Saturday, September 11, 2010

Good and bad design? Good and bad critiques.

I spoke with a group of design students at a local community college this past weekend. At the end of the lecture, I talked through a bit of my work which includes a couple slide of which I am not particularly proud.

Basically I mix a bit of bad with all my best work so I can talk about "bad design" - something I learned from a past lecture.

I put the terms "bad design" in quotes because of the ridiculously subjective nature of what constitutes a bad piece of design. And it's frustrating as hell, man!

So during my walk-through, one of my rather unhealthy pieces appeared on the big screen and I began to speak about why the piece does not work. I started into my little diddy about the fine difference between subtlety and hammering one over the head with your message.

In the middle of my rant, the instructor for the class raised her hand, pointed to the screen and said, "I like it."

The students, who were all attempting to digest my thoughts on my very own bad design work, were blindsided by a lone compliment from their fearless leader. Well, thanks for the kudos, but now I have an auditorium of students staring back at me with a giant collective question mark hoovering over their heads (which puts a question mark and exclamation point above my head as well since I am a novice lecture-giver).

I turn to the class thinking, "Hello, beginning design students! Welcome to the Dadaism of what is design critique. Confused as to what is considered good and bad design? Yes, that feeling will never go away."

I didn't say that, though. I was able to use the instructor's kind words to segueway into a conversation about how design is subjective. I told them that as they progress through the curriculum, they will experience critique after critique, and usually no two people will be of the same opinion (unless it counts for a grade).

Don't get me wrong. I think debates and critiques are healthy. I firmly believe there are solid benefits to a good design critique of one's work, but the idea of how some people could be right on the money while others are pulling stuff out of the proverbial ass used to elude and annoy me. Heck, just read the comments over at Ads of the World.

As a budding design student, I remember sitting in my layout class during a critique. In this class, you always wanted to be the first one up on the chopping block because the class has not yet warmed up, see?

However, after critiquing a few measly design pieces, the students begin showing their teeth and they are out for blood. Piece after piece would become a victim of classmates looking to toss in their two cents, with pessimism on full display masquerading as deep intellectual thought and sophistication.

Some pieces deserved it, some did not. Some absolutely did not!

I remember looking at some of the design pieces that were getting kicked violently around the room, all the while thinking, "This piece works, dammit! Would I have done it the exact same way? No, but it communicates its purpose clearly. Thumbs up."

I came to the conclusion that if I took a professionally designed cereal box or candy bar wrapper or whatever, and hung it up on the classroom wall, it would still get torn to shreds by these students.

That bummed me out as a student because, in my mind, a cereal box from Kellog's or a candy bar wrapper from Mars were done by real professional designers with professional art directors with professional production teams who, for all intensive purposes, know their STUFF.

Me, I was just a student, green in design principles and Photoshop, who was not in the same league as a designer at Kellog's, yet the cereal guy would still get his ass chewed by a bunch of peeps with my same experience (which was next to nothing).

It wasn't until a few years later when I discovered the difference between a true critique and self-satisfying verbal garbage. A true critique is about design quality while the other is solely about personal preference.

Another individual's personal preference in how they would have designed your piece is good to hear sometimes, if only for a bit of food for thought (and usually, that food only contains nourishment if offered by another professional - i.e. someone how knows what they are talking about. Usually).

Actual in-depth criticism on how a design piece communicates successfully or unsuccessfully based on principles of grid use, eye flow, information hierarchy, usage of color, white space, etc. can be invaluable in making a stronger piece.

However, back during my time in design school, it seemed that students would rely on personal preference instead of design quality while judging others' work, and even if I didn't fully understand it all at the time, it still rubbed me the wrong way.

But they were students, right? Still wet behind the ears. Once they get out in the real world and gain a few years of experience, that will all change in how they critique (or worse, direct) design work.


Nope. Well, sometimes.


No comments: