Design critique is not only a basic method for designers to get feedback and improve the quality of their work, but also a core practice for design teams to collaborate and develop a shared language.
☕ A core practice for design teams
When design teams form, they rarely have an organized way to analyze designs and improve quality together. Even if individual designers have an idea of what good design is, the team will lack the shared vision of what great looks like for the overall experience they create together.
Another common desire for design teams seems to be to improve their collaboration. Designers want this especially when they’re embedded into product teams, as their tasks are less related. They still need to work together on the overall experience and learn from each other, so collaboration seems helpful. (And sometimes it’s just fun for designers spending their whole week with engineers and product managers to get together.)
This is where design critiques shine. Talking about design work in progress helps in improving quality while gives a structured and concrete way to collaborate. Supporting better collaboration and design quality makes it a core practice for maturing design teams.
There are multiple ways to do design critique. What worked for me best is the clear separation between giving feedback to the designer and coming up with ideas. Ideation shouldn’t be part of design critique and should be done somewhere else, as it diverts the attention from the design under consideration.
Critique should be focused on the structured analysis and discussion of design artifacts to describe what parts work and what parts don’t - to help designers learn about their design decisions. This analysis also supports personal growth, as the designers understand their own decisions deeper, rather than just absorbing other people’s ideas.
A typical critique session should start with the designer presenting the context and their work to the group. The group might contain people from other disciplines to have a diversity of opinions. After answering the questions, the group takes time to think about their feedback before sharing it with the presenter. As we talk about analysis, the feedback should be about aspects of the design and describe how design elements support or don’t support the objectives.
This is how design teams start achieving more as a team than individually.
🍪 Things to snack on
The Discussing design book by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry is the single best source to learn about design critiques. They describe in detail the culture around critiques, how critiques are best done both from the giver and receiver side, and how to deal with a challenging situation. My biggest takeaway was how the different types of feedback fail to build a good design culture where the critique succeeds. The Discussing Design - The Art of Critique talk by Adam Connor is a good summary of the topics covered in the book.
When it comes to facilitation critique sessions, Design Critiques: Encourage a Positive Culture to Improve Products by Sarah Gibbons gives a few great tips. Sharing the feedback in round-robin work makes sure everyone has time to share their most important feedback while taking transparent notes improves the overall impact of the session.
Even when writing feedback in a structured way, critique should remain respectful to create a safe environment. P-rules by Andrew Bosworth is a great list of rules (or more like guidelines) on how to achieve this. I find myself thinking often about the “No Piling On” rule. Feedback on design critique doesn’t have weight, as prioritization is left to the designer. Repeating the same feedback is not helpful.
Staying respectful is so important, that in some teams it might be a good idea to make things more explicit as Atul Handa describes in Design Critiques: Setting Some Ground Rules. Rules for both giving and receiving feedback can be set by team leaders. The R-rules described (respect, responsibility, right intention, reflection) work well with the P-rules too.
Getting into the right mindset when asking for critique is fundamental as Jon Kolko writes in Do you want critique, or a hug? How to gain valuable criticism on your design. The point of doing a design critique is not for the designer to explain design decisions (there are other sessions for that such as design reviews) but to take a step back, understand choices made, and to learn.
Setting the Foundation for Meaningful Critiques: Goals, Principles, Personas and Scenarios is a great way to set the right context for a critique that leads to the right impact. Aron Connor writes about personas and scenarios from the background while goals answer the what and principles answer the how. These should give enough context for critique givers for analysis.
Design critiques at Figma by Noah Levin lists different formats for design critiques. Besides the standard everyone-in-one-room, there are also jams, pair design, silent critique, paper print-out, and FYI. Varying methods help in keeping things fresh and matching the right format to the right design.