The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

It's Not Working For Me: #crit

– May 10th, 2012 –

“What we have is bricks. I don’t see a house, yet.”

Don Draper

I started ‘formal’ art and design training when I was about fourteen years old. I took Art as an option at secondary school and progressed to an exam when I was sixteen. For some reason, I then decided I wanted to be a Forensic Scientist and pursued the sciences as a route to doing that. Big mistake. I failed, and went back to Art and Design for the next 7 years; ending up with a degree in typographic design.

In the middle of all that time, I did a one year course called ‘Art Foundation’; a gateway course into University. I went to a good school to do this: one which had a long, traditional history in Fine Art. As part of the course, we were given an project to do over the preceding summer. This was a ‘reinterpretation’ project: taking a familiar work of art and recreating it. I chose to repaint the Madonna dal collo lungo by Italian painter Parmigianino but to recreate it in post-impressionist style similar to Paul Gauguin. I toiled over this painting all summer using oils and just a palette knife. It stood a little over three feet high and in parts was over a centimetre thick in paint. It was a labour of love.

The day came when I started the new course: a Monday in September. It was sunny in Stockport, and my Dad had given me a lift to the college with the painting stuffed in the back of the car. I was nervous. In fact, I felt a little sick.

The intake that year was about sixty five students or so. All of us were of a certain standard as we’d had to be interviewed and accepted onto the course, but standing there I felt crippled by self-doubt. Pinning my painting on The Wall, the lecturers proceeded in walking the length of the wall observing the work like a doctor quietly observes sick patients in a hospital ward. And, as it turned out, the prognosis wasn’t good.

“Hello everyone. Welcome to Stockport Foundation Course.” Said the head lecturer.

“Please come and collect the work you’ve just put up and throw it away.”

You can imagine the looks on our faces. Thousands of hours had gone into this work. There were tears, anger, but mostly just disbelief.

“On this course, we want you to unlearn all you’ve done before. It’s crap. We’re not here to teach you how to draw. Or paint. Or sculpt. We’re here to teach you how to look and how to think.”

And with that, we were divided into groups and sent to various rooms to start the course. Every couple of days – extending to every week – all of us got together in a room, stuck our work up and had it ripped apart by the lecturers. It was like bootcamp. People left (about 20% of the intake). People cried every two weeks. But slowly over the weeks and months, we all learnt the Rules. The public critique (crit, for short) had rules and a framework. It wasn’t personal: everything was about the work. We learnt to take harsh, harsh comment from lecturers and peers alike. We learnt not to take things quite so personally. Our defence mechanisms were tempered.

In Work

My first professional job, whilst at University, was an internship with an advertising agency over summer. I worked in the studio learning what it was like to be a junior designer. I worked in the cutting room inhaling way too much Spray Mount. I learnt what it was like to critique work in a professional environment.

Critique at work is different to what I was used to. All through my design education, critique was a discussion: sometimes harsh, sometimes heated, but was always a multi-way thing involving lecturers and my peers on the course. All with the aim of taking the work as far as you could. And in academia, you had time. In a professional setting, time is at a premium: my time, my Creative Director’s and our clients. Time is, quite literally, money.

Professional critique still operated within the rules, though. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t dictatorial: it was about efficiency. I lost count of the amount of times my Creative Director looked over my shoulder and immediately zoned into an element of the content that was causing problems.

“That’s not working”, he would say. Sometimes he’d walk off leaving you to sort it out. Other times, on asking why, he’d sit down and go through the problems with you. Design critique from an experienced designer is efficient, clear and without ego.

Over time, I found my academic critique ‘muscle’ atrophying. I find long debates over whitespace, or interaction patterns, or whatever, quite tedious. In my job, I have to do what my old Creative Director did: identify a problem very quickly and steer the design in the right way. Sometimes suggesting, sometimes telling, but always within the Rules of critique.

Web Designers

There are many designers in our industry who have never attended traditional design school. I feel there is a glass ceiling for people who haven’t, and one of the aspects of that is design critique. Design critique is a learnt skill. It’s something you do within an academic environment where you have the time and the space to learn it without the fear of losing your job.

Many web designers have learnt their craft to an exceptional level but lack the personal contact with an experienced designer who can conduct critique in the right way. Distributed teams are a problem, in this regard: your peers are not available in person to attend a crit. All in all, I feel the web industry is not a place where design critique happens. And it’s because most of us are either out of practice, or haven’t been taught in the first place.

In practice

I feel crits are a place where you can fail without the fear of failure. A place where you can explain your work, debate outcomes, and move the work forward. We do them all the time at Mark Boulton Design. We get a comp, prototype or whatever up on a screen. We stand around and we have a proper design critique. Our work is better for it, and we are too.

I’m finding Twitter a great tool for initiating critique, too, because of the constraints (140 chars), it forces brevity. Brevity that is similar to a busy Creative Director who drops the ‘It’s not working’ bomb. The trick is to understand the tweet in the right content. If it’s framed within The Rules, we know not to take it the wrong way. And this brings me onto just that.

#crit

From now on, when I critique design (or a product or something) on Twitter, I’m going to append the tweet with a #crit hash tag. This means I’m saying this within the rules of critique:

1. Listen: Then talk. Don’t interrupt. Don’t judge. Wait.

2. The Work: It’s not personal, it’s about the work.

3. A Conversation. I want you to explain. It’s the start of a conversation, i’m not dropping a bomb and walking off.

4. It’s Public. The benefit is in a shared conversation. You can’t get this in a book, and with many web designers working in distributed teams, they don’t get from a real person, either.

5. What’s said in the Crit, stays in the Crit: Things can get heated. Feeling can get hurt – it’s human nature where you feel emotionally attached to the work you do – but, it’s important to keep those comments in the framework of the crit. Don’t keep a grudge.

This gives us a framework of understanding. Of course:

“This is SHIT #crit”

is not really in the spirit of the thing.

Not kinder, just better

Snark, ill-feeling, trolling. These are things we see on Twitter every day and they have no place in design critique. Design critique is not a place to be mean, but it’s also not the place to be kind. You’re not critiquing to make friends. Kind designers don’t say what they mean. ‘Kind’ is not about the work, and design critique exists to make us better, but mostly, it’s to make the work better. As soon as you throw words around like ‘bullying’, ‘being mean’ etc you are not critiquing design. You’re being personal and defensive. Let’s stop that.

So please join me in starting proper, considered design critique on the web. If you use the hashtag, I’ll know your intent.

Filed in: design.

Further reading