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Understanding “Critical Understanding”

September 14, 2004

I suspected my point in “Critical Understanding” was buried in enough subtlety to warrant an explanation; here it is.

There was one point made, and one alluded to within that short piece. None of them had anything to do with what was being said, sorry to anyone who thought the article was about colour.

The point alluded to was caught by a few: Criticism without justification is purely subjective. The learning comes after the explanation, and when there is none forthcoming there’s no real value in the critique. Perhaps in some cases it might be useful to aggregate opinions for the sake of trend analysis, but most designers are rarely concerned about anything larger than the work at hand when soliciting feedback.

But the real point being made lies in what wasn’t said. A critique that attempts to justify or discredit work based on personal preference for design choices is laughably narrow in focus. The question the critic effectively answers is “Do I like the way this site looks?”, which except in situations where that actually matters, is absolutely the wrong question for a successful critique to answer.

The question fails to take into account the design goals for the site. It doesn’t consider the processes which evolved the site to the completion point. It misses that multiple decisions were made throughout development that, for better or for worse, have changed the original ideas. It can’t possibly reflect the budget or working conditions.

(And it has absolutely no comprehension that the green was hand-picked by the CEO’s wife.)

Reader Comments

September 14, 01h

It’s a good thing you explained this.

I’ve had some trouble with people who try to criticize me. And sometimes they were right. Mostly they weren’t. What I demand from a critical person is looking at something to see if the goal is reached, not if some font has strange serifs. “Gods, man! Listen! It’s not about the font, but about the purpose! Now what _do_ you see?”

It gives me a hard time.

Aquarion says:
September 14, 02h

There are few things more annoying than the single comment “I don’t like it”, except for the follow up “I don’t know, I just don’t”. So far into the scale of useless that it grows into the world of the Useful. Useful, that is, for knowing how to phrase the question next time, perhaps.

Colour requests are odd things. My absolute all time favourite non-changable main colour that we had to vitally use was - I was told later - chosen by the client typing his date of birth into a hex-colour field.

September 14, 02h


I still don’t understand. Please post an entry called “Understanding “Understanding “Critical Understanding”“” to explain this one.

I’m just kidding. I seem to have been lucky enough to find both of the intended meanings in the original comment.

Aquarion: I typed my birthdate in and it makes a surprisingly nice color. I think I’ll use it as the basis for my next site.

September 14, 03h

Aquarion: Let me guess, the non-changeable color was a shade of blue?

September 14, 05h

I’ve never actually tried this but it came to me after reading this post.. maybe the question we should be asking when getting something critiqued is, “Is there a problem that this design does not solve?” and it’s correlary, “Does this design create any problems?”

The mind-set is suddenly focused on what design is about: solving problems.

Philip: unless you do YY-MM-DD… then it’s a nice shade of red. :D

gavin says:
September 14, 07h

I know this is obvious but I will chime in anyway…
Don’t dismiss (apparently) subjective criticism from the target audience. If “green” is getting in the way of the design goals of the site (they can’t see the forest for the green) it is still a valid criticism. Off course it is important to find out WHY they don’t like green. Sometimes the reason can be similar to avoiding the number “four” with Chinese clients.

gavin says:
September 14, 07h

Whoa! Where did that double post come from? Apologies anyway.
Now I should add something useful…
Small businesses sometimes have a close affiliation with their clients (like-minded personalities etc). It is important to consider that their critiscms (however irrational) may be reflected in their client base.

Carmelyne Thompson says:
September 14, 10h

I am just going to babble here a bit. I would imagine color is of a great essence to certain limitations. I am not spilling in the color retorts from the previous “Critical Understanding” experiment but I wouldn’t redesign to use #000099. Home Depot would be appalled and call it blasphemy! /stops babbling

Back on topic (I hope), defining zones for a page and asking a set of questionnaires to different audience types if I’d want to solicit a solid and well referenced critique is an absolute must for me. A well defined set of questionnaires can help pin point exactly what the majority sees as a mismatched function of the page you presented them. Unfortunately, a couple of testers answering the same questions don’t always equate to forming a perfect conclusion or solution. Is that bad? Well I’d imagine a web page “recall” would give me twitches.

Cam says:
September 15, 02h

Dave, you’re probably preaching to the converted… most of us reading the site are design professionals and have to deal with unjustified criticism on a daily basis… :)
I think a big part of the problem is trying to create an understanding of the value of design. There is still an overwhelming feeling among many people that designers are artists and have some inborn ability to just make things look good.
I don’t know if you heard about what happened here in Vancouver regarding the Olympic logo; a lot of local designers protested the fact that a contest open to the public will be responsible for creating the new logo. It completely de-values the design process, and turns it into nothing more than a beauty contest…
This is probably a difficult problem to tackle, but creating an overall awareness that designers are professionals and what they do has an immense value to business would alleviate a lot of the problems we have with unjustified criticism.

showmethemonney says:
September 15, 05h

The other thing to remember is that the client making the critique will in general not be a designer, artist or a developer. Because of this they will not have the understanding of why they don’t like a particular design nor the vocablorary to explain their feelings.

Many times I’ve seen situations where a solution is presented back to the client and they have suggested changes, only to find that once all their changes and ideas have been implemented they are still no happier.

The only solution is to involve the client at all stages of development and make them aware of the reasons behind decisions made. Give them choices, but not direct design input. Ask them ‘what’ and ‘why’ but not ‘how’. This way they will feel part of the process and they will appreciate the end product more.

‘I don’t like the green’ is 9 times out of 10 a way of saying ‘it’s not what I imagined and I don’t like it’.

Anthony says:
September 15, 06h

The only thing as bad as unsupported critiquing is unsupported art direction.

“Make it more fun” and “Jazz it up” are not valid guidance. ;-)

Lucian says:
September 15, 06h

I’ve gotten an “improve the quality” on a page of printed black text. When asked what that meant, he said “I don’t know, print it on a laser printer or something”.

Susanna says:
September 15, 11h

“It doesn’t consider the processes which evolved the site to the completion point.”

I had a lead developer come to me with a list of changes needed for a web interface. After going over the changes he added, “Oh, and could you change that yellow to something else?” I asked why so that I would know whether I needed to change it to improve legibility or better reflect the client’s image or whatever. “I don’t like it,” the developer said.

I told him about how this particular color combination - including the yellow - had been carefully selected and already tested on the target platform for maximum legibility, clarity, and interoperability with related web sites. The developer conceded, red-faced. I think he’d been under the impression that I just pick color schemes out of the rainbow on a whim.

Jason Kerr says:
September 15, 11h

Interesting point, as far as it goes.

You have identified the (far too) common case, in which someone uses the phrase “I don’t like …” to complain. They may or may not be aware of a reason for their dislike.

All too often, however, they are using the phrase as a means of calling a halt to forward momentum for some other reason. How do you draw that reason (or reasons) out, without the situation descending into quagmire?

And what about those cases where the person truly doesn’t like the item or aspect in question, because their dislike stems from an emotional or physical response? Few people are able to express these feelings in more detail without considerable assistance. How best to do that, also without bringing the momentum of the moment to a complete halt. (Tho’ that may be what is called for.)

P.S. IANAPD, just a design autodidact who has had to manage projects where visual design superseded all other criteria.

Declan Kennedy says:
September 16, 04h

One thing which I think has been missed is the fact that, yes we do face criticism which is obviously incomprehensible, but there is a far more sinister ideal behind it. As Dave points out, people look at the design and think about how it appeals to them, or doesn’t. The majority of designers have the same disability in my opinion. Most sites are designed by a person who is thinking, first and foremost, “what would I like to see in this design/content?”. But design and the web should be about what has the most value to the world, not a narrow “I like this, hope you do too” mentality, IMHO.

Jim Amos says:
September 16, 07h

It’s something we all encounter. Keith Robinson just wrote something along similar lines.

I wish clients had more faith in our expertise - unfortunately they see fit to give us these completely useless comments like “It needs more dynamism” or my current all-time favourite slap in the face: “I don’t like it because it doesn’t look professional enough”.

‘Professional’, as it happens, often means ‘plenty of blue’, ‘just like so-and-so’s website’ or ‘use more Flash’.

Cam says:
September 16, 10h

I’m sure a lot of the people reading this have read Hillman Curtis’s “Making the Invisible Visible”… if you haven’t, open up Amazon right now and pick up a copy… there is some amazing advice about bringing the client into the process, and avoiding these kind of problems in the first place.
As Hillman points out early in the book, it’s too easy for us to see the client as “the Enemy” sometimes, when we really should be involving them in the process more to start with; stripping away some of the mystery and showing them your design process also can have the side effect of having your client appreciate exactly what it is you’re billing them top dollar for…

Neil says:
September 17, 04h

That’s quite interesting Cam, I’ll check that title out. Thanks for the book tip.

The worst job I ever had was building a mercifully small site on behalf of a friend who was snowed under with work. His client wanted a site fast, would I help?

No real brief, minimal content ( And I do mean minimal ) , crappy photography and all feedback with the client filtered through my buddy. Absolute nightmare from start to finish.

I do understand that regarding the client as the “Enemy” is clearly not helpful, however it is difficult to not feel the odd flash of contempt for someone who wants you to write his web site content because he “hasn’t really thought about…can’t you just make it up?”.

Bizzare. He’s paying for it, but dosn’t really care. He just “Wants a good web site…”.

It certainly highlighted the oddness of the “Clients expectations/apathy vs Real world design goals waltz” to me.

I’ve learned from the experience. Learning fast enough is the real trick though.