The Art of the Critique

revolves around “The Critique.” Sometimes they are formal, but often they are informal gatherings around work that has been created. One by one, or through random call-outs, each person will share what he or she thinks of the work on the wall. Similar to a socratic circle, discussions ensue, teachable moments occur, and the work has a chance to grow.

Outside of the studio however, I realized that how to give criticism is an art form. Not many people practice this art anymore — especially when we live in an era of customer reviews, comment feeds, and pop-up feedback surveys. Culturally, we are forgetting how to give criticism in the physical presence of others. It’s hard! You don’t want to be [pushy/ bossy/ rude] but you also shouldn’t keep quiet about that typo that you found. The Critique poses a simple solution: when you offer a piece of hard feedback, give an idea for a possible solution, or something positive along with it. In general terms:

I like how you did X, but I notice that Y could be improved. Have you thought of trying Z?

This promotes conversation and collaboration, instead of ridicule. The simple formula promotes a culture that reminds people that the critique is about the work and not the person. People are often quick to criticize. Without offering something constructive, it leaves the person you’re giving feedback to feeling stuck. You end up looking like the team villain instead of being the person pointing out something that can improve the end goal. Don’t be the villain. Instead, try to be the person that others come to for useful and valuable advice.

Soft Skills are the Heroes

In our competitive , I always thought the hard skills (technical stuff that makes you “qualified” for a job) were supposed to be the most important. But I realized when I was in school, in order to bring a project to fruition, there were growing pains and an overwhelming amount of obstacles to overcome. Most of them were not technical issues. The growing pains were born out of the need to work with others who have different communication styles– for example, making sure that those who are more soft spoken in public get to share ideas on a project team. Or trying to defend your own ideas to a room (like you do in a critique) means that you need to speak more publicly, and be comfortable with your own reasoning and direction.

Some of the hardest parts of coming of age in a design studio meant learning how to handle feedback productively, and how to navigate uncertain waters of the creative process. It takes time, practice and a good dose of emotional intelligence to be able to take honest feedback about your work, which can be incredibly personal at times. Being able to learn and grow in an environment that is constantly pushing your people skills to be better than your technical skills, meant that your technical chops were elevated to the highest standard because of them.

Without soft skills to complement hard skills, your technical skills may as well be obsolete if you can’t share them well.

A lot of job recruiters are looking for “creative thinkers” or “self-starters” who are “good under pressure” and can “work collaboratively on a team”.

Skim through any job description and I can almost guarantee that many of the qualifiers relate to a soft skill. This revelation came as a huge relief to me as I was wrapping up school and applying to jobs, because it’s not particularly something that is taught or told to you as a student. Soft skills are through experience and through cultivating yourself, as well as the relationships with the people around you, either in a studio, at the office, or in the broader community. Don’t sell them short.

Focus on the People

UX and design today prides itself on being user-centered, and making user-based decisions– something that is imperative to the success of any product or experience. In order to do this, at the core, you need to understand people. Or want to understand people. I wholeheartedly believe that this extends beyond just design and the UX world.

In the School of Design, at the core of every prompt, there was a people-focused issue. Going beyond school prompts, the very core of design in the wild is to create new ways that solve some problem for people. In order to help those people, you need to take the time to understand what their pain points are in their current processes before you dive in with a creative solution. To make something work better, or look better, or stand out more, or to teach something, make sure to establish a deep understanding of behaviors beforehand. Use it as your GPS to solutions. This is called generative research, and it is the groundwork before taking steps to create new and improved states.

To do this, a cocktail of qualitative and quantitative data needs to be shaken into the initial stages of any project. Only from these roots of understanding can a quality [product/ website/ design/ process] bloom.

Being people focused helps you make meaningful connections and relationships in your workplace, personal life, and family, too. Taking the time to hear about someone else’s day, someone else’s worries, someone else’s accomplishments lets you take a stroll in their shoes. It gives you perspective and lets you build empathy into your day to day tasks. Customers are people too, just like you and me and your parents. Taking the time to understand people does not go unnoticed– your [customers/ friends/ clients/ family] will thank you. Your relationships will be stronger than they would be if you weren’t able to scratch beyond the surface and get to know what makes them tick.

I was hesitant to highlight this lesson however, due to the fact that “Design Thinking” and “User-centered Design” might be tired buzzwords by now. But, I believe they have gotten so much use and recognition because of their importance to any kind of work. It can be business, marketing, sales, healthcare, science, government work, non-profit– anything where tools, services or processes are generated for people to use (basically everything!). All buzz aside, there is something to be said about keeping the people you serve, or sell to, at the forefront of your work. It’s often easier said than done, however it’s a huge, important takeaway that was drilled into our working process in design school. Never lose sight of the people that you are making for.

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