Design Critiques

by Jin, 08-03-10 // 7 comments

Don Norman writes Why Design Contests Are Bad:

Why are shows bad? Shouldn’t we reward good design? Sure, if that’s what the shows accomplish, but they don’t. In fact, I believe they do harm to the profession. They reward the visible parts – styling – and ignore the most important, but hardest parts: interaction, experience, truly meeting needs, and even economic success.

Design for the modern designer is about finding unmet needs, about the way people interact with and use the product or service, about economic and environmental sustainability, about providing utility and pleasure. Design can be applied to services and organizational structure, to financial systems and medical practice. It is not just style and appearance, although these play an important role.

I’m not going to get into the whole design contest/anti-spec work discussion today. As much as I’m all for defending designers’ worth, I admit I enjoy looking at entries by top contestants.

Don Norman has articulated something that’s not just limited to design contests. In work places, most web designers hate the term “design by committee.” I think it’s unfortunate. There’s much benefit in seeing things from other people’s perspectives. The problem is, most discussions in these meetings are not design critiques, but rather interjection of personal preferences. Often, the HIPPO wins. “Green is my favorite color, so let’s change the background from blue to green” is a personal preference. “Green compliments the established corporate identity color palette and provides a warm and fresh feeling the new site should convey” is a design suggestion.

As I said before, I find it very difficult to critique a web site I don’t know much about. Without knowing what the goal is I can only judge the execution of what’s on the surface. The graphical elements are easy to critique, but often mixed with my own personal preferences. Usability wise, as long as I find my way around with ease then it’s good in my opinion. However, is there an even more creative way to accomplish the same tasks?

I also find it interesting that design is one of those fields where everyone can be a critic. It’s hard to imagine an average person can tell a surgeon that he’s “doing it wrong” in the operating room, or someone looking over a programmer’s shoulder and tells him his SQL code isn’t efficient. In order to critique those professionals, you’d have to have certain level of expertise in those fields. Then why is it everyone can be a design critic without any expertise? Is it because it’s visual and contains artistic elements that can be deemed as “subjective?” I believe that’s why bad design critiques are focused solely on styling instead of substance. Web design is about accomplishing a goal, eye candy is only part of achieving that goal.


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Tag 08-03-10

The ubiquity of design however offers more opportunity for criticism. The reason, apart from expertise, that you can’t comment on a surgeon’s or programmer’s work is that most of time you don’t see it… or even want to see it.

However since we can see the graphical elements, or experience the interface, we feel we have the right to comment and critique.

Though we may have no idea how the food is prepared in certain dishes we still express opinions about it… is that so different?

Sure our criticism may lack sophistication but often poor design needs little expertise to be exposed.

sedick sasman 08-03-10

I totally agree with this article. People lose sight of the purpose or essence behind some design decisions, and water it down to: “Oh that doesn’t look nice.” or “That LOOKS great!”.

I also had to smile a bit when you used the word “substance”, as I am building my brand around this concept.

Great post, thanks!

Jin 08-03-10

@TAG, glad you brought up the food point. To me food is like art, everyone has a different taste. If you don’t like a dish because it’s salty then you move on to something else. However, the nutritional values are often judged in an objective way though. A dish is either healthy or it isn’t, regardless of the taste.

My point is this, non-designers can, and should critique a design. However, the critique should be on things that do matter, not superficial. I work with many programmers who give me suggestions frequently. I take their critiques very seriously because they’re very knowledgeable about how our business model works.

@Sedick, thanks!

Steven Clark 08-03-10

I agree… I am more impressed even by a pig ugly site that works and generates the client a lot of business and ROI than a site that is aesthetically beautiful to other designers but fails to incite anybody to convert. In a way it’s often a case of pitching to the wrong audience.

The real problem with everyone offering criticism is the case that we all think we know what looks good (yet how easy is it to disprove that notion with a trip to their home, a look in their wardrobe?)… the same goes for writing::: just because we can write a letter it hardly gives us the cred or ability to pull apart (the better) work of Hemingway or Capote’s In Cold Blood.

I’ve just come to accept that there’s a difference between opinion (the need to piss on the post) as opposed to valid critique. HIPPOs on the other hand, well I’m a believer that organisational change agents need to realign how the culture and hierarchy view critique, making it always about ROI and never about personal taste.

The root of the HIPPO problem is that structure moves slow & HIPPOs are rarely experts in either design or software development. This would require the active effort of change agents… with no guarantee of success at all. But worth a try.

Oh if only everyone could even agree on what is ‘pretty’… :-)

That would at least be a beginning.

benjamin 08-04-10

Although most people think of design as an illustration, logo (brandmark) or the theme of a website, design is simply and powerfully just a visual language for communication. Good design speaks visually in a language that connects with its viewer. If the minimum requirement of the design crit is that all participants have eyes, then all you need is a few random people and you are good to go.

But if you want to maximize the effectiveness of a crit inform these people of the design projects goals. Or else you are really just wasting everyone’s time with a misguided critique. Have you ever sat through a meeting that seemed to wind on forever and end up being about nothing? This is easily solved with an written agenda and a responsible moderator. Even common people can be great critics of technical designs if they are informed of the projects goals and are prompted to respond to very specific things.

Think of it this way, a CEO doesn’t give a credit card to everyone with the instruction to go buy everything the company needs. Chances are that this CEO will end up with a ton of shit that the business doesn’t need and an enormous credit card bill.

If the design’s goal was to promote a professional appearance while ushering a smooth user experience, then tell this to the critics. This will greatly increase the accuracy of the critiques and the usefulness of the information generated.

Design professionals will always be able to touch upon the nuances and fundamentals of the design vocabulary. Yet, common people will be able to make sure that even the design illiterate can make sense of your work.

Jeff 08-04-10

I think it’s not only the ubiquitous of design that makes everyone a critic, but also the fact that it’s so accessible. People generally have an instant opinion on what they feel about a design, even if they don’t know why.

It’s the same with singing. Popular bands generally need a lead singer, because the voice is the instrument that an audience can identify with.

American Idol is about singing, because if you had guitarists instead, most of the general population would have a hard time distinguishing between good and great guitar playing. But people can easily tell the difference between good and great singing, even if they have no formal musical training.

Steven Clark 08-05-10

Its also difficult to expect the world to understand design critique. My partner is an artist who did a BFA then an MFA at university. She informed me very early that critique is a learned thing… often learned with time and great difficulty.

Perhaps organisations need to do critique training… and I could see wide applications for that being useful across project management, not just design. Perhaps they should be open to critique of HR practices, or management style. Kind of like training for ‘Groundhog Day after-parties’… if that makes sense.