Critiquing Design With Designers

Tom Osborne, Former VP, Design

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

Critique Thoughts

A little while back I wrote an article about critiquing with non-designers, which might be better described as "cross-disciplinary critiques." As many designers know, the art of critique is difficult to master but important if you want to get the most out of your designs. At Viget, our designers hold this art in high esteem. We value cross-disciplinary critiques, but we also love to conduct designer-to-designer critiques as an early checkpoint. In the past year or so, we've been more deliberate about doing this, and, while still a work in progress, we've learned quite a bit about what makes for an effective critique. Here's a look at what we consider essential to good designer-to-designer critiques. 

Early & Often

We like frequent, casual feedback on works in progress. When a project is first coming to life, we try to meet early in the day so that any feedback received can be applied immediately with ample time in the day to try out different things. Some tips:

  • It's OK if the designs are rough.
    When it's rough it's easier to make bigger changes, designers are more receptive to feedback when less time has been invested, and there is still opportunity for collaboration.
  • Be helpful.
    Being tough about a design is expected in a critique, but you can't be tough without being helpful. Make sure you're offering suggestions and not just like/dislike feedback.

3 Easy Steps for Critiquing

Critiques are intended to be quick; therefore, it's important to have only a few things in mind when it's your turn to offer feedback. Here are some simple things we keep in mind when we're reviewing work:
  • What's working?
    Start with the positives. If you can agree upon what is working, you can then put those aside to focus more on what isn't -- so you don't get lost in a world of changing every single detail (unless, of course, you're better off starting over). Don't just start with a generic statement of, "Overall, I like it ..." Talk about the details. Let the designer know you took the time to notice every aspect. This will help establish trust and credibility as you become more critical. 

  • What's not working? 
    Now that the designer knows that there are some things that are working, you can focus on the tough stuff. This tends to come easy, since we're wired as humans to judge adversely. Be critical, but don't end on the negatives. Offer suggestions.

  • What could be better?
    Qualify any criticism with alternative ideas. You can't just say that you don't like things and you don't know why. Offering ideas is the number one thing you can do for a successful critique, because this is where the design begins to transform. Good ideas stand out as obvious and can serve to turn around a wayward design quickly. Also, remember to use good design principles and terminology with your feedback. 

Use Design Principles

  • Concept
    Good concepts keep designs cohesive. If it's not obvious, ask if there is an underlying concept driving the design. It may not matter if you're just going for a stylistic approach. 
  • Hierarchy
    Is there a clear hierarchy to the work? Good hierarchy helps the design have a starting point and an end point. If there's a call to action, that's usually what what the design is driving toward.
  • Contrast
    Is good contrast being used to benefit the hierarchy and draw attention to the elements that need to speak louder?
  • Balance
    It almost goes without saying that a good design has good balance. That doesn't mean that everything needs to be symmetrical -- just that the elements are balanced despite their asymmetry. 
  • Depth
    For interface design, depth is crucial. A sense of depth allows for clear click paths and creates more interest in the design. 
  • Texture
    Depth and texture go hand-in-hand. Proper use of texture can help create depth and give the design a feel. A grungy texture helps create a sense of time and erosion. Is this appropriate for the design?
  • Color
    One of the first things people react to is color. Color palette can make or break designs. Are the colors appropriate to the design? 
  • Typography
    Choice of type can also be a maker or breaker. Like picking a proper pair of shoes for an outfit, you want to pick type that goes with the design.
  • Personality
    Good design has a personality. If your site was a person, who would it be? Does the design match that personality? 
  • Delight
    What makes the design cool? Are there delighters that take the design beyond the ordinary? If not, suggest some. 
  • Usability
    The base of any interface design should be its usability. Is your design helping or hindering the usability of it?
  • Accessibility
    Don't forget to think about the intended audience. Will there be aspects of the design that limit its reach?
  • Speed
    For anything that is served over a network, speed is essential. Will your design impact speed negatively? If so, what compromises are you willing to make to improve things?

Best Method?

We think face-to-face critiques are best. In the digital age, remote collaboration isn't uncommon. Undoubtedly, many great experiences have been designed with teams collaborating from different locations. That said, being face-to-face is a luxury that's hard not to prefer. It's difficult to have a conversation over chat or email without it feeling disjointed or void of emotion. Even screen sharing, while being a perfectly effective alternative, can be less genuine. At Viget, we usually go down the chain in this manner:
  1. Gather a small group (2 or 3 designers) to give you multiple perspectives, or ...
  2. Bounce ideas off the person nearest to us as long as it's not too disruptive, or ...
  3. Hop on the phone and/or do a screen share for 1:1 collaboration if not in the same office, or ...
  4. Share your work in a group chat room, or ...
  5. Email a group. While not preferred, this is better than no critique at all.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Critiquing isn't easy. It's chock full of awkward. With practice everyone will be more comfortable giving or receiving feedback. Your designs will thank you for it. 

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