Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Criticism: Myths and Childishness

April 23, 2008

Regular readers of my articles know that I have no qualms or fear of offering criticism. Criticism is a vital component in what we do and in how we learn. In fact, critical evaluation is mandatory in design work. Without approaching, or at least finishing, every step of our work with a critical eye the results are likely worthless. And we’ve much to learn from what design criticism can teach us. Yet the more articles and criticism responses I read, the more I’m led to believe that too many designers misunderstand criticism.

Actually, this belief is not newfound. My disappointment and frustration at misapplied criticism and misinterpreted critical analysis is long-standing. Before being a member of the Web design profession I was an active member of a worldwide artistic community in which most Western participants, mostly amateurs, had a flawed understanding of criticism and qualitative discrimination. So I am sensitive to this sort of distorted view.

I thought, though that because of the somewhat (yet not thoroughly) professional nature of our community, these juvenile and shallow ideas would be less prevalent among designers. I was wrong; or at least it apears so. So here I want to try and penetrate the inane fog of relativism and the armor of ignorance that too many designers wrap themselves in. In this article I’ll be taking aim at the vacuous notion that design criticism is inherently unfair or harsh or negative. These ideas are based on flawed ideals and shallow thinking, and need to be corrected.

I won’t pussyfoot around issues or waste time by trying to be delicate. What I’m offering here is, unapologetically, a jagged pill. Criticism, one might say.

A few inconvenient facts

Here is a list of facts that too many designers disavow or pretend don’t exist.

I’m not sure what’s going on in design school these days, but it is certain that too few designers learn these facts. Fewer still are mindful of these facts when they read or hear design criticism—and, especially, when design criticism is offered with regard to their own work. Surely, there are several factors contributing to this sad state of affairs, but my experience and observation shows that 2 factors are largely responsible.

The first is a simple lack of skill and understanding of the craft. It is only logical that if one lacks understanding of what constitutes quality or what constitutes effective design in a certain context, shallow thinking will define and color every related evaluation. A designer out of his depth will find all manner of evaluations threatening and unfair.

Ignorance and shallow-mindedness aside, the most often employed mechanism for arguing against the facts listed above is relativism. You must guard against relativism, for it will render your every idea and opinion about qualitative discrimination worthless. Those who hold with relativism have nothing of value to contribute to any debate over quality or standards. Additionally, they are ill-equipped to work in the design profession (but apparently that doesn’t stop them).

Note that if either or both of these factors describe you, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad or worthless person or that you’ve no hope as a designer. It means that you have some deficiencies and detrimental qualities that you should work to correct. So stop screwing around and get busy doing so.

Only results matter

If you’re a designer, get it straight right now: it doesn’t matter how much work you put into it or how much you wanted to do a good job or how much cool collaboration you experienced on the project or how silly the client’s constraints were or how poor the working conditions are at work. It is only the results of your work that matter. Ever. Period.

“He” or “she” is not often a word used in responsible criticism. Rather, we have only a design to reference; only a design result that works or that does not work well. The results speak for themselves. There is no exception to this fact.

I read a recently published article where the author took issue with someone’s criticism of a few websites, saying that it was unfair to judge the quality of the design because the critic didn’t know what constraints or pressures the designer was under. In other words, the author believed that excuses, which had nothing to do with the quality of the result, somehow mattered and mitigated what was otherwise a poor design. Excrement.

Excuses don’t cut it. Only excellent design does. All the good intentions in the world aren’t going to help XYZ Corp. realize its retail goals or help site visitors successfully navigate if the design result is poor. Excuses are non sequiturs and wholly irrelevant to the criticism, but apparently many of us miss or simply can’t understand this fact. Again, relativism has no place in design, in our society, or even our world for that matter.

A couple years back I criticized the kludgy markup of an otherwise very cool and visually well-designed designer’s blog. I soon received an email from the guy who built the site, in which he offered a great many excuses for the work. Over the next few email exchanges his thesis was that in light of these excuses, my criticisms were unjustified. He asked for a retraction. Now, this guy is a top professional who is a principal at one of the top-tier design agencies in the US. …and, apparently, clueless when it comes to quality or criticism.

