A few unordered thoughts on design school critique
During my senior year of design school, in the dark basement studio in the middle of a final critique, a classmate showed a series of posters for a speculative fashion show. “The Global Style”, the term coined by design educator Mr. Keedy in 2010 didn’t exist yet, but that’s the vibe these posters had. I liked them a lot; wished I had made them. To emphasize the headline text, my classmate had underlined it (as opposed to, say, making it bolder or bigger or a different color). The class didn’t like this and let the designer know. The professor agreed. “Remove the underline,” our professor said. “You don’t want to use underlines. It makes this look like a Word document.” My classmate was adamant, though, confident that the underline was achieving its goal of emphasizing a piece of text in the composition. When pressed, no one in the class would make a convincing case of why, exactly, underlining text was bad. There was, after all, an underline tool in all the Adobe software. Why can’t we use it?
Before we knew it, class was over, having spent probably too much time debating whether my classmate could and should underline the headline on their poster. Class was dismissed without resolution.
I’ve thought about this moment more than any other single event from my four years of undergraduate design education. It’s indicative of the limits of a traditional design school critique: it lays bare the subjectivity of many design decisions and the seemingly-arbitrary rules for “good design” that have been passed down from teacher to student for decades. And what about the tricky relationship with authority in the classroom? Critiques can reinforce the position of the professor as higher, the quasi-art director for student work whose opinion is the one that matters. They are, obviously, the one who will give you a grade.
Matthew Salesses’s 2020 book Craft in the Real World is a critical examination of the MFA creative writing program that is also a surprisingly useful case study for rethinking classroom critique. Writing programs and design programs are more alike than we realize. Like design school, writing programs are built around critiques — or “workshops” — where students read the work of one another other and offer feedback. Salesses argues that these MFA programs, which have gained in popularity over the last few decades, focus on the formal aspects of writing (“the craft”) while largely ignoring the social implications that surround the work (where notions of “craft” come from). The reader, still, in 2021, is all-too-often assumed to be the people in the classroom (most likely upperclass, white, and male). This complicates the experience for a person of color, reducing questions of autobiography, cultural context, and desired audience to secondary concerns. Salesses’s argument is that these are not secondary to craft but central to it.
(It’s usually only a person of color, for example, who is asked the race of their characters. It’s usually only a person of color, who’s told the story they are sharing isn’t relatable.)
A typical workshop critique in a writing program looks like this: the students read another student’s work. The author must stay silent, unable to answer questions while the class discusses and dissects the work. Why does the main character do this? What does that mean? Where is this character from? It doesn’t make sense for this person to do this thing. When the students have sufficiently discussed the work, the author can respond, answering questions and offering defenses of their work.
What if the questions the class are asking are not the questions the author needs answered? What if the class is missing a key cultural insight the author is wrestling with in their work? Was the workshop, then, a waste of time?
The design field has changed radically over the last few decades and the educational institutions training the next generation have done their best (for the most part) to keep up: updating curriculums, introducing new software and technology, and integrating real-world questions like audience and users and business needs into the classroom. Critique, however, hasn’t always kept pace. Many design students today are participating in class critiques in the same ways I did when I was student.
A typical design school critique looks like this: students pin their work up on a wall (or project on a screen, or look at a Miro board, or share their screen on Zoom…) while the class gathers around. The class offers feedback. What if you tried this? You’re using Garamond but maybe you should use Bodoni. The layout is off-balance — move this image down a bit. I don’t know what this button does? The student then takes that feedback and makes revisions, hopefully making the work better in the process.
In an era where our notions of good design are in flux, with calls to decolonize design curriculums, integrate a plurality of perspectives, and emphasize on user experience, it’s time to rethink critique, both why we do it and how we do it.
“We must be careful not to frame craft as prescription or even guidelines without first making it clear where those guidelines come from and whom they benefit.” Sallesses writes. “In many workshops, in many craft books, the dominance of one tradition of craft, serving one particular audience (white, middle-class, straight, able, etc.), is essentially literary imperialism, a term that should make us wary of the danger especially to emerging minority and marginalized voices.” The same is true of design: the continued dominance of Modernism — seen as the default against which all design is judged against — is not universal, but cultural. To continue to hold up one form of design as standard (grid-based, clear typography, etc), continues to privilege one audience and ideology over the others. (Even the way we talk about interfaces borrows the language of modernism in its quest for simplicity, clarity, and intuitiveness.)
