Khoi Vinh / Design Criticism

Posted by Alex

Khoi Vinh just posted an incredible piece about design criticism for his Subtraction blog entitled “Dear Designers, You Suck”. He calls for a new kind of design criticism, one that separates the designer from their work and attempts to imbue the field with more objective and honest criticism.

…are we really having the kinds of meaningful, constructive, critical discourses that we really should be having? Are we too quick to take offense at the opinions of our peers? Or are we pulling our punches too much when discussing the merits of the work that our peers turn out? To put a finer point on it: are we being honest with one another?

The answer is definitely no, we are not being honest with one another. As a student, I am very familiar with the problem he describes. As our school is critique based, we see this avoidance of real, honest criticism every day. When something truly awful gets laid in front of us, we hedge around what we really think with all sorts of meaningless qualifiers: “Well, um, I think…for me anyway, and maybe it’s just the light but…the colors aren’t working.. but uh.. in the best way possible.” I know I for one have never felt comfortable saying what I really think, and this is the problem. There is no way to really grow if you don’t get the critique you need, and getting past the discomfort of critiquing honestly is what desperately needs to happen, as awkward as it might seem at first.

The harsher teachers at our school tend to get a bad reputation for being blunt–which in my mind translates to a good reputation. I’ve always seen the most improvement with my own work when the first thing the teacher says is “this is really bad, and here’s why.” I want the teacher that makes people cry. I want to hear “this is terrible” when the work actually is. The worst thing someone can do is say they like something just to be polite.

Khoi’s article is a breath of fresh air, and I truly hope his words will be put to practice. I like to imagine what class would be like if everyone truly spoke their mind; how exciting! How much more we would learn! Maybe it won’t happen tomorrow, but it can start with reading this article. Well done Khoi for calling attention to a such a pervasive problem!

17 Comments Leave A Comment


Scott says:

April 9, 2009 at 11:54 pm

wow, nice article. I have always found it very hard tell people who’s work I don’t feel is up to par how I really feel. I guess I always second guess my own opinion, asking myself whether my opinion is coming from an objective point of view and not just personal preference. I guess if you’re going to seek out this kind of criticism of your work (which I think is a great idea), you need to to ground yourself first. First I think you’d have to find someone who’s opinion you trust and who you know understands what you’re going for. You also have to realize that not everything they say is going to be correct and that on some things, you have to trust your gut and go with it because that’s what makes it your design.

I guess we just sort of went through this with the 12″ cover, I think that was the first time I’ve worked through a project with so much critique and it helped a lot. Although, I think going for this sort of crit should only be attempted after you have given yourself enough time with the project to go through your own internal critiquing process. You need to spend enough time with the work to truly understand it and decide what the core ideals that define it are before you ask someone else how they see it. If you didn’t, a lot of the things that make the design yours might never happen.


Ture says:

April 10, 2009 at 12:36 am

What a great article indeed, I talk about this with my friends all the time. Also I can relate with Alex’s experiences as a student, I remember back in school countless times when I bit my tongue at critiques and equally I myself was left wanting criticism when when my work could’ve really needed it. In a school environment I think the problem is somewhat related to social relations, the people in your class are often your friends and you don’t want to alienate them and be known as the douchebag who always puts down other peoples work. Then again that wouldn’t be a problem if everyone was being honest with their criticism.
The place where I’ve found the critisism for my work that I’ve needed is on a few internet forums. I think it’s easier to criticize someone’s work when you don’t have to meet them face to face. Though that has a downside as well as sometimes people on the forums get spiteful just for the sake of it.


Scott says:

April 10, 2009 at 1:33 am

good point, the internet *could* be a great place for this, *if* you trust the community. But in my experience, the troll’s voice speaks loudest on ye olde nette and the place is f*cking full of them. If you’re going to seek advice online you need to have a good sense for who’s just venting their own issues by aimlessly bashing you, and who’s coming with legitimate critique. also, you never know who’s on the other side of the keyboard, their walls could be lined with nickelback posters and wwf memorabilia.


Ture says:

April 10, 2009 at 2:20 am

That’s true, that’s the reason I nowadays post on a closed, invite only forum when looking for legitimate and usable critique. That way there are no trolls around. And as people there know one another or at least their work, you can have a sense of what kind of standpoint they are coming from with their critique. Also there’s a guy I know from school that hangs out there as well that I can always rely on getting honest and insightful criticism from, which is something you touched upon in your previous post.
Although now I can’t help but think of a hermit genius writing elaborate design critiques sitting in his basement while rocking out to Nickelback and consulting his Hulk Hogan bobblehead for advice on semiotics.


