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This presentation is from a talk and hands-on exercise that I co-facilitated with my colleagues in the Portland Design Thinkers community. It was our 5th weekly Dial-In Design event attended remotely via Zoom and Mural. First, we shared some proven principles and methods for getting the most out of critiques. Next, we put those principles and methods into practice by critiquing some logo/identity directions we had developed for Portland Design Thinkers. Thanks to Scott Mount, Patrick Sharbaugh, and all who participated for making this event a success.
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Tonight’s topic is critique, an often misunderstood activity that can strike fear into the hearts of designers and stakeholders alike. We’ll explore six steps to get the most out of this exercise… while all remaining friends.
Share your own critique success stories, war stories, etc.
Critiques can be challenging. Objectives are often unclear. Some participants overshare, others clam up. Optimists provide lift while pessimists add drag. Conflict can flare and derail the process and on top of it all, the results are too often ambiguous.
Critiques can be a perfect storm of ego, politics, interpersonal dynamics, and loads of differing opinions so, basically…
Critiques need a supportive structure or scaffolding to keep them from falling over. Providing that structure can be tricky but here are a few considerations, mindsets, and methods that have proven helpful.
First is the Iron Law of Design...
The more time and love you put into an idea, the less likely your participants will be to provide honest feedback and the less receptive you’ll be to that feedback when they do.
So work as close to the bottom left corner as you can for as long as you can.
This old joke can help keep you in the right mindset. Q: Why don’t Buddhists ever vacuum in the corners?
A word of caution. It’s possible to be so close to the bottom left that your participants don’t understand what you’re asking them to critique.
In the film The Hudsucker Proxy, the protagonist carries this scrap of paper illustrating his big idea. He excitedly shares it with anyone who’ll look saying “Y’know, for kids!”
His critique participants need a little more if they’re going to understand that his idea is the hula hoop.
Another important thing to remember is that the real value of your session comes from the conversations it promotes, not from he artifacts it produces.
Keep your participants talking. The more they open up and share, the deeper the insights you’ll get from the session.
This is great advice too. You can use these three criteria to prompt your participants to expand on the thoughts they’re sharing.
When in the design process should you hold critiques? Some phases are much more conducive to critique than others.
In this example, we’ll look at the suitability of critique to each of the 4 phases of the double diamond design process. Learn more about the double diamond and its ongoing evolution in this excellent article by Dennis Hambeukers.
Divergent discovery is not the time. Critique is best suited to converging phases of a process or project. It can stifle divergent thinking.
Synthesis can be an ok phase for running the occasional critique but only if you’re crystal clear on what is being critiqued. In this phase, it can be useful to critique themes or opportunity areas but not proposed solutions.
Similarly, it can sometimes be useful to employ critique to help evaluate proposed ideas but be very careful not to let it be a drag on the divergent, generative spirit of this phase.
This second half of the second diamond (especially early in this phase) is where critique can really shine. Note that the later in this phase you employ critique, the less time you’ll have to make use of the feedback you get so the ideal window is short indeed.
Make sure your participants are on the same page with regard to what phase of the project you’re in. One divergent thinker can quickly derail a convergent session.
Characterize what you’re critiquing.
Just because you know exactly what you’d like critiqued doesn’t mean your participants do. For example, in tonight’s exercise we’ll be critiquing some visual directions or themes. These themes are represented mostly by sketches of logos but it’s the larger direction, not the logos themselves that we’ll be critiquing.
Now that your participants know what they’ll be critiquing, they need to clearly understand the criteria you’d like it critiqued against.
These criteria act as guardrails to keep the conversation focused on what you’re out to learn. For example, this evening, we’re out to learn the strengths, weaknesses, and promising aspects of our visual directions relative to how well they reflect the values and character of the PDT community. Your criteria can be broad and subjective like ours or laser focused, as long as it’s communicated clearly.
One method we considered using to provide that structure tonight is bullseye diagramming but we decided against it because that method works better when your group is critiquing or prioritizing larger numbers of items.
So we thought the Rose, Thorn, Bud method would work better for our purposes. In this exercise participants begin by asking clarifying questions about the thing(s) being critiqued and/or the criteria they should be critiqued against.
Once those things are clear, they begin writing down, sharing and discussing their roses. followed by their thorns and finally, their buds. Note that this order is important since starting the session on a positive note builds momentum and seeing opportunities usually comes more easily later, once participants are more familiar with the subject.
This sequence tends to flow well.
Your participants have provided you with a lot of diamonds in the rough. Now comes the time to cluster their roses, thorns, and buds into thematically similar groups and synthesize actionable insights from their contributions.
A useful place to start is to hang courses of action directly on the insights using the phrase “Because ________, let’s ________.” For example, “Because most participants were unpleasantly surprised by how heavy the product was, let’s investigate lighter-weight materials.”
Ok, let’s jump straight into the exercise… with Richard Simmons on a plane just because.
We’ll be critiquing the following visual identity directions. These directions are represented largely by some logos but it's the overall theme we'd like your feedback on. Remember, these are half-baked cookies. We have no attachments so our feelings can’t be hurt. The criteria we'd like you to judge these against is: Do these directions reflect the values and character of the PDT community? If so, how? If not, why not?
Even with the extra friction of a remote exercise, the participants were super engaged and talkative throughout the process. They provided many surprising insights and opportunities that we would never have discovered on our own.
Congratulations, you've made it to the last slide. Thank you for checking this out. I hope you found it worthwhile. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.