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The Importance of Critique To Your Creative Work

Critique is a critical part of your creative process. Okay, I intended the pun there.

If you’ve taken a drawing or design class, you’ve had critiques, also known as crits. If you’re self-taught, you may not have critiqued your work, but you’re probably concerned about getting feedback to know where to improve, and where to find that feedback.

Although critique is a normal and necessary part of the design process, it’s common that people don’t like to formally critique someone’s work, and they don’t like to have their own work critiqued. Without understanding the purpose of a crit, we tend to take feedback on our work as personal criticism.

How can we improve upon anything unless we critique? How can we innovate without evaluation and appraisal? How do we establish value in something unless we assess it?Unless we critique, we don’t improve. We don’t get better at anything without honest evaluation and assessment.

As a designer and teacher, I’m continually involved in analysis and evaluation of design and art. I lead crits in my classroom and I critique my own work in my studio. My clients critique my work.

Whether  you consider yourself a beginner or a master, you should be examining the success and shortcomings of your own work.

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What is critique?

Simply, critique is an assessment, appraisal or evaluation of something. When we critique something we’re analyzing it. We do this all the time in the normal course of a day: We critique each other’s driving, fashion style, attitude, favorite movie, political position, religion, job performance, home run average, or house cleaning habits. We express opinions about what is good, better, best, bad, wrong, and ugly.

Students and practicing designers don’t enjoy being critiqued until they understand the benefit. They take it personally, as if it’s them, not the work, being evaluated. Or, they don’t want to be wrong or fall short. Critique becomes a negative experience. As a result, they’re slow to improve.

Comparing critique and criticism

Criticism is often disguised as critique. But they’re not the same thing. There’s a thin line between the two ideas that’s easily crossed. A good instructor or mentor will have a framework for critique so that the designer is encouraged to improve.

Criticism involves disapproval based on perceived or obvious faults and shortcomings. Critique should be objective, honest and useful.

Criticism is subjective and destructive. Its intent is to tear something down. On the other hand, critique tests for weaknesses for the purpose of improvement and excellence.

Criticism accuses; critique edifies.

Critique should be balanced

A proper critique is balanced in focus. The process should not be feared. It should be performed in order to assess what’s right with a work and also where it can be strengthened.

To be useful, a crit should be based on established objective guidelines — in other words, a framework. For a work of design, we look at the work and its outcome on the basis of the intended purpose. We look at how aesthetic principles support the function of the design. We consider how color, balance, rhythm, harmony, spatial relationships and value all work together to enable the design to accomplish its goal. What does it communicate? How is it supposed to be used? What’s the hope-for result?

To critique a work of fine art, we also consider the used of aesthetic principles, but art is more open to interpretation than design. A critique with fine artists is very different in scope and intent than a critique with designers. The conversations are very diverse.

A framework for critique

Critique is an observation and analysis process. A constructive model for a crit of design or illustration includes the following parts:

Purpose. What’s the intention of the creative work. What’s the hoped for result?

In the case of a website design, the purpose might be to promote sales. So we will look at the visual and interactive elements to determine if the design does that effectively.

Content: What are the forms  used in the design? How do they work together? Are they appropriate? Is anything missing? Does something need to be removed?

Communication: Does the work communicate the message (goes back to purpose)? Is is clear? Is it confusing? Does it make sense to the audience it’s targeting?  Is it both readable and legible?

Quality: Is the work crafted well? This involves attention to detail in regard to the content (see above), as well as the craftsmanship. We look at typos, grammar, alignments, visual pathways, points of emphasis, hierarchy, etc.

When I critique, I ask a lot of why questions. Why is this included: Why did you select that color? Why did you put that there? Other questions include: Is this your best idea? Is this your best work?

Critique needs to be objective

To be useful and effective, critique must be objective and honest.

Critique of design, commercial photography, and illustration should not be based on personal opinions. The kind of response that goes, “I think it’s a good design because it reminds me of…” is not an appropriate criteria.

Objective criteria can’t be dismissed by the creator with the excuse that it’s just one person’s opinion and therefore invalid.

When all is said and done, honest feedback is better than warm fuzzy feedback. Critique should be honest, just, and balanced between strengths and weaknesses. It should serve  the designer and empower them to grow into creative maturity and greater success.

Self-critique

If you’ve experienced group crits in a classroom, team or client setting, you have the basis for critiquing  your own work. You should do this during your creative process to ensure you’re on the right track, but especially as you finalize your design. Is your design “solving the problem”? Is is complicated or straightforward? Are you designing based on trend?  Is it communicating what you want it to?

Critiquing  your own work — in progress and finished — helps you remain objective about your work and helps you improve quickly.

Critical practice

Critique is a way into the larger context of critical practice. Watch this video of an analysis of an Edgar Degas drawing. We are all subject to critical practice… the review and assessment of our work. Professional designers, artists, illustrators and photographers are all subject to the reviews of their work by clients, patrons, collectors, and fans.

Critical reviews can encompass historic precedence and influences from past movements and trends, approach (the creator’s point of view), vernacular (using content from a particular culture, sub-culture, region, or group), technology (the impact of medium, tools and techniques) and forecasting the next wave or new directions.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and design director at Alvalyn Creative, an independent practice near Thousand Oaks, California. She creates visual branding, publications and books for business, entrepreneurs and authors. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business roadmap program for creative freelancers. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and digital design needs. Join her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter.

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