In critique, at least in American institutions, the audience is all-too often assumed to be white, affluent, and culturally aware. Even when we avoid design-jargon, trading conversations about specific typefaces or grid systems for speaking of good design as simple, clear, and organized, we are using culturally constructed ideas. “Author Trinh Minh-ha writes that even the expectation of ‘clarity’ is an expectation of what is “correct” and/or “official” language,” Salleses continues, “Clear to whom?” When we speak of “good design”, we should follow that with “good for who?
When I started thinking about critique more deeply and began writing this piece, I wrote on Twitter:
Design educators and/or students: I’m looking for professors to talk to who have rethought critique in the classroom for a thing I’m working on. I’m thinking both in terms of form and content. Who is doing something interesting that I should talk to?
The amount of white men who responded to the tweet, raising their digital hands to say “I’m happy to talk!” inadvertently proved my thesis that critique needed to change.
A major shift in design practice over the last decade has been the move from designing discreet artifacts to designing systems — brands over logos, experiences over interfaces — appearing to fulfill the designer’s long-held dream of being seen as more than a mere decorator. While digital design has become a bigger part of design programs, the processes of user experience designers has become an important part of a student’s design education. Students are no longer designing projects from intuition, thinking purely aesthetically, but basing decisions on user research, personas, and competitive analyses.
The traditional critique — where a dozen students’ work is pinned to a wall or projected on the screen — is not a forum set up for a rigorous dissection of userflows and audience development. Due to time constraints and formats, critiques can still often devolve into aesthetic judgement with prescriptive feedback about cleaning up hover states or removing your widows.
What’s more: how can students test applications, interfaces, and digital experiences designed for specific audiences who are not themselves? The level of testing, research, and prototyping to capability speak about specific audiences is almost impossible in a one-semester class. (Not to mention sharing this knowledge with every other student in the room; those who will be critiquing you.)
When I think about the critiques I was in as a student, I’m embarrassed by myself. I talked too much, both about my own work and the work of my peers. I used it to show off; to reference the obscure designers I knew (who, now I realize were not obscure at all) or defend my design decisions. I took feedback well but I was also confident in my decisions. I was too prescriptive in the feedback I gave.
Critique should not be a performance. One person should not dominate the discussion, even if that person is the professor. Especially the professor, actually. Critique should be a conversation; a place for students to not simply make their work stronger but also to learn. To learn about how to talk about the work, both theirs and others; to learn about process, iteration, revision.
No one should ever leave a critique thinking their work is perfect. No one should ever leave a critique in tears.
“You need to know the rules before you can break the rules.” This is the phrase my own professors used when I was a student, immediately labeling one type of work as “correct” while everything else as “experimental”. This is a hold over from the modernist/post-modernist debates of the nineties. The modernists, here, are correct and the post-modernists are the rule-breakers.
But why? Says who? Why is using a grid a rule? Who decided only 2-3 typefaces in a composition is correct number? Whitespace is great, but is it really a rule? Does every interface need to be as simple as possible? These “rules” are not rules. Graphic design is not math. They are but one solution of a wide range of possible solutions.
Salesses writes: “The argument that one should know the rules before breaking them is really an argument about who gets to make the rules, whose rules get to be the norms, and determine the exceptions.”
Given that it is no longer possible for us to agree on criteria for aesthetic valuation and judgement in an era when postcolonial and feminist critiques have put into question the historical foundations and master narratives on which valuation and judgement depend, it would be prudent to take the contingency of one’s position as a given and use the framework of critique to reveal and examine the assumptions that underlie the creation and reception of artwork. A critique of this kind would arguably take on a meta-critical register in which critics and artists don’t simply engage in a discussion of the artwork in question, but also address the structures of power and judgement that frame the discussion at hand.
To make space for deeper discussions of students work — encouraging plurality, diversity, and rigorous discussion, we need to rethink the formats in which we organize critique. The pandemic, as classes moved online, forced a rethinking of these formats as everyone pinning work to the wall was no longer sufficient.
