You know so many times I have come across critiquing sessions and walked away utterly frustrated at how ineffective they would have been. What really would upset me is the sheer lack of depth of knowledge regarding the subject matter and the shallow nature of some of the comments. I have often wanted to scratch my eyes as I hear statements like, “Dope,” or “lit” or “it’s a no from me.” I would then have to resist the temptation to critique the critique. But crit sessions need to be meaningful. So today we’re going to look at how to critique like a pro. So grab that red pen. It’s CRUNCHTIME!
Before we get into it we need to understand a few statements that often get bandied about. We want get the semantics out of the way so that we make sure we’re speaking the same language. Often when approached with these sessions there are many that use the term criticism. While this term isn’t entirely incorrect it gives the impression of an angry mob throwing rotten fruits and vegetables at some poor prisoner. And that is often the turn that a lot of “criticism” sessions take as everyone tries their hand at being Simon Cowell, scraping up the dregs at the bottom of their shallow minds as they search for the most soul-searing insult they can hurl at their unfortunate target. The problem we experience is that the poor soul that was the target of everyone’s fiery judgement walks away with as much information after the process as he began it with.
The term that I prefer to use is evaluation. Evaluation, by definition, is the process of ascertaining value in anything. With this in mind you are then compelled to follow a more balanced approach, beyond your simple likes and dislikes. Also, you cannot determine value without being compelled to find ways to increase said value. So with that, let’s crack on.
As it says in the title, we are going to liken evaluation to a sandwich. Anyone who has had a good sandwich, or burger, knows that it has to have a bottom slice or bun which serves as the base, filling which is what you really need to eat, garnish or some sort to add texture and substance to the sandwich and a top slice or bun top it all off. Anyone who has had a half decent sandwich will know that leaving out any of those elements can legit ruin your saamie experience. Buns without filling are bland, dry and tasteless. Filling without buns are just a right royal mess. And a sandwich without sauce or some type of garnish just robs the sandwich of any character and personality and leaves it rather generic and by the numbers.
So the order has to be bun, sauce, filling, garnish then bun. Now that we’ve sorted that out we can begin.
First Bun – The Positives
It’s always good to start any crit by identifying and pointing the positives on the artwork. Not only does it set the tone but it also fertilizes the ground for the creative to better receive advice. If you come out guns blazing the creative will retreat to a defensive stance. An argument will ensue and the creative will leave with as much information as he started with. So by starting with the positives you give the creative a starting point that he can build from. It also helps you to be more objective and balanced in your approach.
Sauce – Context
It helps to understand the context of any design or artwork. What was the intended message? Who was it for? What’s the back story of the artwork? Just like sauce works with the filling to affect the flavour of the burger so too does context work with your evaluation to affect the overall effectiveness of your crit. We have learnt in language that the right words taken in the wrong context lead to misunderstandings. It is no different here. This then means that what works in one context does not necessarily work in another. So it becomes important to understand the context before you extend what cannot be retracted in your crit.
Filling – Evaluating the Execution
This is the meaty part (or pulpy part for the Vegans) of the crit. Platitudes and pleasantries are placed to the side and now you objectively evaluate how well the concept was executed. Pretty and ugly doesn’t factor in. Like and dislike shouldn’t factor in. What factors most is effective or ineffective. With your understanding of the context now you can see how well the message was framed. You look at whether the message actually was directed at the intended target audience. For you to be sure you’re being impartial and objective it is wiser to crit with design principles in mind, not style preference. Why would that be a problem, you ask? I mean you have your finger on the pulse. You know all the latest trends. Surely an affinity for a certain trend or style wouldn’t affect your evaluation. Let me put it to you this way:
Growing up I have always known cake to be sweet. I had tried all manner of cakes in my life. Chocolate cake, scones, vanilla cake, queen cakes, black forest, red velvet, wedding fruit cake, banana bread, Madeira loaf, carrot cake and a whole myriad of tooth drilling treats have been sampled in my short time on this planet. All of them were sweet. One day I had the opportunity to sample cheese cake. When it came to appearance it looked exactly like all the other cakes that I’ve tasted before. As I cut myself a piece I wondered how sweet the cheese cake would be. When I bit into it, much to my dismay, it was not evenly remotely sweet. I didn’t make it past that first bite. And so traumatic was my experience that I can’t bring myself to try cheesecake again. Was the cake bad? Probably not. But what tainted my evaluation? It was the expectation.
Evaluating on preference is like comparing the taste of every cake to the taste of your favourite cake, with varying and often disappointing results. Evaluating on principle is like having a favourite cake but still recognizing whether the cake was baked properly or not and whether it tastes the way it should or not.
So when you’re evaluating the work and looking at what can be done better, speak in principles. Look at the colours and their compatibility. Look at the psychological effect of those colours in relation to the target market. Read the copy and rate it in relation to the intended message. Look at the hierarchy, the balance, contrast and legibility. Look at the relevance of the illustration to the message. Look at the literal, parabolic and subliminal messaging. Was all that done well or not? Is the whole composition effective in fulfilling the objectives of the work or not?
Remember to use more technical language and less language laced with any emotional attachment or aversion.
The Garnish – Personal Thoughts and Preferences
After going into great detail adding the meat (or pulp for the Vegans) you can add a few anecdotes about aspects of the design that spoke to your personal proclivities. Now you can bring up your style preference but at least you’re not making it the fulcrum and pith (get it?) of your discussion.
The Top Bun – Recommendations
It’s important to remember that the purpose of the crit session is so that the design and designer can improve. So after you have reduced to the design, and the designer to some extent, to its lowest terms you now need to make suggestions on how to rebuild it to make it do what it was supposed to do in the first place. Think of it like being a doctor. Once you identify that the patient is ill and what ails them, your job is incomplete until you prescribe some form of treatment so that the patient is cured of their ills and overcomes what ails them.
So here you prescribe suggestions on what will make the design better. It helps to focus on providing solutions to the aspects you felt needed help. If you felt the colours were wrong, suggest better colours. If you felt the copy wasn’t perfect, suggest ways to perfect it. Even if you think that the design is an irreparable mess and the creative has to start again, suggest the direction he should follow when he starts again. Applying those changes will help the creative improve the design and the creative as well.
And that is our sandwich.
Just as nobody appreciates a bland or messy or generic sandwich, nobody appreciates a crit that has been starved of its core ingredients.
Often times people think that they will be revered more for how much sharper their darts are or how much deeper they can cut to the heart of the creative. Many of them use the excuse that they went through the same and that’s how you grow. That’s not really true. You grow by filling a space that’s opened in front of you. A proper, well-structured crit opens spaces in the mind of the creative, space that he can now grow into as he takes note of the points raised and especially as he applies the recommendations made. So if you find yourself in a crit session and your input is required, please remember that you’re being asked to help somebody grow. If all else fails, just remember this one very important fact – the more offensive the crit the more limited the knowledge of the person giving it. Quote me on that! This has been CRUNCHTIME. See y’all next time.