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9 Comments // Filed in Business / Design

Filtering Criticism

More often than not, our significant other isn’t in our industry, but we still ask them their opinion because we value their input. If it’s complimentary, there are no issues — but the problem begins to stem when your friend disagrees with what you’ve created and is horribly vague.

Does the following sound familiar?

“Why don’t you like it?” I asked, a tad bewildered, as I believed that the solution I created was near perfection.

“I don’t know. Something’s just… not right,” Brett said, with an apologetic shrug and pat on my back.

“What’s not right? The colour? The type? You don’t like where this box is placed?” The questions were asked in rapid succession, as I pointed to various things on the screen.

“Um…” he said, hesitating. He squinted at the screen for a bit, his shoulders lifting once more. “… I just… I don’t know. Doesn’t look right.”

Cue the internal screaming.

This is often a problem with design galleries such as Stylegala which has comments open for each entry. A lot of commenters misinterpret a constructive criticism from a personal opinion, others defend free speech, others can only spout glowing praises — all three not necessarily understanding why each other has taken their position. As a result, many designers have publicly stated they ignore the comments from Stylegala these days merely because of this noise. It’s unfortunate, because interesting discussions and learning opportunities could be had if only there was more intelligent discourse.

At this point, some people would suggest that you shouldn’t expect such high-level criticism from a non-design lay person — that if you were asking for real input regarding the design of a piece, you should go straight to a fellow designer. Perhaps. However, I don’t want to fall into the trap of completely dismissing a crit merely because the person giving it doesn’t have the graphic vocabulary or education I have. It’s similar to assuming just because a person doesn’t speak English that they don’t understand the question. Maybe they simply don’t know how to phrase their answer. While professional design peers may be able to articulate where a box should go, or if a colour scheme clashes, it doesn’t necessarily mean their suggestions are right for the project, either.

In the end, Brett was right — something was wrong with the design, and because I was just so close to the project I wasn’t able to discern what it was until I put it aside for a bit and looked at it again. Brett wasn’t able to specifically tell me to put this block of text there, but that’s eventually what I had to do. When I showed him the revised layout with this new change, his expression cleared and he said, “Oh, yeah. Much better.” He didn’t elaborate hugely on what he thought was “better” — merely that he knew it was.

So, how would someone separate constructive criticism from a completely personal opinion? How would you know if someone is judging your project “fairly” — that is, not merely hating pink for pink’s sake?

Here are some questions I’ve asked myself:

  1. Is this person known to be honest? Can you or do you trust this person?
  2. What is the extent of this person’s visual knowledge?
  3. Do they have any personal prejudices against the style of items? (for example, they simply don’t like pink; they never cared for grunge; they hate OSX, etc.)
  4. What is their profession/education level? Are they a professional designer? If a designer, are they, in your opinion, “good” at it?
  5. Do they resort to petty insults during critiques?
  6. How do they respond to criticism?
  7. Do they offer solutions to any problems?

If the answers are positive to a few or all of the above, then most likely, even if this person was not a designer or a creative person in any way, that their opinion has at least some merit. Everyone has an opinion on what “looks good” but not necessarily any reasons why. They’re not designers. It’s up to you to decide which of their reservations to address.

What other questions do you ask yourself to determine the validity of a critique, whether they be from a designer or not?

9 blabs to Filtering Criticism

Add something to the conversation!

Picture of Jorgeq

Name Jorgeq

Date Feb 19
06:48 PM

My girlfriend is in the banking field and so whenever I ask her opinion in regards to a design piece, she absolutely loves it and that’s when I know I have to instill some changes to it.

Sometimes, the smallest things make a big difference.

Picture of WD Milner

Name WD Milner

Date Feb 19
09:33 PM

You are on target with your list.

One also has to consider the audience the design is intended for.

I have made some (modestly) excellent technical and artistic designs that were apprecialted for their technical and artistic characteristics by other designers, but didn’t receive the same reception from general viewers.

The reverse has also been true – designs made for a general audience based on specific needs and feedback that got great reports from average viewers have received harsh criticism for their lack of “aesthetics” from professional designers.

One must always consider the target audience and evaluate both design and criticism in that light.

Picture of Lea

Name Lea

Date Feb 20
04:04 AM

WD Milner — definitely, audience is always a priority when analyzing a design. Both designers and non-designers tend to miss this very important fact. I remember thinking about this while I was writing this post, but it must have slipped my mind when I was actually writing the list of questions. Thanks for bringing it to light!

Great post, Lea! This goes hand in hand with JSM’s Critiquing article.

With me, my girlfriend isn’t a designer by any means, but she’s great with spotting things that don’t feel right. She’s pretty open to learning about design, she’s brutally honest, and she has a natural eye for it (I keep telling her that she should be an art director), so she’s a pretty dangerous asset to have around.

Picture of Mary

Name Mary

Date Feb 21
03:59 PM

hey :P

I don’t usually ask my SO for an opinion unless he may be included in the target audience. There were times when I did ask and things he pointed out that he didn’t like were there for a reason, it just didn’t make sense to him until I explained who the piece was trying to reach. It can be frustrating…

But I agree, you shouldn’t discount the opinions of people who aren’t graphic designers. That’s why you are designing most things, for people who can’t.

I like to say that I am proud of Brett for speaking up and not just saying that he likes it because you made it :)

Oh yes. If you’re developing and designing websites it’s essential to ask a person, who is not familiar with terms like padding, float, colorsheme etc. Not until my girlfriend is content I’m pacified to release a website’s design. She doesn’t know, but she’s my most important detractor.

My wife does not come from a design background and I couldn’t even imagine not working with her at this point. I think the filter for whether I ask for the advice of someone is if I respect their intelligence. Even if they aren’t visually-slanted, intelligent people say intelligent things and bring up intelligent points (most of the time). My wife will tackle a subject from a completely different angle than myself and will many times go beyond the visual aspects that I was so focused on.

I think the opinion non-design folks is absolutely essential to good design. Remember, most of the time that’s exactly who we’re designing for.

My roommate, being older (and she’ll say wiser, but I digress) isn’t too literate with computers and website design. She just uses them and wants them to be simple, which makes her the perfect candidate for me to ensure sites I put together are easy to use, read, and enjoy.

However, when she gives subjective opinions (like using a different color that would throw the contrasts I set up off) then I just say thanks for the help, and get to work.

Picture of Lea

Name Lea

Date Feb 26
05:42 PM

Matt, that’s exactly what I mean. Filtering criticism doesn’t necessarily mean dismissing criticism — it means figuring out what’s valid from what someone has to say, and to acknowledge that yes, not every opinion is necessarily valid for the project at hand.

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