A Few Thoughts on Critique

Every year I look forward to attending the NACIS conference in October; it’s a chance to reunite with old friends, learn a bunch of new things, and come away inspired to improve my own cartographic practice. While I’m there, I also like to share my thoughts with whoever will pay attention to me, by offering a talk of my own.

Of the presentations I’ve given over the years, I think the one at NACIS 2020 (held online this time around) was perhaps the one that is most worth hearing. It encourages us to address an ongoing toxicity in our profession, so I wanted to share a transcript of it with you here. While it does exist in video form if you want to watch it that way, I know that text is more accessible, and, for many situations, just more convenient.

The reason that I have this text version is thanks to my colleague Travis White, who suggested that NACIS presenters offer transcripts to accompany their talks. I wrote up mine shortly before I actually spoke, so I drifted a little bit from it during the live performance, but it’s got pretty much all the same ideas. It’s just missing the useful(?) hand gestures that I often make while talking.

Also: wow, it feels weird to see this written down. My speaking manner is grammatically and structurally looser than my usual writing style.

Rough Transcript

Thanks for joining, everyone! I’m coming to you from south central Wisconsin, on lands seized from the Ho-Chunk people. And from this place, I’m going to talk a little bit about map critique. Critique is a great tool in our profession. We put our work out there for feedback, and the advice we get helps us learn new things and grow as designers. But, like any tool, critique can be used for good or for ill, and for all the good and growth that critique promotes in our community, it’s important to recognize that sometimes the way in which we offer our opinions on others people’s work can do real harm to our colleagues or potential colleagues. I’ve seen critique used to shame people or gatekeep: to push them away from our community because they’re judged to be doing things in the “wrong” manner. And, look, I’m not here to give you a set of rules that tell you how you must critique. Instead, I’m just going to share a few ways that I happen to think about critique, and you can take or leave them, but I hope you might find them valuable, as I do, in helping keep our critiques away from the toxic side of things, and more toward the constructive side. That’s all.

And the first of those ways is that I try to focus on listening first. When someone asks me, “Hey, what do you think about my map?”, I try not to just jump in and say, “well, you should change that projection, or you should use a different set of colors, etc.” Instead, I might turn some of those potential changes into questions, and ask, “Well, why did you choose that particular projection? What was your reasoning behind these particular colors, etc.?” In order to give this person the most relevant advice possible, I need some context; I need to know how the map got to be this way, and that comes from listening. Maybe this person is operating under certain restrictions, for example: limitations of their data, or design constraints imposed by a client. And so certain things on this map are that way for a reason, and can’t be changed, and that’s useful for me to know. Or maybe this person’s goals for the map are different than I had assumed, and certain things that are important to me, aren’t to them, and vice-versa, and that’s good for me to know when I offer feedback. Regardless of the situation, I just don’t want to give my opinion based on a bunch of assumptions about what’s going on; I need facts, and those come from listening.

This can also create opportunities for learning. If I tell a student, “hey, change that projection on your map,” they might just do so because I said so, without really understanding. But if I first pick that student’s brain and ask, “What do you know about projections?”, I might find some gaps in their knowledge, some opportunities to teach them. And I think this is true for most critique situations, not just with students. The more I understand about what this person knows and thinks and is trying to accomplish, the greater the chance that my advice might be able to teach them something.

This sort of back and forth—this dialogue—is not always practical in every critique situation. I understand that. But, I think it’s a nice goal to aim for, because when you can get it, you’ll get a lot more done together.

Now, once I’ve listened and it’s my turn to speak, my second thing is that I try to speak in a way that acknowledges my subjectivity. Anytime we offer someone critique, it’s rooted in our own personal understandings of what we think good design is. But it doesn’t take much time looking around this community to see that there are a lot of different design opinions out there, and mine is not the only valid one. And so I just don’t want to speak in a way that implies otherwise. I said before that I don’t want to jump in and say, “change this, do that, etc.,” and that’s partly because I want to listen first, but also because “change this, you should do that” — those are words of command, that obligate people. And I don’t want to sort of arrogantly assume an authority for my opinion that suggests that it is the way that things should be done. Instead, I’d rather speak more cooperatively, saying, “Well, in my opinion, you should try moving the legend over here to balance the layout. If I were you, I might use different colors, etc.” Just language that emphasizes that this is my opinion. And as part of this, I’m not saying that you can’t try and convince people that your opinion is a good idea, or not to tell them that they should make changes. What I’m saying is that it’s all about the approach. You can come into a critique with language that commands, or language that cooperates and suggests. Which do you want to do? I think you’re more likely to find success with the latter in convincing people to do things the way you’d like.

