The Lost Art of Critique

Recently I have been noticing a trend in the way people are offering “critiques”, or “feedback” within the various design communities. I am pretty sure this is nothing new, but as of late three particular events have brought to into focus a very negative of this aspect of our community interaction.

By no means is this a rant, but more of an encouragement for all of us (myself definitely included) who interact with others in our respective communities top re-evaluate the value of our critiques of others work.

As mentioned in the video the three instances that really caught my attention were;

1) The launch of fflick.com, and the ensuing public skewering (for lack of better words) of Marc Hemeon, for making a mistake in his implementation of logging in with twitter.

2) Whitney Hess’s blog post “Start UXS” about UX and start up’s and the subsequent response “Losing Faith In UX” by Dirk Knemeyer.

3) A Dribbble shot about Dribbble Etiquette .

In all three of these circumstances it is amazing to see such a talented community losing sight of the value of critique. I know we can all get caught up ( I know I do) in being critical from time to time.

Having a critical eye is crucial to design, but having a constantly critical attitude is damaging to our community, and ourselves.

Well there you have it… just some food for thought. I welcome your feedback on this topic.

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10. August 2010 by Aaron Irizarry
Categories: Design/Development, User Experience, Video | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 47 comments

Comments (47)

  1. Well played Aaron, totally agree with you. This social/web world in which we live makes it too easy to hide behind our computer screens and spew negativity, without assessing ourselves at the same time.

    For every one criticism we should offer 9 encouragements.

  2. Spot on, Aaron — this is kind of funny, because on forrst this week I saw flaming on a post go both ways, initially the critique wasn’t presented in the best way and the original poster did not receive it in the best way either and came off pissed. Granted we see comments in text and if not properly written, the tone is totally lost and that may have been the cause of the flaming, but that goes right to your point about how you present the critique.

    What happened was that I ‘liked’ the post and subsequently subscribed to the comments area on it. But then for that day or 2, I wound up ignoring most of my forrst notifications because I didn’t want to be involved in the drama. It got to a point where others jumped in to “defend” one side or the other, to which that isn’t what forrst is supposed to be about.

    I love THE community that we as web developers and designers have. I know I have a ton to learn from others out there and look to online repositories such as dribbble, forrst, and alike for those expert points. If they start to become flame boards, like back in the late 90s when forums would start to divide into “factions” of people, that’s going to really suck.

    I’m not sure how the flaming can be curbed or monitored on these types of sites, but I do agree with you that if you can handle the criticism, then post away. If you can’t, then maybe you should post. It’s really up to us as to how we handle the outside world and how we present ourselves. By presenting ourselves on the flip side when providing the critique, maybe before clicking that Submit button on the comment, take a step back and re-read what you wrote and see if its tone isn’t the way you intended.

    • @Jason
      Thanks for posting man…

      I am pretty sure we will always come across flaming in the community… the best approach may be to avoid doing it ourselves, and tune it out.

  3. Aaron,
    You’re spot on that some people are really leaving a great opportunity on the table when they choose to offer uninformed, constructive critique.

    It’s safe to say providing actionable, helpful critique benefits not only the person receiving the critique, but the person providing it in the first place, as it’s a process,when done well, requires analytical thinking and rhetorical skills not always found in sketchbooks & wireframes.

    As founder of UX Show and Tell, I’ve witnessed great and not-so-great critiques, including people who were offering feedback on things the designer had no control over or unrelated issues the designer didn’t really need help with in the first place. But often those critiques were far more civil (or certainly less condescending) than what I’ve seen recently throughout the ux community.

    But I think the process of mentally organizing & preparing a critique and tactfully offering suggestions is simply lost when you’re sitting at your desk in some layer of thinly veiled anonymity. I certainly wouldn’t patronize Whitney Hess as a “nice person” to her face while deconstructing her arguments, but others apparently don’t have those same issues.

    Perhaps more opportunities for face to face design critique (either at the office with co-workers, a coffee shop with colleagues, or an event such as UX Show and Tell) can tame the less-civil behavior (obviously I’m not even considering trolls here) and allow others to see how people not necessarily so plugged into the ux echo chamber behave in real life and face to face, and apply those basic communication skills to their online critiques.

    (p.s. it should be said I’m not trying to pimp a show and tell workshop for god’s sake; i don’t make any dough off the events or stand to benefit from a workshop that i don’t attend–just a full disclosure to make sure there aren’t any suggestions of impropriety)

    ~Chris

    • @Chris

      Thanks for posting….

