I'm intrigued by the nostalgic magic of the culture of design education. Most designers I've met who have gone through formal design training are passionate about their experiences; they talk with fond recollection of long nights, endless critiques, and sneaking into the computer-lab closet to catch a few hours' rest before the final review. What is it about the design-studio critique that's so memorable and drives so much reflection?

One of my colleagues, reflecting on a favorite professor, recalled a critique on a visual design printed piece; all of the students had put their work on the wall and were talking among themselves, waiting for the professor to arrive. A few minutes past 9 a.m., the professor walked in. He looked at the wall for about 30 seconds. The students grew quiet. He turned and looked at them, slowly panning across the room. He looked back at the wall. And then he turned and walked out of the room.

Another student, now a visual designer at frog, recalled that her most vivid memory of design school was "getting a D on my first project in fundamentals of design my freshman year. It was my first D ever - I cried in front of my professor and thought I needed to quit school."

During my first semester of teaching intro to industrial design, I found myself reading and rereading a paper from a student that referred to a jester. The paper, describing how he had designed a candleholder, was full of grammatical errors but lacked any reference to a jester. Then it hit me - he was talking about gesture drawings. His jester was a sorry homonym. When I showed the paper to my wife, an English major, she suggested I shred it and hand it back in a ziplock baggy.

The Value of Criticism

The rough treatment of students in design school isn't just fodder for comical stories. It has immediate and practical value for these designers when they get into the real, harsh world of the consultancy or corporation. In these environments, clients and creative directors pull no punches, and there's rarely time for sugarcoated feedback. Design work becomes a point of departure for iterative revisions, and so a harsh and thorough critique is one of the best outcomes of a design review one can hope for. Put another way, the more detail that emerges during a negative design review, the more opportunity for corrections during subsequent revisions.

Perhaps most obvious, but most important, a critique requires something to critique - it forces a student to make something, to do something. A designer is equipped with the magical ability to conceive of something that doesn't yet exist and manifest it in some way other than words. Designers can make things real. The looming critique forces action, as designers drive toward a deadline with an expectation of public delivery.

A negative but structured design critique helps design students learn that design is not entirely subjective, and isn't about either beauty or the eye of the beholder. Design has rigor, structure, and method, and a critique should systematically articulate the framework selected and then objectively compare the work with that framework. This is the discourse that evolves during a critique, and it's the same discourse described by Donald Schon in his work describing the reflective practitioner. For a "good designer, they will reflect-in-action on the situation's back-talk, shifting stance as they do so from 'what if' to recognition of implications, from involvement in the unit to consideration of the total, and from exploration to commitment" [ chon, 1982]. But for a designer who is not yet "good," a critique is a chance for reflection-post-action that allows the designer to make all of these shifts, albeit after the fact.

A Critique in Action

Consider this real excerpt from a class critique. Students are looking at a wall with wireframe flows showing how a user navigates through a fictional mobile-purchasing website.

Professor: "Can you describe what's happening here?" [Points at a wireframe showing large, bubbly letters and a number of vivid balloons and streamers]

Designer: "Well, when the user visits the site for the second time, I wanted to celebrate their return by recognizing them; this element here [Points to balloons] is congratulating them on their choice of plan."

Critique Participant 1: "That doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't something more subtle be appropriate?"

Critique Participant 2: "Yeah, I mean - this is a cell phone company; it's not like a greeting card company or something. It's not working at all. [In a mocking voice] 'Congratulations on your rollover minutes!'"

Professor: "It makes a lot of sense to overtly recognize that the user returned to the site, because it will help them understand state - that they are logged in - and reinforce personalization. But is celebration really the right emotive quality?"

Designer: "Yeah, maybe not - I was trying to make it more happy, to form a brand relationship...."

Critique Participant 2: "But that relationship can come over time. It's not going to happen on this particular screen."

Designer: "OK, so if I keep the idea of recognition, but shift toward something less playful..."

Critique Participant 3: "Yeah, save the playfulness for appropriate times, like maybe if you go over your minutes, the company rewards you with a one-time free overage waiver - that's a celebration."

This is a public dialogue between the designer and others (including the professor and the other students). During this dialogue, the conversation flows through open-ended questioning ("Can you describe what's happening here?") to rationalization ("I was trying to make it..." or "I wanted to...") to very detailed value judgments ("That doesn't make any sense" or "That's not working at all"). The dialogue works for a number of reasons:

  1. The designer is receptive to criticism but also has a chance to engage in an explanatory dialogue. This implies a power balance. The group recognizes an opportunity to criticize but also recognizes the ability for the designer to justify his or her actions.
  2. The professor acts as a moderator but is not impartial. He guides the discussion through the open-ended questions and provides continual summary of the discussion, while participating as a reviewer.
  3. The relationship between the designer and the participants is not defensive. We can assume that the group has a positive working relationship; otherwise, the sarcastic comment from Participant 2 would have been seen as mean-spirited, and would have likely been ignored by the designer.
  4. The material that the group is looking at has enough detail that the group can criticize thematic elements as well as detailed nuances. If the balloons were not there - if they were presented as boxes with the words "celebratory element" - this discussion would not have occurred. The artifact acts as the prompt, and the group reacts based on their experiences, the context of the problem, and the facilitation provided by the professor.

It's also useful to note how the critique excerpt ends with an idea for a new feature. The critique is generative; it doesn't simply offer response to what is shown but also produces new ideas for further iterations. The process hones existing design details while simultaneously suggesting new ones.

Learning to Be Critiqued

The profession of interaction design is growing organically; there are a number of practitioners engaged in interaction design who have never formally studied design or attended a design school. These folks fell into the profession through marketing or engineering, or slowly grew into it as their existing role evolved to include interface design and development. For these practitioners, learning to critique and to be critiqued is critical for career advancement. In many cases, it's going to be up to this individual to both demand a critique and to define the rules of engagement. And it won't be pretty, as most design students struggle through four years of criticism before finding a confident voice and appetite for review. But the critique adds immense value to the design problem being addressed and is fundamental in advancing an individual design idea, in refining details of the idea, and in ensuring that quality work gets the attention it deserves.