way, magical things happen.
At Manhattan Hydraulics, I think this perspective involves a keen focus on the importance of craft, relationships, labor, and social impact. At least, that's the way I see it.
When we think more deliberately, more deeply, about the role of critique in a studio, we refuse to take the feedback process as a given, as a "readymade" process that comes free with every project, client, and collaborator. By refusing to accept that assumption, we're practicing responsive, inclusive, and engaged communication and design work with peers. We're also learning to articulate our own methodologies for research and design within our presentations, discussions, and writing.
Further, because design critique is useful for driving iteration, skill growth, and learning, improving the way we give and receive feedback is essential to iterating, growing, and learning! Feedback is a skill; this is important to remember. Like any other skill, we can train to improve it — but to really improve and find critique impactful, we need to be active.
And finally, critique is for everyone involved in the design process. Every discipline is welcome to give critique, as well as receive it, in a formal and thoughtful setting. Why should designers have all the fun? Go ahead: invite your strategist to solicit critique on their roadmap. Invite your developer for critique on their design interpretation. Invite your manger for critique on their org structure.
Critique, done right, builds a culture of exchange and mutual investment in each other. Effective critique builds morale, trust, and long-term selfless collaboration. And we can't build that culture without including everyone, without being attentive to our approach and framing, without treating critique as a fundamental aspect of what "design" is all about.
Ready to give it a try? Learn about critique styles, methods, and mindsets in How to Exchange Critique.
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My experience with critique has been passive and unorganized, isolated to the client revision process, and often without input from other design experts. Critique has seldom felt truly collaborative, actionable, and liberating. It just hasn’t helped me grow as a designer in the way I’d like.