      “It’s safe to say providing actionable, helpful critique benefits not only the person receiving the critique, but the person providing it in the first place, as it’s a process,when done well, requires analytical thinking and rhetorical skills not always found in sketchbooks & wireframes.”

      Couldn’t agree more!

  4. Aaron – Couldn’t agree more.

    There is an art to giving critique and I find the best way is to highlight both a negative and a positive in the design. What you are saying to the designer is that you see something that is going in the right direction but also maybe an element could be improved if you try whatever. It’s encouragement and I love to receive as well as give it out.

    DesignersCouch.org is built around critique. In fact you can’t reply with fewer than 144 character (inverse Twitter). We feel this encourages well thought out critique.

    BTW: If you feel this is a tad spammy then please delete. It honestly isn’t intended as such. I believe in what you are saying as it’s what we promote at DC. If anyone would like an invite to DC then feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@inspiredMark)

  5. Good quote at the end there. Was that yours?

    Chris mentions the civil nature of critiques at the UX Show & Tell, and I wanted to point out that it’s much easier to get offensive online where body language and timing have no place. We should all be more critical of criticism we give online.

    I recently saw a motion-graphics designer critique other designers demo reels by recording himself in a video. Maybe that could work for us graphic/web designers too?

    I suggest we start giving criticism in video form whenever possible. It might help, who knows. I’m willing to try it.

    • @Jason
      Good points about not being able to see expression, and other body language in critiques. Video could be a great idea for offering valuable input… hmmm that sounds like a good idea for a site… anyhoo If video doesn’t catch on for critiques we have to resort to excessive smiley faces, or just thinking about our approach a bit more.

  6. Aaron, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you are a breath of fresh air in this community, and I’m incredibly thankful that you chose to become a more active part of it. Thank you for your kindness and generosity and wisdom.

  7. Very well said. There is a lot of ego in our industry. It’s just really easy to take shots at other people and their work rather encourage them and offer constructive criticism. I struggle with that as much as anybody, I’m sure. A little grace, humility and respect could always go a long way. Thanks for the video reminder.

  8. Great encouragement for using critique to evolve our thinking and improve our work, Aaron. Traditional rhetorical argument is a related lost or often-missing art. For many, it takes practice and new awareness to avoid fighting (ad hominem attacks and hyperbole), and strive for debate–listening to the other person’s perspective, and building on it to persuade them to examine values and change their mind. Critique and debate require effort and thought, and have no place for knee-jerk reactions.

    • @Julie,
      Very true… I think to really add value to something by critique, we can’t just spout off what we have heard others say, or what we have read. The first rule I set for myself (and end up breaking a lot) is to question myself “Will my input help make this better?”

  9. Great post Aaron. Once again you’ve firmly hit the nail on the head!

  10. Good points all around Aaron. I think we could all use slice of humble pie and realize that our shit stinks just like the next person. Frankly, in regards to the whole dribbble thing, it really makes me sad that something so trivial causes such an uproar, but when the community talks about helping people in foreign countries get drinking water it fizzles out after a few days. Now personally, I don’t know the guy who started the whole “dribbble etiquette” debate, but I’m sure he had his reasons. And from reading the comment thread over on dribbble I think the people who verbally attacked him are no more mature than he is. And God knows I’ve had my fair share of being a huge douche. So let’s all acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, we don’t know everything and cut some people some slack sometimes. It’s called grace people, and without it we’d all be damned straight to hell.

    That’s my two cents. ;)

  11. Aaron I really appreciate your thoughts here and as Whitney says they are quite a breath of fresh air. Especially refreshing was the format of the comments. Its nice to hear someone in the design community speak out loud really passionately about important issues like this and I think the video format carries more weight in situation than a text post and definitely more than a rebuttal comment on a post. This is the kind of thinking and communicating its nice to see from the design community. You didn’t slander anyone, you invite feedback and critique on your own response and you hold yourself accountable for what you say. You’ve got the qualities i think our design community leaders should have.

    • @Bryan,
      I really appreciate your kind words about the vid… I love talking about the practical aspect of what we do, and video is easier than writing… lol

      Again thanks for the comment!

