Improving your crits
I  N  T  E  R  A  C  T  I  V  E    D  E  S  I  G  N    F  O  R  U  M 
Issue 6   |   December 1999 


It worked for me:
Raising a critique from the dead

Tag, teams, and "The List"


Book review
The Education of an E-Designer
by Steven Heller



5 tips for better critiques

1) State the obvious (it may not be)
If you want students to take part, they need to know what to talk about. Are you critiquing formal design properties or overall visual impact? Concept or technique? Process or final product?

Spend about 10 minutes at the start of class discussing these questions to get things rolling. I ask for ideas and write them on the board, regardless of what they are. At this stage we're simply thinking about anything and everything we might want to talk about.

Then we go over the list item by item and decide which are MOST important. I circle or underline these half-dozen or so ideas. Then, most importantly, I leave the list on the board so we can continually refer back to it to keep the discussion on track.

2) Level the playing field
Critiques can be stressful for students. A "pecking order" usually develops, with the best work getting lots of comments while other students get little or no feedback about their work.

One solution is to announce at the start of class that you will spend the same amount of time, say 10 minutes, talking about each piece of work. You can occasionally allow things to run longer when you feel it's important, but students seem to appreciate knowing that everyone will get an equal time in the spotlight (for better or worse).

3) Lay down the law
Set up rules/guidelines for discussion, then stick to them. You have to be a timekeeper and moderator. When the conversation starts to stray, point to the discussion points on the board to bring it back in line.

To counteract the natural tendency to be defensive, I tell students to make no response to comments while their work is being discussed other than to ask for clarification if they don't understand a particular remark. I frequently have to remind them NOT to react, but to simply hear out the comments. Then, at the end of their time period I ask each student to respond to the comments.

4) Keep your mouth shut
This is the hardest part, but most students clam up once the instructor starts talking. If you want to know what they think, try saying "OK, i'm going to sit down and listen. You discuss the work." Then sit down and listen.

Your input is valuable (and valued by the students). Simply wait until the end to make your comments. I always try to refer to specific remarks made by students. This lets them know that you're taking their input seriously, as you should.

5) Say thank you, please.
Let the class know that you appreciate their energy and participation. It's a simple courtesy that pays off in terms of more and better discussion next time.

Raising a critique from the dead.
After one particularly lifeless critique with my Typography 2 class at Herron School of Art, I went home re-evaluating my career choices. The class had been painfully dull. No one had anything to say. There was no emotion, no fun, no life at all. I had been the only one talking, and I got tired of hearing my own voice.

For the next critique I decided that i'd try something different, anything to make it more fun. Neither the students nor I deserved to sit through another energy-draining ordeal like the last one.

I went to the supply cabinet and found a box of colored thumbtacks. When students came into the room I asked them to put their work up on the board and to take four tacks: red, yellow, blue and white.

When everyone's work was on the board, I told the class to each pick two pieces that at first glance caught their attention, and to mark their first choice by sticking a red tack next to it and their second choice with a yellow.

While they were milling around and talking at the front of the room, I asked them to study each piece carefully, reading the copy and looking at the design. After this closer look they again each marked the most effective piece (blue tack) and second-most effective (white tack).

The results were there in living color: clusters of tacks showed the work students thought was successful.

The discussion flowed easily from this: similarities and differences between first-glance choices (red & yellow) and second-look choices (blue & white). Why some work got lots of red AND blue tacks, why others got only red OR blue. And so on.

The combination of activity (milling around, sticking in tacks), anonymity (everyone's opinion counted, but no one had to publicly state it), and voting (we like comparing our opinions with others, that's why "Top 10" lists are so popular) made for a lively class that I enjoyed as much as the students did.

It worked for me. What about you?
Send in an idea or technique you use in your critiques and we'll share them with others in this space.


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