The third thing I think about is motivation: what’s driving this critique? We offer people advice because we want to help them, and because it’s satisfying to see works improve and people grow, but there are also more selfish motivations that can filter in. Sometimes we critique because we want to show off to people, to get them to praise us, or to entertain them. And here I speak from experience. Years ago I ran a map critique blog called Cartastrophe, in which I would rip maps from the internet, and sarcastically break down everything that this person did wrong and that I could do better. I created that blog because I wanted people to pay attention to me—I was just starting out in the field, and I wanted to prove to myself, and to others, that I was good at maps and that I was better at it than some other people. And it was ugly, and I’m sorry I did things that way, and it’s gone now. But I bring it up because it’s important to recognize that these motivations linger within all of us. I think it’s natural as a human being to feel the urge, from time to time, to make ourselves look better, or get attention from others, at the expense of somebody else. And I think this is where the more toxic potential of critique comes in, when it’s driven by these sort of selfish, posturing, ego-driven motivations. And it’s something we’re all susceptible to. I think it’s an easy trap to fall into: offering critique more for the needs of your own ego than for the benefit of the person who made the map. I’ve certainly done it. So it’s just good to keep an eye on those tendencies, and make sure that ego-driven motivations aren’t getting in the way of the potential good that we can offer with our advice. Because it’s something that will always be there.

It was one thing for me to run that blog when I was just starting out, but if I were to do the exact same thing in the exact same way now, it’s important to recognize that that would be much worse. Because I’d be using the influence and experience I’ve accumulated over the years and using it to mock and punch down against people who might have less. And that brings me to my fourth point, which is that it’s important to recognize that context of a critique has an influence. A critique is not just one person in a vacuum giving their humble opinion to another person in a vacuum. How that critique is understood, and the influence it has, is affected by the stature, authority, power — whatever you want to call it — of the person who is offering it. Say, for example, you really like someone’s work and you go and praise them on social media. That’s great, but if the context also happens to be that you had a large social media following, then that praise can be career-making for someone. You might be putting them in front of an audience that can give them new opportunities that they never had before. It wasn’t just the opinion you expressed, but the context of how many people paid attention to your opinion, that mattered here. Or maybe you’re giving someone advice about things you think they should change about their work to improve it. And maybe they disagree somewhat — they have their own design opinions, and they think about engaging you in a dialogue to discuss them. But, maybe the context is that you’re an influential person at a company they might want to work at someday. So, instead, they think to themselves, “this person can influence the direction of my career, and I don’t want to push back against them, so I’m just going to shut up and tell them they’re right.” That’s not necessarily what you wanted to have happen, but it’s the sort of thing that does happen, and it wasn’t because of the particular opinions offered, or the intent, but just the context.

So, the bottom line is: a critique is never just about your opinion. There’s always a context of more stuff going on, and I think it’s our responsibility to just look around and be aware of what other influences our critique could have before going into that situation.

And know, too, that you might have more influence in these situations than you think. Because, in the end, it’s about how many people listen to you, or look to you as an authority — not how many people you think should listen to you. This is something that others put upon you, and even if you don’t think of yourself as important, you may still hold sway over more people than you think.

So that’s it — four things about critique. And, again, these are just my thoughts; you can take or leave them. But whatever you do with them, I hope we’ll all think from time to time about how to improve our critique practices, the way we absorb tips at NACIS for improving our design practices. And I think this kind of work is important because we have a problem. I think it’s important to acknowledge that our community is not always as welcoming as we sometimes hope it to be. And part of the problem — part — is the tone and manner in which we sometimes offer our opinions on the works of others. I’ve seen so many people come forward in the last few months, talking about how they don’t feel comfortable sharing their work with the cartographic community. They’re afraid of being publicly humiliated; of having their careers harmed; of being labeled a “#cartofail,” which is an ugly hashtag on Twitter in which shame is dished out to those who do things in ways that are “not allowed.” These people have seen what happens to their colleagues and they’re not willing to participate. Think of the damage that that does to our community. These are people who want feedback. They want to get better, and they want critique. But they want constructive critique with a helpful tone rather than a superior one. But the pool of that is polluted with these more selfish, ego-driven, gatekeeping critiques, and so it’s simply not safe for some people to participate in. And I suspect that goes doubly for those with marginalized identities whose careers are already more vulnerable. That’s why this matters, because this hostility is out there. And I’m not just talking about social media. It happens one-on-one, it happens in classrooms, and I’ve seen it happen during conference presentations. And it does harm.

So I hope we’ll work not only on how to improve our own critique practices, but those of our whole community, and those of our colleagues. And here I don’t just mean calling people out. If you see someone mocking another person on Twitter, mocking them in turn is probably not going to get you very far. Instead, I’d think back to the first couple of points I made — engaging in dialogue, asking questions, speaking cooperatively. And recognizing that this is ongoing work. This is something we’ll always be improving at. I just gave you four ways I think about critique, but I don’t live up to them nearly as much as I would like. They’re goals I work toward, and my goals will keep changing over time, as yours will. This is an area in which we’ll always be growing. But regardless of the particular goals you want to set for yourself here, I’ll leave you with one that I hope we can all agree is worth aiming toward. I would like it if, when people receive feedback from the cartographic community, they never walk away from that exchange feeling shamed or lesser, but instead that this is a community that cares about them. And more importantly, that this is a community to which they can belong.

Parting Thoughts

The above presentation was not the only one at NACIS 2020 on the subject of critique. If you’d like to hear even more interesting words on this important subject, I highly recommend checking out the presentation by Madison Draper & Vanessa Knoppke-Wetzel.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading, and please feel free to share this around. My hope is that, in 2021, we will work to treat each other with an even greater degree of kindness and respect. I have always been impressed by the cartographic community’s desire to be open and welcoming; let’s keep trying to live up to that goal.

One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Critique

  1. Pingback: Critique with Empathy | somethingaboutmaps

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