I’ll never forget the first day I walked into the office, of which I’m currently working, and noticed that all of the computers were facing outwards in an open room. This caught me a little off guard because up until that moment, all of the workstations I previously had, at past jobs, were privately located in either the corner of a room or divided by some sort of cubicle-esq structure. Now, my monitor is on constant display to anyone who walks by.
This took awhile for me to get used to; not because I wanted to get away with surfing the net all day, but because I knew that everyone who walked by and glanced at my screen would quietly judge the design I was working on. This is inevitable. Even the most respectful person can’t help but to take a peek and conduct a silent critique in their head (or worse, out loud). Everyone has an opinion (as they are entitled), but when it comes to design, opinions aren’t always relevant when they are outside the scope of the project.
I always liked the privacy setups at my past jobs because they gave me the freedom to experiment with ideas that may not seem too appealing at first glance. I think that a lot of good designs stem from a controlled experimentation of thinking way out side the box, so losing that privacy was originally devastating to me. Since then, I’ve come to love the layout of an open floor plan within an office setting. I’ve found that It allows for open communication and lends to the feeling of a great team environment. However, it does not outweigh the issue of unwanted, haphazard critique. This can be deadly to the success of a project. The following fortune cookie message comes to mind: “It only takes one insult to override nine compliments.” It’s true… As human beings we are naturally pessimistic and take passive judgement way harsher than need be. The reason this can have such a negative effect on the outcome of a project is because it is extremely discouraging. As soon as that one person tells you they don’t like what you’ve come up with, it becomes very hard to move forward. I know I’ve personally abandoned many designs that were only halfway developed simply because one person carelessly mentioned they didn’t like it.
Part of my job as a creative director requires me to not only oversee all of the projects that come through the door, but provide direction for them as well. This can sometimes prove to be one of the hardest parts of my job. Often times coworkers will ask for my opinion or direction halfway through a project, and if I haven’t been following the details of the job closely I know my critique will only reflect my personal opinion; and that’s just not good enough. I’m not talking about the mundane design details, but more so the overall aesthetic and information architecture. Good critique requires full understanding and background of a project. If a coworker is asking for an opinion and something immediately stands out as odd, I suggest specifically asking about the purpose behind the treatment, rather then bluntly stating your disapproval. Often times, this response will answer the question within itself. If the design has no real reason for the treatment then it’s possible that the solution serves no purpose and is worth re-evaluating. However, if there is a logical explanation, which reflects something within the scope of the job, it may be relevant after all.
To this day, I try to avoid showing people my work until it’s completely finished. This has obviously become increasingly harder to manage with the current layout of my office. So I’ve come to except that when I’m finally ready to present work to my peers, for legitimate feedback, it won’t be their first time seeing the design. Until your ready to put everything out on the table it’s important to take all passive comments with a grain of salt and not let them distract you from your focus.
Premature critique can go both ways; good and bad. I don’t mean to make it sound like everyone surrounding me has a chip on their shoulder and is looking for any opportunity to attack me, because that’s not the case at all. In fact, most of my peers are very gracious and it is common for someone to walk by, glance at my monitor and say “oh, that looks sweet.” While I enjoy the boost of confidence, this can sometimes lead to complacency which can ultimately keep me from digging deeper. Once you know you’ve reached safe ground, why look further, right?
Either way, the message is fairly simple
If you can’t logically back up any criticism regarding a design, then there’s a good chance that your opinion is exclusively based on personal preference. That said, unless your are included within the exact demographic in which the design is intended for, your opinion is irrelevant and should not be voiced. One of the most important roles of a designer is to be able to design for a wide variety of audiences. One day you might be designing with the goal of appealing to teenagers, while the next day your creating a design that needs to appeal to senior citizens. It’s obvious that each of these designs are going to call for different treatments and there’s a good chance that your going to have to step out of your comfort zone in order to accomplish this. Leaving your designer comfort zone must happen in order to create innovative and unique designs. In most circumstances this means that four out of five experimental designs are bound to fail, and it is of course inevitable that all of the outspoken, opinionated folks surrounding you will just so happen to pass by your desk as your working on the four bogus designs. I suppose this comes with the territory of being in a creative field. The important things to do is grow thick skin and stick to your guns until you have decided for yourself that a design is or is not working. If your peers do continue to give unwanted criticism, feel free to throw the ball back in their court in order to check their motives. If they can’t seem to wrap their words around why it is they like or dislike a design element, then let their opinions roll off your back and keep moving forward.
Just to clarify, I’m not trying to say that criticism is a four letter word. Obtaining constructive feedback from your peers is a crucial part of creating a successful design/product. Often times I hit road blocks with my designs and rely on the input of an unbiased opinion to help me see what I’m missing. When you are so focused on one specific solution, it is easy to overlook the actual problem at hand. Stepping away from your monitor and letting a fresh set of eyes do some investigation will prove to be a major attribute to any project.
Speaking of criticism…
Due to some recent constructive criticism (no sarcasm intended) regarding this site, I have made the decision to allow users to leave public comments on every article published. Since the majority of my articles are based on my experiences as a designer (and are largely open-ended) it only make sense to open up the discussion to others. It’s been great to read the email responses that I’ve received from past articles, and it always intrigues me to hear another persons take on the subject at hand. I’m sure that making all of this back and fourth public will only benefit the cause I’ve finding the best possible solutions to the daily challenges we face as designers. Unfortunately, the decision to allow public commenting was just made today and won’t be ready for the release of this article. However, once this element is implemented, it will be applied to each article; old and new. So don’t hesitate to go back in the archives and speak your voice. As usual, I’m curious to hear how the issue of haphazard criticism effects your personal work environment; even if it has nothing to do with design. Have you found any techniques or tricks that help alleviate this issue? If so, please share.