The art of critiquing a graphic designer

criticism is for he weak sticker photograph by andria laurenI usually get emails from other designers, mostly students, with nothing but an attachment of their design, and the question: “What do yo think?”

(And inevitably, that inspired this writing.)

I always assert that Form follows Function, and my argument is quite simple. I say that there needs to be a Function to be realized for Form to justify its existence.

There needs to be, say, a visual brand identity to build associations around a brand, for a logo to justify its existence.

For that reason, design should be a process, and product that is led by intent.

Like with most artistic fields, graphic designers are not immune to critics (and their produce – criticism). But, depending on how it is carried out, criticism can actually be beneficial to the critiqued.
As subjective as design is, I believe there are some aspects of a design that are not subject to subjectivity.

For example, as much as two people might have a love/hate take on a design — things like the illegibility of the design’s copy is not justifiable.

Nonetheless, a technically flawless design doesn’t necessarily equate to an effective design.

If you were asked to put a sign that directs traffic to the left, and you put a sign with the words “turn right” — technically (spelling, legibility of “turn right”, etc.) you might be right, but intent-wise, the correctly-spelled-cool-sign will be fruitless.

A sprinter who runs the fastest, but in the wrong direction, is a loser. He just gets the privilege of knowing that, the earliest.

I love sharing my take on other people’s work, but only when I have an objective (and hopefully constructive) opinion regarding the work.
But how does one objectively critique a design whose intent is unknown to he who is expected to critique?

Most of the time, we as graphic designers, showcase work without documenting the brief, or the design’s intent or desired goal.

In such cases, a graphic designer’s work is judged and critiqued on nothing but its aesthetics. Critiquing work by its appearance, without being aware of what the intent was, is sort of pointless.

If a student answers “Twenty-eight”, how logical is your judgement of the answer if you’re not aware of the question to that answer?

Apart from inspecting the spelling of “twenty-eight” what’s there to comment on? The kerning? Or the colour of their crayon?

That’s like a designer showcasing nothing but:

grey square shapeIsn’t it useless to judge such a design if its intent isn’t provided?

But if the design is accompanied by something like:

“I was required to draw a shape with three equal sides, and colour it with the equal mixture of black and white.”

shapes blue circle green square grey octagonBy looking at the intent, instruction, or brief that the designer was trying to answer to, it is easy for the critique to objectively remark:
“While your three design options (above) are neat, clean, cool, and dope, you’ve have failed the test of intent.”

But if the designer answers the same brief with:

grey triangleWhether the critique hates the colour grey, or has “beef” with triangles, it matters not. As, objectively speaking, the designer has succeeded in answering the brief.

Only after making a habit of including the brief (read: intent) behind the work showcased, can we allow fellow colleagues to share objective opinions of our work.

The result? Meaningful feedback that will build the critiqued.

If you decide to ask another person:

“What do you think of my answer of ‘six’?”

can you at least include the question:

“What is five multiplied by one?”

So they are able to objectively tell you that, while you’re spelling (technicality) for ‘six’ is correct — the answer (intent) isn’t (fulfilled).