You see, I never criticized him. “He” or “she” is not often a word used in responsible criticism. Rather, we have only a design to reference; only a design result that works or that does not work well. The results speak for themselves. There is no exception to this fact.

I bet you think this song is about you

One lesson to take away here is that design criticism is about THE DESIGN. It’s not about the designer or the agency or the company who owns the site. Design criticism is about the results. Period. Too many people mistake criticism of the result with criticism of the people involved. Many designers lack the capacity or are simply not in the habit of separating the two contexts, and this is due largely to 3 flawed perspectives:

  1. the notion of having poured one’s soul into the work, so this works is me,
  2. the egocentric idea that “it’s all about me!” (and, therefore, criticism is always about people),
  3. the naïve, relativistic idea that standards are not absolute—so you must be talking about me again.

I’ve got news for you: design criticism has nothing to do with you, you childish egotist. It’s about the design. Sorry to burst your bubble.

As an aside, this same tendency afflicts far too many people when they hear or read criticism of certain behaviors or actions or statements. Virtually any time some statement or behavior is criticized, both the target of the criticism and others who hear or read it will somehow distort the facts into it being a criticism of the person.

Design criticism has a purpose. It must, else it is simply trolling or plain meanness. Actually, it can have many purposes, all of them positive.

For instance, if someone admonishes you that your statement was stupid, they did not say you are stupid. The criticism was about your statement (or behavior or action). A smart person can say or do stupid things. It happens all the time, but a stupid statement or act does not mean that the person is stupid. Yet too many of us in such situations let idiotic or shallow thinking or just plain egotism cause us to depart from reality and suddenly become demagogues, behaving as if we’ve been attacked. It requires a certain intellectual dishonesty (or deficiency) to do so.

Likewise, when a competent designer points out flaws in your design work, she’s not saying you’re a bad designer, and you know it. She’s saying that this is a bad design. There is a difference and if you fail or refuse to acknowledge that difference, it’s your problem, not her’s. Childish idiocy benefits no one and reflects very poorly on you. Just stop.

Criticism is negative.  And bad.  And furthermore I do not like it.

…Therefore no one should criticize. If this is an ideal you cleave to, you’ve no business being a designer (or even an adult, for that matter). Please find a different, less crucial, gentler profession. Design is not for you.

Every designer must learn and understand this fact: design criticism is positive, not negative. Design criticism is a helpful lesson; nothing less. When your own ego distorts facts so that you begin to take design criticism personally and you begin to see design criticism as negative, this is a personal flaw that you possess and has nothing to do with reality. In short, your personal problems are no concern of others, especially those working to help you. So do the world a favor and don't put forth ideas that suggest that your own self-pity somehow matters in qualitative evaluation …or anything else, for that matter.

Design criticism has a purpose. It must, else it is simply trolling or plain meanness. Actually, it can have many purposes, all of them positive. Perhaps the most important, positive, and useful purpose of design criticism is as an instructional tool. Few design exercises are as useful and instructive as the critical evaluation of a design result. This is why I’ve expended quite a bit of effort in my design Redux series of articles (archive “Redux” tab at the bottom of the page). We can learn a lot from poor examples, as they provide an excellent springboard into the consideration and determination of better alternatives.

In conclusion

Professional design is big boy and big girl stuff. There’s no room for childish notions or irrelevant sensitivities in professional ranks. Criticism and critical evaluation are what teach us and allow us to do our jobs well. But in order for you to properly evaluate design and design criticism, you must work to ensure that you possess sufficient understanding of your craft and that you do not hold with relativism or other childish notions. As with many things, The Bible has something to say on this matter:

When I was a child I spoke as a child,
I understood as a child, I thought as a child;
but when I became a man I put away childish things.

1 Cor. 13:11

Put away childish things, indeed. If you are a designer and you do not address these issues for yourself, your every effort and opinion regarding design or critical evaluation will embody and reveal your flaws and deficiencies. And that’s no way to go through life.