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Critical Understanding

September 09, 2004

An observation about critiquing work, if you’ll indulge me…

I’m almost convinced that anyone whose critique of a redesign is as substantial as:

“I don’t like the green.”

…is someone who absolutely fails to understand the purpose of web design, and should give up any aspirations in the profession.

And my conviction would be just oh so much more forceful if I weren’t so damned guilty of doing it myself.

(Update: A further explanation of this anecdote is available.)

Reader Comments

David says:
September 09, 05h

Care to indulge *us* with a little bit of context?

September 09, 05h

Haha. That halarious!

September 09, 05h

Was that all they said, or is that an excerpt?

It is interesting how what we hate about others actions is often the root of our own.

September 09, 06h

That’s bad, but not so bad as people critcising design for backend decisions. When I switched my blog from my own platform across to WordPress, I made my life easier, could do more with my blog, and had a better design. That isn’t my opinion, it was the stated opinion of other people until they realised it was WordPress.

At that point, the response became far less positive.

Having said that, I’m guilty of lack of verbosity in feedback, too… something I think we all need to work on!

September 09, 06h

I think the key to ANY successful critique is justification. Especially in design.

Like, I don’t like that shade of green because it’s a little too close to the colour of vomit.

And there should be a law that says that a client cannot say they dislike the colour until they’ve shown it to 20 people and at least 50% say they don’t like it. :)

Dave S. says:
September 09, 06h

“I think the key to ANY successful critique is justification.”


(and, there is no further context — this is, as stated, an observation)

September 09, 06h

Since we’re on the topic I don’t like the blue on your site. Why couldn’t you have named it mezzogreen or something?

Just kidding…..

But I do believe that a lot of people maybe trying to be helpful, but they don’t know how to elaborate on their ideas. Or maybe they just want to comment so they can get a link back from your site (since you are pretty popular).

P.S. I think your site is great and I’ve found some really useful information here.

September 09, 07h

Of course, the flip-side of a useless comment like “I don’t like that green” is when the statement has no justification other than the person *HAS* to find something to complain about. After all, we can’t be perfect… we can’t get the whole thing right the first time… that would be just too… perfect.

September 09, 07h

I would venture that one of the reasons we have trouble evaluating a design may very well be because the colour is too distracting, and keeps us from making the comments you need to hear. Consider the experiment where subjects are given a list of colour words printed in different colours, and they’re asked to read the words — the catch is that the word blue is printed in red, red in yellow, etc. One thing that can be taken from it is that we respond to colour more than to language.

Hence, I prefer two approaches to critiquing web page designs:

1) only show a sketch.
2) if you must use Photoshop, then show the b/w image, and replace images with placeholder graphics — unless and until you really want to critique the graphic design. The placeholder graphics must be tinted the ‘average’ color of the image: use a shade of grey that best approximates the lightness value.

You probably already lorem ipsum the copy in your comps - now you have to lorem ipsum the design to help others make insightful comments.

If you want tips on critiquing, you can look me up. I’ve got a B.A. in Fine Arts, Studio Specialization, right here in my back pocket. :)

September 09, 07h

HAHA. The timing of this couldn’t have been better. Wow.

Mike D. says:
September 09, 09h

There is a theory out there which says that the human eye shifts the color spectrum uniquely for each person. So the actual color that I describe as green, you describe as red. It could explain why people have different favorite colors… they are all really the same color. The theory is probably not true, but there’s no way to technically disprove it.

Therefore, when someone says “I just don’t like the green”, they could unfortunately mean “I just don’t like *it*.”

Mark Wiens says:
September 09, 09h

I went to art school for a semester and they harped on us for doing bad critiques. If we were to say “I don’t like that green,” we would then have to say why we did not. My 2 cents….

And seriously, I’d like to see a Mezzogreen!

September 09, 10h

Well if it’s any consolation, I *do* like the blue that you’ve brought back on this site. ;)

September 09, 10h

I think the inspiration came from a recent post on design by fire? :)

PTDC says:
September 10, 02h

Sometimes people don’t know exactly they don’t like things, other times it’s just sheer laziness. Still, it’s irritating.

