June 30, 2020
A Guide to Giving and Receiving Critique

Entering the world of business by way of art school is a non-traditional path, but for me there have been plenty of lessons from the fine art world that crossed over — especially critique. You might ask, isn’t that just a fancy word for feedback? In my opinion, no. They both start with a desire for improvement, but true critique takes the communication a step further. Critique offers analysis, discussion, conversation, a sense of group collaboration, and a chance to grow.

“Assessment has always seemed unfocused as a term, critique zooms in on the work.” - Russell Hall

At various points throughout my schooling, everyone in the class would put their work up on the wall and discuss the merits of each design as a group. The first time receiving a formal critique, and the first time delivering a critique, is a little nerve wracking. Fear of saying too much or not saying enough; fear of what your peers will say positively or negatively about something you created. Learning both sides of that process is the way to unlock growth in your work and in yourself.

It’s only human to want your “work” to be received well by your peers, but the odds of getting everything exactly right the first time are pretty slim. Keeping your ego in check long enough to hear what others have to say is a skill that takes practice and repetition. Likewise, learning how to share your opinion in a constructive and beneficial way takes thought and self-awareness. Having worked on the agency side and on the client side of design and marketing, I’ve seen the benefit of infusing these learnings into the culture and team. The ability to separate yourself from the creative product, to consider it objectively, to edit and enhance it, is what elevates the finished product and allows it to impact results.

Critique is a regular occurrence in the agency setting — designers and copywriters are critiquing their own work, consulting with peers, and engaging with account managers in this collaborative evaluation of creative work products. This is where the magic of a creative team takes place, both in creating great work, but also in coming together as a team. Google first hit on the concept of psychological safety in their 2015 study of high performing teams, the idea that working in an environment where one can “take risks... without feeling insecure or embarrassed” dramatically improves team effectiveness. Having a healthy critique process in place for your team contributes to this environment and sets the stage for personal and professional growth.

On the other side of the coin, if you’re working with a designer or an agency regularly, it’s good to be versed in giving and receiving a critique. It will make your communication more effective with your creative partners, building a deeper partnership and driving a better result. Even if you’re not considering the artistic merits of a design project, having a more nuanced conversation with the intention of using discussion to improve the end product is a valuable exercise. Thinking critically about the objectives of the design, the behaviors you want to drive, the experience you want the user to have, the nuance of message being expressed in the brand, these are complex concepts that often require multiple iterations to arrive at the optimal solution. Exploring options and variations together builds consensus and confidence in achieving a great marketing solution.

Because it’s a two-way street, here are some thoughts on receiving and giving critique:

Receiving a Critique

If done right, critique is not negative. It’s about highlighting areas of improvement and growth with the intention of helping you create your best work. That’s the mindset you have to maintain. It’s not easy though. When someone is pointing out all the flaws in something you labored over, you have to build up a tolerance and a temperament to hearing it in order to be successful.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • It’s not personal. No one is attacking you or your abilities. To be successful, you need to be able to separate yourself from your work.
  • Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes to see things you’re missing. There could be a glaring typo that you’re not seeing simply because you’ve gotten too close to the project.
  • There’s nothing wrong with getting a second opinion. If you’ve run into a problem you’re having trouble solving, a critique is a great way to get unstuck by letting someone else consider the problem.
  • There’s also nothing wrong with getting a third opinion, but be wary of expanding your critique audience too wide or taking on too many comments. At a certain point, you get too much feedback to move forward effectively. It’s better to make some changes and then start another round of critique.

Giving a Critique

Giving a great critique starts with being objective. Forget everything you know about the process that it took to get to this point and go back to the project brief or original set of objectives. Have you solved all of the requirements? If the answer is no, then you haven’t met the minimum level to even begin the critique. However, if you have, that’s when the fun really starts.

Some best practices:

  • Consider other possibilities. The great thing about design is that there are many different solutions. What if the font was different, or the color was a shade darker, or the positioning of a key element was changed?
  • Take a step back, literally. Giving yourself physical distance, and moving around during discussion, changes your thought process and can often help trigger new ideas.
  • Articulate a reason why. Saying you don’t like something, and stopping the thought there, is just plain unhelpful. Use your words.
  • Offer a specific suggestion. Being vague or offering general thoughts is okay, but make sure there’s more substantive analysis happening too. Ultimately specifics are going to be more useful in determining next steps.
  • Keep it conversational. Critique isn’t about giving orders, it’s a discussion where everyone can offer commentary. As long as the comments move the project forward, that’s the spirit of critique.
  • End with a recap. The conversation can be wide and ranging over the course of a critique session, be sure to identify specific actions and walk away with a clear path forward for changes.

Great work doesn’t happen in a vacuum, the same way that growth doesn’t happen without partnership. It’s the result of consideration and iteration, working through multiple options to arrive at the one that best suits the needs of the project and helps you take your work to the next level. Stop just giving feedback and start incorporating the principles of critique into your work to see what a change it can make.

If you are looking for an agency to give you an unbiased (and productive) assessment of your brand and marketing strategy, give us a call, because we know that Growth Takes Grit™