Notes on criticism in web design
September 19th 2010
Every now and then a pseudo-discussion will flair up, in response to a blogpost or a tweet, about online criticism and feedback. There was one such ‘discussion’ on Brendan Dawes’ blog back in January, when I initially drafted this post. For some reason I never published this then. I think I was too mad about the whole thing because his blog post taken on its own was rather weak – it was such a flippant remark – and it provoked some equally flippant responses. But it did raise an important point about a certain lack of criticism in web design which I’m particularly aware of having come from a fine art background where criticism is taught and practiced quite vigorously. To learn how to give and take criticism is one of the main reasons I would recommend getting some undergraduate education.
At least once a term at Glasgow School of Art we would spend 2 days solid just moving around the sculpture studio talking about each other’s work. For our historical and critical studies we would read 100s of pages of art journals: essays about artist’s work and reviews of exhibitions and interviews with artists. And then we’d be expected to write essays and reviews ourselves. Once you graduate and start making work in the ‘real world’ it can be a struggle to keep getting feedback on your work, because you don’t have tutors and fellow students around you everyday. But hopefully you will have studio mates willing to talk about your work and visits from curators, gallerists and other artists when you’ll need to present your work and take criticism about it. Then, when you’ve finally got your work into an exhibition, there might be a review by an art critic in a magazine or a newspaper.
Web designers need criticism too. Ideally we get criticism from our colleagues and peers, either in the office or via IM or on the phone. We practice talking about our work and receiving criticism when we present designs to clients. But what this industry does seem to be lacking is the critical reviews. This is particularly problematic for our industry because so many people entering it don’t have a formal training. They’re self taught. This is a good thing. There are so many resources online for learning web design and development. But where can you learn to present your work and to give and take criticism? The answer seems obvious. Talk about your work on your own blog. But this is surprisingly rare. You don’t see that many show-n-tell blog posts.
Good criticism isn’t necessarily positive, but it is thoughtful, well-made and constructive.
Good criticism has to be invited.
I think there is a place for criticism online, not on Twitter, but in blog posts and online magazines. We can cultivate good criticism by putting our work out there. One rare example of this is Simon Collison’s Redesigning the undesigned, the blog post which he published to coincide with the launch of his redesign.
In his article Simon goes into great detail about the process and thinking that went into the design. He mentions some criticism he received from a colleague and how that changed what he went on to create. By sharing this constructive criticism, we can all learn something it. Also by sharing his thought process, he opens up a space for people to respond. I always found that in critiques at college, you thought you didn’t have anything to say about someone’s work until they started talking about it.
We need to know when it is appropriate to offer constructive criticism – if someone just tweets a link to a site they’ve launched, or just publishes a quick blog post with a screenshot of a new site, they probably aren’t looking for serious criticism. How you respond should match what you are responding to, in this case, if you are going to say anything, the written equivalent of a thumbs up is all that is called for. If, however, someone writes a long blog post about their ideas and process, you might want to give some thoughtful criticism back.
Khoi Vinh made a call for criticism in his Dear Designer, You Suck article which was written in a thoughtful and constructive way. I wish all the people who spent time reading and ranting about Brendan’s little rant had been reading this article instead. Our industry would be significantly wiser.