Martin says:
September 10, 02h

Things can reach hair-tearing levels of abomination when a client insist that a colour in a design’s palette is simply substituted for his or her favourite colour, with unsightly consequences. Speaking of DxF (a previous commenter, at least), Andrei recently satirised such banes with painful accuracy:

jim says:
September 10, 02h

but what if its a really nasty green?


Lars says:
September 10, 03h

So is saying “I like the green” any better?

I don’t think it is, but it does sound nicer, doesn’t it?

Keith says:
September 10, 03h

A bit late to the party I see. This seems like a pretty common thread of late. I actually have a post written (to go up next week) about how to deal with creative conflict with clients and stakeholders. Not sure how helpful that will be, but…

This reminds me… well, of a lot of things actually. A recent “almost client” I had who could tell me he “didn’t like something” but not why or what he’d like better. A creative struggle down at the hospital with an opinionated stakeholder…

But if you’ll give me a minute I can tell a story about a time, back in about 1997, when the color blue cost Boeing a whole bunch of money.

I was working on a project where we (the Web team) obviously thought we had more say over the design than we did.

It was mandatory training for managers. Meaning, regardless of anything they had to use it. We designed and built the site based on a creative brief, requirement docs, etc. and despite many, many other problems thought we were finished.

That is until the mucky-mucks got ahold of it. According to legend (as I don’t remember exactly) one of the VPs showed it to his wife who didn’t like the darker shade of blue we’d used (it was pretty close to Boeing blue if I remember correctly) so she chose another.

There was no rationale given, ‘cept “my wife hates that blue.”

No joke. Might not be exactly right, but it’s pretty damn close.

To make a long story short, we had to change everything to this new blue. It was kind of like what you’ve got here, Dave, very pretty. But, ultimately had no baring on the usefulness of the site and there was absolutely no reason why it was somehow “better” than the first.

I mean, we had designers, an art director and a creative director all by off on it! What does this VPs wife know that they don’t? Had we known this was going to happen, we’d have shown her the comps beforehand and let her pick whatever color she wanted.

Now, this color change might not seem like a big deal, but back then we had to recode and re-cut graphics like there was no tomorrow. I know because I had to do it.

Ah, how I wish we’d had CSS back then. There was a lot of graphics.

ANYway, things like this drive me nuts. If someone tells you upfront they don’t like green — well that’s their prerogative I guess and I’d rather a client told me sooner than later. And yeah, it’s annoying, but it could be worse. At least with “I don’t like green” you’ve got something to work with.

Try “It’s ugly” or “I don’t care for it” or “it’s not dynamic looking enough” or “It’s not cutting edge enough”…

These things can really put a monkey in the works, and usually they’ve got very little to do with what’s important in Web design.

Tony says:
September 10, 03h

For a critique to work you have to be objective, and qualify your statements.

If you said “I don’t like that green” followed by “because it’s on a field of red and I’m color-blind and it’s making the screen all goofy for me”, then it’s all good.

It’s really all about the “Why”.

September 10, 03h

Mike “There is a theory out there which says that the human eye shifts the color spectrum uniquely for each person. So the actual color that I describe as green, you describe as red. It could explain why people have different favorite colors… they are all really the same color. The theory is probably not true, but there’s no way to technically disprove it.”

That’s it Mike, I’m never visiting your site again!!

That concept just blew my mind. What my mind sees as blue, yours might get what I’d describe as red… but it stimulates the same emotive responses.

I think I just realised that the world I know is only based on my experiences and perceptions…


jim says:
September 10, 04h

Every individual lives in a unique and lonely universe…

September 10, 05h

I work for the post-secondary education world. All of our designs are critiqued by at least two committees. Invariably, the comment “you need to use more red”, or “you should make all the headlines purple, and comic sans” comes up.

