A Well-Done Critique

October 17, 2008

I also posted this on http://wearethelab.com

A couple of week ago, I read Jared Spool’s article, What Goes into a Well-Done Critique. One of Jared’s observations is that teams that felt they go the most out of critiques were those that conducted them the most. Critiques have benefits for both the designer and those looking at his or her work.

I had already been thinking that it might be helpful for us to have regular “pin-up” times where we can share our work. We could incorporate critique as part of that time.

Here is a summary of Jared’s important points:

  • Respect – the person giving critique understands and acknowledges the hard work that the design owner has put into the design. There is also an awareness that it is dififcult for anyone to receive a critique of their work. Respect comes in offering critique when the design owner is ready for it. Jared does not mention this but I think respect also comes from the design owner being willing to come to times of critique with respect for the other designers and that their intent is to help improve the design.
  • Dispassionate – All those involved in the critique must be able to step away from the design. the design owner understands he or she is not being judged but is helping the team to understand the journey he or she has taken to get to this design solution. The critic uses the critique to explore the different directions the design could go. This creates a learning opportunity for the team where everyone benefits.
  • Lacking Authority – Critics recognize that nothing they say will change the direction of the design. Only the design owner can make that decision. Jared observes that in the best critiques he has seen, the critic never made a single recommendation. The critic asked questions and helped guide the discussion. They focused on the bigger picture. Instead of making a recommendation, the good critic might ask ,“what alternatives did you consider for …?” This keeps the conversation on the bigger picture. And the design owner may have already thought through the alternatives and deemed the one that he or she came up with as being the better of the choices. A great way to offer criticism is the phrase “have you considered…?”
  • Justified Impressions and Concerns – Skilled critics avoid hollow compliments and share specifics on what they liked in a design and how it supports the direction of the design. And when offering criticism, the skilled critic justifies their concerns and show alternative examples. This allows the discussion to focus on the merits of the justifications instead of opinions of taste. By comparing design alternatives, a team can look at the essence of the design issues.

Questions to Ask Yourself during a Critique

  • What did I like or enjoy about this design and why?
  • What concerns me about this design and why?
  • What does this design remind me of and why?

What I liked about this article is that it challenges me to be actively involved in a critique by knowing what questions to ask myself. Even if I don’t give critique, I can actively engage in the process and listen to what others might bring up.

I am also challenged as a design owner. Like everyone, I am not a huge fan of critique. It is hard to put a design out there in front of others when I have invested a lot of time and a lot of myself into the design solution. This article challenges me to recognize and remember that the purpose of critique is to make the design better and that I am part of a team that is “for me.”

Good critiquing skills are something that come with practice. After reading this article, I can see why regular times of critiquing each other’s work is beneficial for the whole team.

If you are not familar with Jared Spool and his company UIE, I suggest you check it out. He sends out a regular UIE Tips email that have great insights. I also enjoy listen to their podcasts on my commute. And if you ever get a chance, they put on a great conference in Boston. I have attended it twice.


  1. Terry

    October 17th, 2008

    This post rocks! Excellent post and is something every designer should always bear in mind when even looking at another’s work.

    “Criticizing Photographs” by Terry Barrett looks a criticizing design more in depth.

    I’m not sure if I would have added that additional sentence under “respect”. It really doesn’t seem to follow along with the paragraph it’s in.
    1) If someone isn’t a designer and is criticizing do they get the same respect? Is it the same kind of respect you’d give a designer if there is a difference? Maybe Jared made a point of not being specific?
    2)Someones “intent” can come regardless on whether they think the artist/design is ready for it or not. I experience this often.

    Keep up the thoughtful post Jeff. Good job.

  2. Jeff Bridgforth

    October 17th, 2008


    Thanks for the feedback. The thought I was trying to capture is that as a design owner, I need to approach critique by my team as something that is trying to improve upon the design and that will help the team to grow in our design understanding. I think too often we do not have that respect for our peers and recognize that their critique is meant to be helpful.

    That said, we may not always agree but I think it is important to come with an attitude that has respect for our peers and not see them as “the enemy.” They are for me and not against me.