The critique & being positive

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There is, to me, a serious problem that has been hiding in plain site within the Digital Design community for years: a lack of structured, healthy criticism.

We need a healthy community of critics or digital design will stay locked in this stagnation/innovation/me too/stagnation cycle that tends to consume us. And that my friends, would be a real tragedy.

With this in mind, I happened by a conversation between Eli Schiff and Mike Davidson about critique, feedback, and how they should be approached in our industry.

If you didn't read the tweets, Mike published this article proposing a framework for giving good feedback.

It is a well thought out, well written piece that proffers solutions to many of the problems we face today, in our 140 character world. Eli took exception with the article, and took to twitter to share it.

As I have watched from the sidelines, it occurs to me that I have a somewhat unique perspective on this, given my history, and given my very real and sincere admiration for both Eli and Mike, I feel that I have an obligation to offer another perspective.

The Difference Between Feedback and Criticism

As the heading says I believe the main issue here is the conflating of criticism with feedback.

What Mike proposes is a framework for engaging in a positive conversation that has the neccesary outcome of an improved product.

For one designer to provide qualatative, concrete feedback to another designer, that will help to refine and improve a product or experience.

I am 100% in favor of this, and think that Mike's framework is a pretty great place to start the conversation, and make no mistake, feedback is a conversation.

If you are a designer who is interested in the most effective, positive way to provide your colleagues feedback, go check it out.

I would also suggest passing it around the other stakeholders on a project, the PM, Engineering Lead, etc. Empathy and compassion should be at the forefront of your interactions with teammates, always. And it goes both ways.

Think of this framework when you are reporting bugs in CSS, HTML, etc to the devs. They bleed too.

While this is all well and good, it isn't criticism, which is where I think Mike has made a misstep.

Where as feedback is a chance to engage in dialog to improve something, criticism is:

"the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc."

Criticism is not a conversation, it is an essay. A quantification. A judgement. And before you get all up in arms about design not being an art form, you are entitled to your opinion, but I don't agree with it.

Honestly, I think that the attempt to excise the artistic foundation of design diminishes it in a way that is unacceptable. Something can be an artistic endeavor, as well as a craft.

The purpose of art is to communicate, and at the end of the day, the purpose of design is to solve a problem, through communication. Clear communication of intent, functionality, structure and purpose. Clear communication of a solution to a given problem.

A Long Time Ago, in a Rural Town Far, Far Away...

Unlike many of the designers operating today, I came up through Fine Art. I studied drafting, painting and sculpture at uni, as well as dabbling in what was then known as "digital design", 2D and 3D mixed media.

Later as I saw the writing on the wall I made the jump to design, first graphic and print design, and then later on to web and application design. Having come from a very heavy FA background, I can tell you without reservation that digital design is a form of art.

You apply the same fundamental ideas, techniques and processes to achieve the same kinds of results. Baseline rhythm, color theory, space, line, harmony, balance? You know and use the concepts because they were created by artists, to explain the process of creating art.

I mention my time in the art program for a very specific reason. We had to learn to critique, and we had to learn to deal with critics. It is vitally important as an artist who is pouring their heart, soul and emotion into their work to learn the art of criticism, what it means, why it's important, and most importantly, why your feelings have no place in the discussion.

The State of Criticism

Do you realize dear reader, that modern digital design is the only creative discipline that doesn't have an established critic community? Music, Art, Cinema, TV, Food, Theatre, they all have critic communities, and believe you me, they are not always what you would call 'positive', or 'nice'.

They are truthful, sometimes brash and volatile, but they do what they do for the love of the thing they are critiquing. Oh and the idea that you have to be gifted in whatever thing you are critiquing, is bollocks.

Here's an example.

My wife is a culinary school trained chef, and after living with her, watching shows with her, sampling food, etc I can speak intelligently about food. I can tell you something is too salty and why. I can tell you why a dish isn't balanced and why the wine you paired with the Branzino was a really bad choice.

Can I cook a Branzino? God no. I wouldn't even know where to start. Can I critique a Branzino dish? Absolutely. Because I have done the work to understand the dish, how the experience should be, etc.

And that's really the heart of the matter here. Whether you think that Eli has the talent of the designers he is critiquing is immaterial. It is obvious that he has taken the time to understand design, and he has the passion and desire to talk about it, shed light on when a design fails, and to spread that knowledge around.

Time To Wrap This Up

One of the arguments that have been made against Eli is that when he offers his critiques they are unhelpful and can at times be hurtful. I don't argue against that. Eli is nothing if not passionate, brash and at times fiery. Do I feel he crosses the line from time to time, absolutely.

Do I think he does it because he's a jerk? Not entirely. If you have been following along with Eli as long as I have, you will see that there has been an evolution to his voice. As he dared to speak ill of the companies and designers that most people idolized he was attacked, and I mean attacked.

His own skill as a designer was attacked, his experience was devaluated, hell his personal appearance has been attacked, it was truly disheartening, and embarrassing as a member of our community, to watch.

And please, don't try and convince me it didn't happen, I was there, I saw it and hopefully helped Eli along with as much encouragement as I could.

Do I wish Eli crafted his critiques in a less inflammatory way? Yes, it's certainly not the way I would approach doing what he is doing, but I'm not Eli.

He's engaged in an ever escalating arms race with the wider design community, and as we all know arms races end badly for everyone. It's a vicious cycle that will only continue to poison peoples opinions of Eli and what he writes, which makes him angrier, etc.

What kills me is that nine times out of ten I agree with him in his analyzation and I think a lot more would as well if they didn't see his name and immediately tune out the good, "because it's Eli". And that's just sad to me, and a loss for our industry as a whole because we need Eli.

We need Eli and dozens of other writers like him. We desperately need people to shine a light on the "me too" culture that pervades our work. We need people to stand up and put the question to us, "is the best you can do to just remix what everyone else is doing, or can you forge a new path?"

We have to be brave enough, confident enough and serious enough to have thicker skin than this. Your work is important, it matters. Shouldn't it be the best it can be? Shouldn't you welcome every tool out there to make it the best?

I think we all know the answer to that question.

Thanks motto for proof reading!

You can also find this article on Medium.