The Delicate Art of (Web) Design Critique

The Delicate Art of (Web) Design Critique

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By Makiko Itoh

Published on November 6, 2001

Since I tend to hang around on various web-related mailing lists, I often see numerous requests for design critiques. Increasingly, this leads me to wonder about the process of critiquing other people’s design. It’s quite one thing to criticize someone’s code; one can argue the merits or not of being a stickler about standards compliancy, or using CSS, or whatever. But design is more personal than writing code. (Writing on its own is also very personal, but that’s not the topic here.)

How do you constructively critique someone’s work without being taken the wrong way? How do you accept criticism without feeling hurt or angry?

Here are just a few ideas, gathered from observations and comments from others.

Asking for an opinion
The more experienced a designer is, the less s/he’s likely to ask people for opinions on her designs. After all, everyone else that hangs out on a list or message board is less experienced than you are, right?

I myself generally hate to ask for opinions on my work – because more often than not, the opinions offered are totally off the mark. Not necessarily negative – negative opinions can often be just as useful as positive ones. Nevertheless, I’ve often been surprised at how someone can come from out of the blue to make me think differently about something – and hopefully, to do something better.

When you are offering up your wares for the world to rip into, it can help to be as specific as possible about what you want them to look at. Here are some suggestions:

– Clearly state what the objective of the site or page is. For example, if you have an e-commerce site that must be easy and fast to navigate, as well as backwards compatible, for people with older browsers or AOL, your site is going to be quite different from a purely-for-fun personal portfolio site. If you are doing something experimental with Flash or DHTML or whatever it might be, also state that fact. Likewise, if you are doing a site for the AARP, it’s going to be quite different from a site aimed at high school kids.

– Be specific about what you want comments on – and hope that people will read that before they start offering opinions. For example, I recently asked the people in one of my regular hangouts about the specific placement of a background gradient. This may seem like a very small thing to ask about, but it was an issue because my client really wanted this particular design that I thought it was a bad idea. As it turns out, the majority of my critics agreed with my client, and when I listened to their reasoning, it finally made sense to me.

On another occasion, I needed some input about a Flash splash/presentation that I had made. On this occasion, I wanted to be sure that the intended message was clear–in this case, the motif used was a paper airplane, and the client was a company that specialized in paper or electronic forms. The idea of the paper plane, to suggest that forms traveled fast when entrusted to this company, had come from the client’s marketing consultant and I was not too sure if it was really “working”. Since the text within the Flash was all-German, showing it to an English-speaking group was a good chance to see if the visual message was getting through. Well, the majority of people did get the message, but a few suggestions were made that helped me to improve the Flash in small ways.

Taking it
It can be hard to take criticism, but as I’ve already said, sometimes it can be tremendously useful. While the tendency may be to listen only to people whom you know and perhaps whose work you admire, this can often shut you off from those out-of-nowhere responses that really make you think.

First of all though, I do tend to listen far more carefully to the opinions of people whose work I admire–that’s just natural. Even amongst top-notch designers, some people are more brilliant in some specific areas–say, their use of color–while others are best at their use of white space and clean layout. So, I might listen more to color comments from one than from the other.

Also, I do tend to discount the type of opinion which says something along the lines of “I don’t like your design at all, it’s just not my style.” (Even worse is that very helpful “your design sucks”.) That’s not really the point–everyone has his or her preferred styles, or colors, but a decently educated eye can tell the difference between good and bad design. (By educated I don’t mean academic education either – but just looking at many different designs, studying books like the ones by Edward Tufte, and so on.)

On the flip side, not all positive feedback is useful either. “I just love everything you do!” is not too in-depth or constructive… it’s flattering for sure, but is it useful?

The best type of criticism tends to be very specific, in my opinion. Comments such as “the use of the navigation can be more user-friendly if arranged such a way” or “the color contrast would be better if.” etc. are specific and critical without being negative.

Finding a mentor
If you are relatively new to the world of design, one of the best ways to grow as a designer is to find a good mentor. See below for more about this.

When asked for an opinion
Taking criticism can be tough, but often dishing it out can be harder. I don’t think that anyone wants to hurt someone’s feelings; but then again, what can one do when confronted with a design you can’t stand? Do you lie? Well…it depends.

Beware of newbies
First of all, consider the source. Is it someone who is seriously considering becoming a professional web designer–or perhaps someone who already calls himself a pro? If so, then I think that you should be as tough on them as any of their clients might be. On the other hand, if it were someone who is doing this as a hobby, or just starting out, you would probably want to be much gentler.

Beginners in particular are rather delicate to handle. While there are some exceptions that have a “natural flair”, many people with no kind of formal design or art training tend to turn out pure horrors. It’s a tough job to struggle with HTML code while trying to turn out something aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It’s like trying to paint an oil painting when you have no idea even how to draw.

If you see something positive, it might be good to emphasize this first–especially if you see some kind of potential. Perhaps their designs are way too busy and cluttered (a common problem for beginner-type pages) but perhaps their use of color is unique; then you can latch onto that. Or maybe, you see that amongst the mess of family photos and flashing animated buttons, that the graphical text is well formed. Well, then maybe you can tell them about that first.

(Technical problems are another thing in my opinion; if all the JPEGs are wrongly compressed and are showing artifacts, by all means the creator should be told. If someone is taking technical criticism personally, they have a problem.)

When there’s some more potential: Mentoring
If the person is asking for a critique, and you think their work is worth offering opinions about, then it’s a different story. At which point, if you have any experience yourself (and the other party respects your opinions), it’s a chance to become a mentor. This can be a truly rewarding experience. It can be a joy to see someone blossom as they absorb the criticism they receive.

If the person is not being specific, as is detailed in the above section, ask them those questions. Who is the intended audience? Who is the client? What browsers is it supposed to support? How will it be used? Unless the work in question is a pure for-fun piece, it doesn’t necessarily matter how beautiful it is–it also has to be practical. Consider your “student’s” goals–are they doing this just for fun, or do they want to make a living at it? Maybe they are very good at doing sites with lots of complicated decorative elements, but if they’re aiming for business clients perhaps they’d appreciate some tips on how to make more “boring” sites. And so on.

Also, everyone has his or her own personal style. One thing that simply does not work at all, in my opinion, is to somehow imprint your own style on your “student”. This was impressed on me when I was about 13 or 14, by an art teacher that I admired very much. One day I was horrified and almost in tears when he gave a very bad grade to a painting I had done. He pointed out to me how very similar it was to a painting he had shown the class a few weeks back. While I never did grow up to be a painter, and while creating web sites is not exactly fine art, I do believe that the very best designers, even those who primarily work on cookie-cutter corporate sites during the day, have their own distinct flair and style. If your “students” display even a glimmer of this, don’t try to stamp it out, if you can help it.

Helping each other to grow
It’s a time-proven fact, as shown by the artist colonies of the past, such as the Impressionists or Picasso and his crowd hanging out in Paris in the 1920s, that in many ways there is nothing as stimulating or refreshing as getting solid, constructive critiques from your peers or mentors. Once you find a circle of people whose opinions you trust, then you are on your way to climbing to higher heights as a designer. While there are no Montmartres for web designers to hang out in, you can hopefully form your own little artists’ colonies by using virtual communities.

Related Topics: Web Design, Critique

Makiko Itoh is a principal at PRODOK Engineering, a consulting and design company near Zürich, Switzerland. On the rare weekend day off, she likes to play in the garden and talk to the tomato plants.