Should Designers Critique Others’ Work? We Ask the Industry
You've poured your heart and soul into a graphic design project. Now, finally, it's out in the world. You sit back nervously, hoping for universal praise for your hard work. But instead, you get a steady drip-drip of criticism.
It's absolutely gutting, of course. But is it the end of the world? Or is it a necessary part of growing as a designer?
The same question applies the other way around when you're asked to give feedback on fellow designers' work. Should you just mindlessly praise, or is it okay to criticise? Does it make us better designers overall? Or is it cruel and unnecessary to share criticism when we don't know the ins and outs of the work?
Why criticism is necessary
The first point to make is that criticism of some kind is a necessary part of the design process. "Design is a communication tool, so the job to be done should be clear," says Michelle Lyons, founder of Point North Brand Co. "If the design isn't fulfilling its purpose or lacks quality, then criticism is necessary."
"I've watched people finish their graphic design degree no better in skill than when they started, all because tutors and peers have tip-toed around the truth," she adds. "To hide necessary criticism is doing a disservice to both the designer and the recipient of the design."
Because let's get real: there's a lot of bad design out there, and often, that's because there's been too little criticism.
"I've seen countless billboards that I am stunned got approved," says freelance graphic designer Alyssa Fernandez. "I have seen red, unreadable text on complicated photographs on billboards. It is abundantly clear that a critique has not been made. It is also abundantly clear that the message is lost."
Yes, it hurts when your work is criticised. But in all honesty, that's life. "A parent will praise their child for colouring outside the lines," notes Alyssa. "But graphic design is a profession. Graphic design is not done to keep designers entertained; it's visual communication and problem-solving."
In that light, designers should not fear criticism but welcome it, believes director and creative Alice Panerai. "Personally, I learn nothing when I don't get any criticism at all," she says. "I'd say invite feedback if you want to grow as a creative, and hope someone has the courage and discipline to deliver some honest and constructive criticism."
How to give criticism
But here lies the rub. Honest and constructive critique is a world away from a plain and simple 'I don't like it'. For that reason, it's something that only experienced designers can often give effectively. In fact, learning to do so is an important skill every designer must learn.
So, what's the secret to giving good criticism? Part of it is about not taking the design at face value but asking questions to discover the problem the design is trying to solve.
As Caroline Sheahan, founder and creative director at Fable Agency Design, puts it: "Design can be subjective, and often we don't know the full ins and outs of how particular a client may have been, or how many chefs were in the kitchen dictating style. So curiosity, asking questions about the 'why' behind a design, and respectful discussion are probably more productive than outright criticism."
It's also about being kind. "It's important to bring empathy to the table," says Roman Stikkelorum, co-founder and managing director at Verve. "I see criticism as a tool for building up, not tearing down. Respecting the people behind the scenes is non-negotiable, so you must know how to juggle constructive discussions with kindness."
Similarly, freelance illustrator Roshi Rouzbehani sees criticism as a dialogue rather than a one-way street. "In my opinion, it's all about finding that balance between pointing out good points and suggesting improvements," he explains. "It's about learning and growing together, not tearing down."
How to take criticism
It takes two to tango, of course, so learning how to take criticism is also an important skill for designers to learn.
"A big part of being a designer is your ability to harness feedback to benefit your future progression," says Luke Taylor, co-founder and creative partner of UnitedUs. "Without that skill, the weight of the work will crush you and your ambitions."
Inevitably, that means not taking criticism personally. "My first creative job at 17 years old was building a website for a local software company," recalls freelance creative designer Christopher Dowson. "The owner took me to one side and told me that when he gave me feedback or criticism, I should never see it as an attack on me or my skills. It was just a case that I hadn't yet solved the problem, and he needed to tell me why and how it might affect things. It helped me develop a thicker skin, and I'm a better designer for it. It was more critical thinking training than I was ever exposed to in education!"
In short, good critique doesn't just happen; we have to collectively work for it. So it's on all of us to spend our career developing our skills in both giving and receiving feedback constructively and helpfully.
"Learning how to receive and give out thoughtful, respectful feedback is key to growing as a designer, and when it's done right, it almost always makes the work better," says brand builder Lana Belton. "Criticism is good if there's context, trust and respect — and a very healthy dose of discernment on the part of those giving and receiving it."
Leaving out the ego
That might sound great in theory, but in practice, we know it's not always the case, particularly when designs are criticised on social media.
"In the current digital landscape, 'criticism' in the comments section is often just an excuse to unleash contextless, ego-driven vitriol on anyone who dares to put themselves out there," says Lana. "And on a personal level, that's unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. On an industry level, a danger of comment section crits is that designers might be inclined to start designing for the approval of other designers. This just pushes us further into our own design echo chambers and into a sea of sameness, chasing empty trends and approval."
Consultant Iain Worgan agrees. "I think critique is essential as a tool internally and externally," he says. "What I don't understand is how, as an industry, we criticise work without any context whatsoever – 'that's awful' – without an understanding of the brief, the goals, the reason, the target audience, and even without understanding the creator/client relationship. It's all very reactionary and lacking any nuance. Criticism without any constructive approach is just a waste of everyone's time in any industry."
We can all agree on that, of course… but do we always practice what we preach? Janice Carrie, strategy director at Common Ground, believes it's useful to examine our own motivations when it comes to giving criticism.
"Does criticism reveal our envy of others?" she asks rhetorically. "I'm sure this is the case a lot. If we see envy as a positive emotion, then we can see what we feel we lack or want to do more of. Perhaps we are critical of others' work when we feel we could have done a better job but never had the chance."
Ask trusted people
Maybe the question of whether designers should critique other people's work, then, is more about which designers we're talking about.
Random people on social media may be less helpful than specific designers with knowledge and understanding of the kind of challenges you've been through to create your design. That's certainly the case for illustrator and hand lettering specialist Ben Tallon.
"I have a handful of trusted people who I know will deliver the straight truth," he says. "They tell me how and why a piece of work is successful or not. This works because they understand the work and what it needs to be, and our relationship has enabled this valuable honesty, which has helped me grow so much. Constructive criticism is entirely fair when our work is in the public domain. However, there's a fine line between lashing out and offering valuable thoughts.
"Like any online interaction, I think it's important to imagine the same conversation between the maker of the work and yourself, face-to-face, in real life, perhaps at a bar or in a formal crit session. Would you still say what you were about to type? Are your comments, even when negative, an attempt to improve the work for the benefit of all? If the answers are anything other than 'yes, of course', then I think it's better kept out of public forums."
Take it with a pinch of salt
Of course, not everyone will follow Ben's advice in practice. So, if you do share work on social media, you must be ready for the consequences. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do so; it's more about being discerning in how you react to negative feedback.
"Putting your work out there is a choice, so you've got to be prepared to take the good with the bad because people can say whatever the hell they want," says Richard Pay, owner and creative director at MOKSi Creative. "But the way they critique reflects more on them than the work. You can tell who's a troll, who's a misery, who's an optimist and who genuinely gives a shit.
"The people who care will point out flaws thoughtfully. They'll praise the good as much as call out the bad. And they won't make it personal. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what you want to take on board and what to put aside. And it would be so much worse for no one to be talking about creative work! Tumbleweed is the most brutal critique…"
And just in case the point hasn't been made clear, Max Ottignon, co-founder of Ragged Edge, sums it up in two pithy sentences. "Considered critique: healthy and important if we're going to be taken seriously as an industry. Being a dick: pathetic."