My friend Mitch has experimented extensively in his design classes. He rarely conducts full-class critiques anymore. Instead, he varies how students critique each other so they can get different types of feedback at different points in the process. One method that he calls “speed-date critiques” pairs the class into small groups for quick 10 minute discussions with each other. Influenced by the pandemic, he’s implemented silent critiques where students write feedback to each other, either on post-it notes in class or collaboratively in a Google Doc or Miro Board.
I’ve tried experimenting with these methods over the years too. I first experienced a speed-date critique in graduate school and immediately began implementing it in the classes I taught. Most students seem to prefer this. It can be more tiring — students present their work dozens of times as opposed to just once — but they get more focused feedback, notice patterns in what others are responding to, and get to give feedback in a quieter setting. In a speed-date critique, no one goes unnoticed, everyone gets the same amount of time, and everyone has to participate. Last semester, I tried written critiques for the first time and a few students said it was the most helpful critique they’d had in class so far.
Over the pandemic, I had students in small groups meet in Zoom breakout rooms, without me there. I didn’t check in on them so they had 10 minutes intervals to meet with other students and could talk about whatever they wanted. This turned out much better than expected. Work clearly improved and the class felt more communal despite being distributed around the world. It also removed me from the equation. Students could no longer make decisions based on what they thought I wanted to see. It was up to them to sort through the feedback and refine the work.
“To work towards undoing this hierarchy is to create a situation that is much more unsettling—indeed, it can be a harsh awakening, opening up a radical space of uncertainty and vulnerability,” wrote Leslie Dick in an essay for X-TRA. “There are times in the critique when we want to make specific suggestions to the artist, or to make an evaluation. In this context, however, we are invested in the critical conversation, allowing complexity and contradiction through multiple voices, and so we put aside this advice for another time.”
At Cranbrook, artist-in-residence Elliott Earls has spent the last three decades thinking about critique in a design context. The critiques in that program are notorious for their theoretical rigor yet open-hearted approach. Students write critiques of each other that are read aloud in a group setting. Prescriptive feedback is avoided in favor of understanding the designer’s intentions and goals. In this way, it’s similar to a writers workshops.
Earls has documented this many times over on his Youtube channel Studio Practice. “The meaning of the work should have actual material evidence in the work itself” he says in one video. In other words: what the work is saying should be manifest in how its saying it. Or as Dick writes: “We engage the work on its terms by figuring out what those terms might be, and the work has to give us cues and clues, the instruments through which we engage it. It provides us with built-in affordances, handles to grasp, sequences to follow.”
I’ve talked to my own students about this method: of discovering the work’s own internal logic and speaking to that. This helps with mitigating personal preference or prescriptive feedback in that we first need to understand the goals of the designer. Only after understanding that, can we critique the work.
What if the student led their own critique, posing a series of questions to the class they wanted answered? What if students could only offer questions to the person whose work they are reviewing? What if feedback was only written? What if you could only respond to certain prompts? What if you had a week to review your classmates’ work? What if critiques only happened spontaneously, impromptu, when feedback was needed? What if they were a surprise? What if there was no critique? What if there was only critique?
I keep a running, active Google Doc with notes on critique: methods, tips, suggestions. I share this with my students each semester so they know where I’m coming from and what I hope they get from critique. Maybe it’ll be helpful for you to?
Design is made of dialogue; between designer and client, client and customer, designer and user, object and context, language and audience, audience and environment. Critique should embody all of these dialogues. (Critique, of course, is another dialogue.) In Craft in the Real World, Salesses is arguing for a more generative critique, one that is more conversational to make space for different kinds of work, different kinds of readers, and different kinds of writers.
The wonder of design is that it lives in the world, never in isolation. Critique must never fail to account for how this work will be received in the real world, outside the four walls of the classroom. We must not assume that every student in the classroom is coming with the same assumptions, cultural references, baggage, and understanding of the world. We must not assume that the work they make will live in the world in the same way. We must not assume that there is always only one solution to a design problem. We must not assume that design is always solving a problem. We must not assume we are always the audience. We must not assume the old rules of a previous generation still apply today. We must not assume that the teacher has better insights than anyone else in the classroom. We must not assume that critique is always right. We must not assume the critique is still the best method for evaluating work.
We must not assume that underlining your text is bad. Word documents are designed too. My classmate kept them in the posters.