9 things to listen for in a design critique

9 things to listen for in a design critique

Chris Wolfgang's Layout avatar

It might be a stretch to promise any of you that you can enjoy a critique of your latest design project. But it’s absolutely possible to embrace it as a shortcut to producing better work.

It all depends on what you’re listening for.

You know you’re not supposed to hear critique as a personal attack. You know you’re supposed to separate yourself from your design. You’ve heard that. A lot. So if you’re not hearing a personal attack, what should you be listening for?

9. Consistent remarks
Is more than one person saying the same thing? Is the same element of your design being brought up by multiple people? Even if they’re saying it in slightly different ways, be alert for similarities in critique; it’s usually a clear indicator that something needs to change.

8. Confusion of purpose
You know the problem your design has to solve. Everyone else really should too, but it doesn’t hurt to recap a project’s purpose before you open the floor to critique. Listen for comments that indicate goals other than what you’ve been aiming for.

7. Questions that never occurred to you
It’s true that if you are the one submitting to the critique, you are also the one who’s put the most blood, sweat, tears, and thought into the design at hand. The others at the table have by definition thought about this less. That’s a good thing. Your end user will definitely not be overthinking your project or pausing to analyze nuance. Consider this an opportunity to get inside their heads.

6. Opinions about usability
Speaking of the end user, keep an ear to the ground for comments about the usability of your design. Are there concerns about how a menu is difficult to find? Confusion over the purpose of a button? If a critic raises a point like this, you’re guaranteed that it’s going to be a problem for the end user.

5. Ease of legibility
I could have tacked this on to usability — legibility is a big part of usable design, after all — but it deserves its own bullet point. As a designer, your access to typefaces is almost literally unlimited, but exercise caution. A handlettered font may be breathtaking, but can you read it easily at the size and distance your project requires? Listen for comments that people are having trouble reading (or, heaven forbid, misreading entirely) your project’s text.

4. “Why have I never seen x?”
Be on the alert for critics who muse, “Why haven’t I ever seen anyone do this with x solution?” or “I’ve always thought that this would be a great way to handle this problem, but no one ever does it.” It could be that the proposed solution is in some way impractical or impossible, but don’t discount these ponderings out of hand. A little exploration could get your design blazing new trails your competitors haven’t thought of.

3. The yes man
Depending on your position (creative director? VP of design? Insert lofty, artistic title here?), your critique may be softer than it should be. If someone is simply nodding along or giving commentary that’s only positive, be aware of it and encourage them to offer something more concrete with “Why does that work, do you think?” or “How do you see this working alongside other elements?”

2. Someone who disagrees with you
This isn’t the yes man, obviously. But they’re not saying no just for the heck of it. This is someone who may think you’ve missed the point of the project. They see the goals of the design as being a, and they feel you’ve delivered closer to b. They’re not saying your design is bad, necessarily, but it’s not right for the problem you’re all trying to solve. They require more engagement than Yes Man and No Sir because they’ve actually given this some thought.

1. Actionable solutions
These are the hidden gems of critiques, and I wish for you truckloads of these. It’s easy for anyone to say “I don’t like this,” it’s a little harder to say “I don’t like this because —,” it’s really damn hard to say, “I don’t like this because of this, and here’s how you can fix it,” and if someone says, “I don’t like this because of this, and here’s how you can fix it easily and cheaply,” congratulations: You’ve found a unicorn.

All right, I exaggerate. But it is usually up to you to develop actionable solutions based on the sometimes vague feedback of a design critique. If someone offers you a solution you can actually implement into your design right away, consider it carefully from every angle and thank them. They’ve done part of your work for you.

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