There are days I wish I wouldn’t be fired for saying “okay, how about you do my design for me, and I’ll do your budget, hiring, and firing for you…”


Filosof says:
September 10, 06h

Nice article about criticism: :-)

Jeremy says:
September 10, 06h

It’s a tough call on visceral reactions like “I don’t like the green”; on the one hand, there’s no frame of reference for the reaction, so in and of itself it has little relevance. However, if there’s a widespread visceral reaction, that’s begs the question “why?” - though now that I think of it, if enough people are having that reaction, one of them is bound to be able to articulate the reasoning behind the reaction (10,000 monkeys, and all that). Then the rest of us yahoos can chime in with our “me too”s.

Yazan says:
September 10, 07h

What’s the prupose of web design?

September 10, 07h

“There is a theory out there which says that the human eye shifts the color spectrum uniquely for each person. So the actual color that I describe as green, you describe as red. It could explain why people have different favorite colors… they are all really the same color. The theory is probably not true, but there’s no way to technically disprove it.”

I’ve spent many an hour trying to explain that theory to people…

In my opinion, if you can’t justify your reason for saying “I don’t like the green…” you should at least try to suggest an alternative, “…maybe try an orange instead?”

September 10, 09h

“There is a theory out there which says that the human eye shifts the color spectrum uniquely for each person. So the actual color that I describe as green, you describe as red. It could explain why people have different favorite colors… they are all really the same color. The theory is probably not true, but there’s no way to technically disprove it.”

My girlfriend is partially color blind and it is interesting to show her a few different colors side by side and ask her what they are. You can put a purple and a blue next to each other and she would say, “those are the same color.” I think I’ve narrowed it down to a lack of red sensitivity. But, with some comparison you can get a feel for what a specific person’s color sensitivities are. So the above comment is somewhat true, however it is possible to determine what colors they see to some extent.

And really what the above statement plays on is the semiotics of the individual labels we assign to specific colors. If I say, “What you see as red I call blue” really is not changing what is signified, but rather the signifier. The blue is still blue, no matter what you call it. But trying to communicate what “blue” is without having what is signified (a concrete example of “blue”) is difficult if we are using two different signifiers for the same thing. Semiotics is a great thing to study, and in my mind one of the most difficult because you are working and questioning the very basis of what communication is and how it operates.

After all, when a word goes inside your head, what it triggers and means to you is completely and totally unique.

September 10, 10h

It’s interesting that this should come up now. One of the Design Fab Five ( ), D. Keith Robinson ( ) just made the following comment (regarding the design over at

“As to why I like it better; I think it’s the combination of color and whitespace. For some reason it’s different enough that I find it more pleasing on the idea. Other than that, again, I’m not really sure, I just like it a bit better than the others.

I like its style I guess.”

It’s funny that even the best designers can’t always quantify exactly *why* they like or dislike something over something else.

As a non-designer, I have no chance. =)

September 10, 10h

And perhaps the more important statement that followed the quote above, also by D. Keith Robinson (sorry for omitting it the first time):

“See, it’s totally subjective and even thinking about it I can’t really put my finger on why I like it better. Is it a better “Web design” than the others? I don’t think so. I like the look more, but they’re all very good designs and I’d be more than happy with any one of them.”

cam says:
September 11, 11h

I always write a justification for the colour choices I make before presenting to a client, even if the justification is extrapolated after the fact. (Generally, it makes sense anyway; if you do design long enough you develop a sort of instinct about what colours mean…)
That doesn’t really mean it works, of course… I justified an electric lime green for the background of an online pet medication company by calling it a “spring colour that relates to new growth and healing”… sounds great, huh? The background is now dark blue. :)

Carmelyne Thompson says:
September 12, 03h

Im late to jump in the discussion?

Anyway, It’s always been a belief of mine that theres two parts in design. The aesthetic part and the usable part.

The aesthetic part has always been a matter of preference. It’s always different from each point of view. To tackle that problem when designing sites, I’ll consult a client first for his color scheme preference. I ask mainly what colors he’d rather not see that what color he likes.

The usable aspect of the design seems to garner more weight for me. Usable may vary in degress as well. What might appear usable to me may appear useless to another. That’s the beauty in a well designed concept I suppose; to each his own but the keyword is compromised aesthetic design and functionality between a professional designer and client.