  12. First of all, I love the video format. Very nice, I usually dont have time to read blog posts in the day and then at night there just isnt enough time, so this format is just great to turn on and listen to while I work. So props. Anyways, that has nothing to do with the post :)

    I agree with you 100% there are ways to provide feedback. I just released Tweetment.com and know that it is far from being perfect, and encourage people to provide feedback either through email or Get Satisfaction (the relevant channels). I am not a fan of publicly dissing projects that I have put my heart and soul into. I saw the same reaction to Marc’s new flick (pun intended) and I was disgusted. That is not the way to do it.

    Same with Whitney, regardless of what my opinion is, she has a brilliant mind and to demote her in such a negative way just rude. Plain and simple.

    On the other hand there comes the dribbble shot about etiquette. There is just no point in adding comments to a shot (or to any blog for that matter) if the purpose is to just say positive things. Asking permission to provide feedback is like asking the Times if I can write a comment about my opinion on Sarah Palin. It just doesn’t work like that. If you have comments, be ready to hear things you do not want to.

    Of course there are those who leave rude comments that are in the form of critique, but I bet they have bigger issues than just not knowing how to provide critique, I am guessing they are rude in real life as well.

  13. Always someone I can look up to Aaron, thanks for endorsing maturity and the value of communication and helping each other out within our community.

    Christina

  14. I agree, Aaron.

    I’m old-school. As in back in the day when I was an art major and we had regular class critiques. Key words: ‘constructive criticism’.

    Yes, sometimes the critiques got a bit heated, but they were never ‘mean’. Maybe because we all physically occupied the room. Or maybe we just remembered to use manners and be polite.

    Personal attacks are not acceptable.

  15. Aaron, thank you for this post!

    I wanted to give a shout out to the entire fflick team (I don’t want to give the impression fflick was a solo venture). The founder is my friend Kurt Wilms @thekurt and my other co-founders are Ron Gorodetzky @rongoro and Dav Zimak @davzimak.

    It’s hard to slam someone you are friends with. The internet breads brutal feedback and responses due to anonymity. I have found whenever I have reached out to someone personally the tension quickly leaves and is generally replaced with mutual respect and sometimes a lasting friendship.

    Designers are a delicate bunch and get offended due to our own insecurities about their work. Just remember, there will always be someone better than you and always someone way less than you. We have all looked back at a piece of work, which at the time was the most amazing thing we ever created, however upon further reflection we realize it was step in the evolution of our skill set and another notch in our belt of experience.

  16. Brilliantly put Aaron. As a web developer who’s best skill isn’t designing and more development back end work I totally relate to your observation. I am working hard on being a better designer and look for critique from the design community. Some of the feedback I get is quite hard to hear and it can drive me into an unhelpful state of ‘paralysis analysis’.

    So to hear someone I respect in the design community bravely come out and say this is refreshing and if it helps just one person like me then its a point well made.

    David

  17. Bravo Aaron. Tons of designers getting all bent out of shape lately. I hope we can learn from these incidents and man-up.

  18. Hi Aaron,

    I wrote the retort to the Start UXS article that you suggested might have been written with a tone because I was somehow “pissed” or personally chaffed.

    For me the article and response was not personal at all. My approach was a very simple one. I observe our industry being marginalized in many different ways by other, adjacent communities: business, marketing, product, engineering. In the Start UXS article I saw someone who has tremendous exposure and a mouthpiece that reaches a lot of different people publish something that was simply ignorant. That is not a value judgement, it is a factual statement. Being that I want our field to progress and prosper, and knowing that if that article or the statements in it would stand to damage our collective credibility if read or heard by people in other communities that matter to us in a material way, I felt it had to be rebutted.

    The cold reality is that if I had posted a response full of diplomatic language and bouquets of flowers, you would never have read it in the first place. It was only in the vehemence of the response that the issue was “escalated” to the level that it became Tweeted and a meme unto itself. While I didn’t necessarily expect that result, I knew that my thoughts would only get attention if the tone was strong and decisive. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my intent was not to attack Whitney personally and to whatever degree she felt that way I do feel sorry.

    To be fair, the original article I was responding to was similarly strong and decisive, making absolute statements that painted others – startup CEOs, VC firms – in a very negative light. My response was thus very much in the spirit of the original post: strong language, bold statements, denouncing things that I see as clear “wrongs”.

    It also bears mentioning that I shut off the comments to my reply once the comments twisted into personal attacks of Whitney. Soliciting personal attacks was certainly not my intent, nor will I provide a platform to facilitate that behaviour.

