On Criticism

When I was getting started in my first job as a creative professional, I told my manager that I needed him to criticize me. If I was doing something that didn’t align with the ethos, mission, or structure of the organization, I needed him to let me know as soon as he could. I did this not because I was a glutton for hearing how poorly I performed my duties, but because I wanted to improve. Chances were that the decisions I made and the actions I took were what I felt were the best option. If they were indeed the best option, then great. But if they weren’t, I wanted to know so that I could improve the next time around.

I grew a lot both as a creative professional and as a leader in my year in this position. I was grateful to have established a solid friendship with my superior, one that was based entirely on trust and honesty and one which I still cherish to this day. When my friend had to address an issue he saw in my performance, I never felt any judgement about my character or worth as a person. It was strictly a criticism of my performance, given with more grace and humility than one could ask for in a person in a superior role.

As I moved into the design industry, I gave the same instruction to the owner of the studio I started at. If I had any chance at growing in my craft, I would need complete honesty when it came to the critique of my work.

Since leaving the studio this past May to go out on my own, I have had to find and build relationships with other designers whom I respect. Every once in a while I will email one of these people a design I am working on, and feedback will vary from “this looks great” to an itemized list of suggestions for improvements.

The key element in any of these relationships is trust. I trust each of these people to be honest with me. I respect who they are as professionals and as people.

Criticism in Product Development

Criticism is an important element of design. In order to effectively define a strategy, solve a problem, or build a product, one has to be able to criticize decisions made at various stages of the project. As John Siracusa wrote a year ago, the real talent that Steve Jobs has is that of a critic.

He is Apple’s [critic]: one man to pare a torrent of creativity and expertise down to a handful of truly great products by picking apart every prototype, challenging every idea, and finding the flaws that no one else can see.

The reason Jobs can act as the head curator of what Apple produces? He’s in charge, yes, but most importantly he has a track record of producing great products. There is no way the engineers and designers of Apple would subject themselves to Jobs’s scrutiny if it weren’t for their profound trust in his ability to criticize effectively.

A Sour Attitude

Which brings me to several incidents that have taken place in the design industry over the past year or so.1 Starting with Dustin Curtis’s redesign of the homepage of American Airlines’ website, then progressing to the redesign of the Zappos homepage by Metalab Design, and most recently a redesign of the Instagram iPhone app by Tapmates, the trend of publicly criticizing the design work of others seems to have taken a nasty turn. What these designers have done is taken the work of an organization and, completely ignoring the research, strategy, or thought that went into the original designs, maligned not only the design itself but the people behind each individual design.

The issue here isn’t that the targets of these attacks aren’t deserving of criticism. Even beacons of good design such as Apple, Braun, or BMW are not guarded from public scrutiny. The issue with the aforementioned situations is the attitude that each of the antagonists took in their criticisms: “we are smarter/hipper/cooler than you, therefore what you know is of little to no value.”

On The Other Hand

In comparison, Andy Rutledge has, on numerous occasions, brought to light the design problems of other websites. He has called out giants like Amazon, eBay, Google, and even the White House. He compared the colour palette of the Wall Street Journal’s website to that of a “third grade art project.”

The difference in Andy’s approach to that of those designers mentioned above is that Andy doesn’t simply write off the entire design each of these organizations have produced and replaced it with a totally different design. Instead, Andy goes in depth to explain why certain design decisions should have been made differently. He takes great pain in pointing out the details of the design, explaining in technical detail why certain decisions are wrong and why others are right.

The biggest difference, though, is that Andy approaches these criticisms with respect and humility. As far as I can tell, he does not malign the companies he has offered criticism to. His intention is educate, not humiliate.

A Redux of Design Criticism

I don’t for a second believe that we should stop criticizing the work of others. Holding up our own and each other’s work to a higher standard is important to the further development of our craft. What I don’t believe needs to be a part the process, however, is an attitude of superiority. We should seek to lift one another up, not drag one another down.

  1. As Wilson Miner pointed out, the act of producing “unsolicited redesigns” or voluntary spec work has been around much longer than the web. I, however, can only pull from those incidents I have witnessed personally.
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