When I gave my NACIS 2020 talk, A Few Thoughts on Critique, I was very careful to avoid the appearance of telling people what to do. I offered only suggestions that people might consider if they chose to improve their critique practices. I feared that any stronger language, saying what I thought people should or should not do, would probably just lead to endless squabbles over details that did not matter, and which only distracted from the problem that needs addressing: how often we fall into the trap of critiquing for the needs of our own ego, rather than for the benefit of our community. And how the effects can, and have, caused real damage to our colleagues.
But today I feel bolder, and my thoughts have grown new wings. And so I will tell you directly what I think you (and I!) should do to reduce the toxicity that can creep in when we opine on the works of others.
Critique with empathy.
Assume that the designer is, like you, a human being capable of both complex thought and honest mistakes.
Ask yourself how this competent and well-intentioned person could reasonably end up making decisions that you consider laughable, erroneous, or ill-conceived. That was unlikely their intent.
Consider the tools, privilege, and knowledge that this person did not have access to, and which you might.
Ask questions before offering assumptions.
Remember that the answer is always more complicated than “the designer is just stupid.” You know that the real world is richer than that.
Reflect on the ways that you could have fallen into making that “design mistake.” Perhaps you did once, in the past.
Don’t mock your past self for the sin of combining honest effort with inexperience. Critique yourself with the same compassion that those around you deserve.
Accept that other designers’ goals may differ from yours. Realize that the things that you want to change, may in fact be unimportant to what they are trying to do.
Remember that most of the design details that we teach and debate at conferences are usually unimportant in the big picture. This is liberating.
Admit your goal to yourself. If you offer a public opinion because you want attention, that is natural. It feels good to be acknowledged as an expert, or as entertaining. Own this honestly, and without shame.
Ask yourself how you can earn this good feeling without demeaning or otherwise harming someone else.
Remember that critique is always personal. There is no clean separation between the artist and the art that allows a wholly dispassionate discussion of someone’s work.
Think about how you’ve been stung in the past by critiques, no matter how well-intentioned, or how much you agreed with them.
Be kind when wielding the benevolent scalpel.
Understand that it’s OK for a designer, including you, to not want feedback. Sometimes it’s fine to let a work be what it is, and move on to other things.
Enjoy the unintended laughter that you sometimes find in the works of others. Share that quietly among friends, not with the world.
Never feel bad for wanting to improve someone else’s work, but accept that it is not always productive to share those ideas.
I offer this semi-poem as a moral framework for giving critique that can enlighten, without resorting to shame or ostracism. Add to it, remix it, or ignore it. It’s a list that I’m going to try to keep living up to, and continue to think about.