Making creative work like logos, websites, illustrations or pieces of writing often requires the input of others. While art and design can be a personal process to the creator, in a practical, applied art setting we need to be able to formalize this ethereal process as much as we can so that it can be relied upon as a business or service. You can’t really tell a client you have no estimated delivery time for a logo because you’re just waiting for inspiration to strike!

While all creatives have their own personal processes for reliably drawing from their creativity for work, there is one other extremely powerful tool we have that can make any creative work more reliable, refined and appealing: critique.

Giving critique is a specific skill, and it isn’t as simple as just pointing out what you like and don’t like about something. However, unless you’ve spent a lot of time at art school or working in a collaborative creative environment, it can be hard to understand how to realize the full potential of critique. At Muse, we think everyone should be able to be a part of this process!

So, whether you’re a fellow creative working at an agency and wanting to level-up your collaborative feedback, or a client of a creative who wants to draw the most out of your investment in your project or brand, we thought we’d put together a brief overview of what critique is (and is not) and how you can improve your own ability at applying it to your next creative project.

What is Critique?

For the sake of specificity and utility, we’ll refer to critique as the process of giving feedback on creative work with the goal of iterating and improving on it. That last bit is key: critique is about improving the work that you’re giving feedback on. That improvement can come from a million different angles, but the aim is always at building on the work that has been presented by collaborating and sharing ideas. A lot of things that might fall under our understanding of the word criticism are not actually helpful critique.

When we think of critique, it’s helpful to think of it as a step in the creative process. Let’s take something like developing an illustration as an example. An illustrator working totally independently might start with a simple thumbnail sketch, then refine that sketch into a clean pencil drawing, then ink the lines using a pen and finally colour the image digitally. We can add critique to that process by just slotting it in between some of those steps! After thumbnailing, we can take the thumbnails to someone else for feedback, and use that feedback when we make a pencil drawing. That drawing can then receive more feedback before moving on to ink. The key thing here is that the critique is a part of the process and actually helps move the work forward – it doesn’t push things back to square one.

In summary: critique is meant to help build up, not to tear down.

How to give critique

There is one key idea that, if you can internalize and remember any time you’re giving someone feedback, will strengthen your critique every time. To understand that idea, let’s look at two examples.

Let’s say we’re critiquing a layout for a website homepage. Two people in the meeting each give their impressions of the layout to the designer so they can move ahead with development.

  • Person one says:

“I really love this! Everything is a lot of fun. The bottom of the page is doing something weird, though. Maybe that’s just me?

  • Person two says:

“This is working quite well. The hierarchy of information is nicely planned and the font compliments the brand well. The bottom of the page has a very different visual style, though, which breaks from the rest of the page’s aesthetic. I would change that area to be more complimentary to the rest of the design.”

Obviously, this is a bit of an exaggerated example, but the key difference between these two responses isn’t the verbosity of one over the other. Person one is vague when they say the work is “fun” or that they see “something weird” in the design. This leaves the designer wondering how to interpret that feeling before they can do anything about it. Person one finishes by questioning their own critique, which isn’t ideal, either. Most importantly, though, nothing in their critique is directly actionable.

Remember that the point of critique is to be a part of the creative process. It is a step forward in developing creative work, and so it needs to provide insight or ideas that can push the work in the right direction – there needs to be action that could be taken based on the feedback.

Now, with actionable feedback in mind, if we look at person two’s comment we see why it is stronger as a helpful critique. Highlighting actual elements of the piece that are working as intended can help the designer know to apply that thinking similarly in the rest of the website. Identifying the bottom of the design as being incongruent from the rest of the design is more tangible than saying things like “it feels off” or “isn’t working” – it clues the designer in on how to fix things. Recommending a step forward is the pinnacle of actionable feedback – you’re recommending an action to take to improve the work!

So, next time you give someone feedback, keep in mind whether or not what you’re saying is actionable to help guide you in the direction of more useful critique!

Remember the stages of the process

Another thing to remember when you give feedback is that critique is part of the process. Nothing is created in a vacuum in creative industries. Everything follows specific steps and goes through rounds of approvals. That means that you should try to tailor your feedback to the stage of the process that the work is in. There’s no point in saying anything about colours when someone is presenting pencil sketches to you (we aren’t there yet!) Similarly, you shouldn’t start presenting brand new takes on iconography during the final stages of developing a logo (we’ve already gone through that! We aren’t there anymore).

To really level-up your critique, be sure it is helpful for the stage the work is in and is relevant to the kind of feedback the artist is looking for!

 

Language to avoid

Here are a few terms and phrases that come up a lot in feedback sessions. Think about hearing them as feedback on your own work and try to interpret how you’d move forward and apply that critique to your work.

  • This is bad
  • I like it so much!
  • I think it’s missing something…
  • This doesn’t “do” anything for me
  • Something about this is really interesting to me
  • Wow!

Some of this feedback is positive, some of it is negative, but none of it is actionable. And so, on their own, these comments aren’t really useful.

You can still say you like it

One last thing to note: you can still say “I like this!” during a critique! The point of this article isn’t to suck all the fun out of collaborating on creative projects. Being wowed by someone’s work and wanting to tell them how much it moves you is usually going to go over well. The point, though, is that if that is all you say, the person looking for feedback won’t actually be getting any help to move forward.

Similarly, if you react extremely negatively to something, you might not be able to help yourself from expressing that. But saying “this looks bad” is just as inactionable as saying “this looks good!” No one wants to make something that looks bad, and you’re probably upset because it matters to you, so add some actionable feedback to that inactionable reaction to help actually improve the work so we can all be happy!

Finally, remember that this is all meant to help you improve your skills at formal critique! In professional settings, we want to make sure we’re being helpful and all working towards achieving our collective goals. You don’t necessarily need to apply this same logic to giving your child feedback on their finger paintings or on giving your neighbour feedback on their new haircut. Sometimes “I like it!” is enough.

Note: Simon Peng has extensive experience in critique. As a graduate of Mohawk College’s Animation program and OCAD University’s Illustration program, and as a teacher for Mohawk’s Graphic Design program, he’s been on both ends of the critique process. A lot. Our team really benefited from Simon’s knowledge in this area. We are pleased to be able to share it with you. Thanks Simon! ~The Muse Team

P.S. He also created the animations for the article. We’re sure he would love your feedback 😉