    Your premise that critique is missing from our industry is a valid one. However true critique consists of forcefully vetted opinions, strong language, and calling a spade a spade. I’m disappointed that you view my response as part of the problem, because if our goal is “finding” a lost art of critique, I think my article is closer to a solution than you acknowledged. Regardless, I do appreciate your voice in the conversation.

    • @Dirk,
      Thanks for watching the video, and taking time to craft a response.
      I do think your response article has some valid points from your side of the equation seeing that you work within that field that was being discussed.

      I do agree that the Whitney’s article did speak in absolutes, and understand your response. As a reader who had never read your blog prior, I did get the impression that I expressed in the video, that the article had a pissed tone, or that it had become personal, if I am wrong I apologize for implying that. in my experience I have seen that when the tone of an article is harsh, then the comments can tend to follow suit(just my opinion).

      I totally believe that we can have healthy debates/discussions, and even agree to disagree. I don’t think “Calling a Spade a Spade” has to be forceful, dressed in strong language or overly diplomatic wording, I think that more than anything it needs to be honest, kind, and helpful, otherwise I am not putting forth my best efforts to communicate a solution to a problem. That is only my approach, and I dont expect others to take the same route to critiquing.

      Again thanks for taking the time to watch the video, and comment for discussion here. kudos

      Aaron I

  19. No need to apologize Aaron. You spoke honestly and from the heart, intending well and communicating your opinion.

    There’s a great quote that I’m forgetting at the moment (and Google ain’t helping!) that I’m going to paraphrase as “Speak from the heart with the intention to do as much good as you can and only positive things will follow.” The path may not always be pretty, but in my experience the outcome typically is.

    Your point that, “I don’t think ‘Calling a Spade a Spade’ has to be forceful, dressed in strong language or overly diplomatic wording” is a fair point and appreciated.

  20. @Dirk I certainly value the discussion you initiated around Whitney’s StartUX article but agree with Aaron that the tone was unnecessary. I don’t think that critique has to be ‘strong and forceful’ and nasty in order to garner attention. Have more faith in yourself, your experience and the regard people have for your opinion–you don’t need to be sensationalist to make a point. I realize Whitney may have made some strong statements but using that as an excuse for firing back with guns blazing doesn’t do much to elevate the discussion–in fact it seemed to lower it, given the nature of most of the comments that ended up on your post. Nasty begets nasty. There’s no way around it.

    Again: Great post, Aaron.

  21. Thanks Aaron! Good stuff that could only come from a big nerd : )

  22. Aaron, right on man. I think it’s good to have challenge and critique but also consideration and understanding go along with them. Speak the truth in love.

    I agree that we need to make sure our comments are professional – it’s easy to feel insulated online and speak with a little sharper edge than we may intend or realize – I know it’s happened to me before. It may have been unintentional, but still has an impact on the person being critiqued (I’ve been on the receiving end too).

    I read DIrk’s post and also thought he made some good points about Whitney’s article. I too felt it was maybe a little sharp, but not outrageously so.

    While I think while Dirk understands the separation between critique of the idea/article/etc and the person, some of the commenters were a little less nuanced and took Dirk’s comments as personal. I was glad to see Dirk address this and close comments.

    Without critique we don’t improve. I think when constructive and combined with encouragement, it can be a powerful tool to help others.

    • @Mike,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment Mike.

      Without critique we don’t improve. I think when constructive and combined with encouragement, it can be a powerful tool to help others.

      Couldn’t agree more.

  23. There are too many people, including those we view on high pedestals, that use the curtain we know as the internet to say what they want with no hold barred. In my experience at DesignByHumans, I recall numerous accounts of relentless attacks on the artwork of new artists to the DBH “community”. Instead of encouraging them to work at their skill, most were just thrashed. Now I’m not saying that everyone did this, but it was a good majority. We do need to put into practice what Aaron just said in the video, that as a community we need to build each other up and support each other. Great post Aaron

    • Thanks Tom! Appreciate you taking the time to watch the vid, and ad your insights, I could imagine that within a community based voting system things could get hairy at times.

  24. Aaron, I can’t say anything here that hasn’t already been expressed. Just wanted to throw you some huge respect and props for your integrity, transparency and intention. I’m in full agreement with Whitney’s sentiment that you are a breath of fresh air in our industry. Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, our industry is still very young and it’s unfortunate when that immaturity comes through in the way that we treat our peers and our clients. In the past I’ve been one to let it go unsaid and let people deal with their own karma, but kudos to you for taking the time to influence our environment for the better! You’ve inspired me.

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