Michael says:

April 10, 2009 at 2:30 am

I think this article is spot on, but I also think it only works for specific instances, where there is only one true meaning / interpretation to be had. For example; if you’re a “fine artist” I don’t believe criticism on any level is even a possibility, as fine art is completely void of one interpretation, and almost acts as a catalyst for deconstructionist views. A lot of graphic design pieces nowadays walk the fine line of communication design & fine art. I think the more designers meld fine art & communication design, the harder it will be to accurately critique a piece of work. You also have to consider the fact that reputation sometimes acts as a free pass, to unintentionally avoid criticism as well.

Another example would be to consider the artist / filmmaker: Marcel Duchamp. He was praised by many, and was actively involved with the art movement in the early 1900s, was a board member of the Society of Independent Artists for a short period of time, and was involved in the Dada movement. Now consider the artist R. Mutt » ( R. Mutt(secretly Marcel Duchamp)’s take on art was frowned upon, and was even critiqued by the members of the Society of Independent Artists, which eventually led to the removal of his submitted work, FOUNTAIN, for the SOIA 1917 exhibition. When you consider that scenario, you have to ask yourself, “was Marcel Duchamp really that great? Or was it his fame that gave his work clout?” I think the same definitely applies to a lot of graphic designers nowadays.

Anyway, great article. :)


alex says:

April 10, 2009 at 2:40 am

Ture- I think you are absolutely right about social relations making honest critique harder and less frequent. I’ve often wondered how helpful doing blind critiques would be (in school anyway). That is, everyone brings in their work and it gets shuffled to where no one knows who’s work is who’s. Of course it would only work on the first day of a project, but that way you could speak your mind and everyone would know it wasn’t personal when you react negatively.

Scott- The question as to whether or not the critique is coming from a subjective or objective place is critical, I agree. I always wonder how useful (or legitimate) voicing my subjective opinion is. There are the lucky few whose subjective tastes line up with the publics’, but for everyone else, we have to place our faith in objectivity. However, it is so hard to only operate on an objective level (if not impossible), especially when what we see garner success in the field being determined by both objective and subjective criteria arbitrarily.


alex says:

April 10, 2009 at 2:51 am

Michael- I was thinking about what you said about “one true interpretation to be had” and I agree. When there is a specific purpose for a given work, you can evaluate the work based on how successful it is fulfilling its given objective. However, in school I find we are confronted with two objectives with each project, one being slightly less obvious. The first objective is whatever our project brief has assigned us to do. Straightforward. The next, harder to nail down objective, is whether or not the work looks “flippin bad ass.” How legitimate this second objective is could be up for debate, but I do find a lot of times I’ll be looking at a very successful piece on the table (in terms of how well it fulfills the assignment) and still be thinking to myself, “this is terrible,” in that it doesn’t succeed at looking awesome. Of course I’m letting my own subjectivity creep into what initially started out as a pure evaluation, but I think as students, we have to try and distinguish ourselves visually. Succeeding on a purely objective level seems less likely to do this, and I feel like we are all trying to hit the sweet spot between completing the assignment and also appealing to as many people as possible on a visceral subjective level. In that way I suppose we are as much artists as we are designers.


Michael says:

April 10, 2009 at 3:16 am

I think you’re very fortunate to be involved with such a class, especially in this day in age, where everyone is faced with an overabundance of visual stimulants / eye-candy. I can definitely relate as well, when it comes to struggling to drawing the line between an objective critique, and a subjective one. In the end, I usually try to depend on history to point out what aspects of famous works truly stand the test of time, and which pieces are just catering to flash-in-the-pan trends. I suppose in that regard, only time can truly have the final word on what will transcend, and what will diminish. « (that, of course, is my subjective opinion). ;)


Kevin says:

April 10, 2009 at 6:01 am

my sculpture prof was very blunt. after tearing apart some prelim designs for a series of sculptures (in front of the whole class), i went right up to the computer lab, and designed what became my best 3-D work ive ever done. oh, i was pissed at the time, but looking back, i wish i still had that kind of honesty cause i sure as hell don’t have it where i work now.


Shelby says:

April 10, 2009 at 8:21 am

Great article. Seriously, high five for posting this. It is not stressed enough. Everyday I walk into class I hear about a student who was torn apart because their design was downright terrible, the student was upset at the teacher and wondered why they were so hard on them. In my opinion this is the way to get proper critique.

Because I feel that people shy away from saying they don’t like something about your piece, instead of asking what they like about the piece, I’ve started asking them what they don’t like about it. This only works for some people though. But I feel like people are somewhat more comfortable saying they don’t like something rather then just telling you in a normal critique, that something is wrong or downright terrible.

Anyways, great post.


Rent says:

April 10, 2009 at 9:30 am

yeah this is truly a great post indeed…I struggle with this almost everyday in all of my art classes and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s mainly because people are too afraid to say “it sucks” or “I don’t like it because…” due to the fact that they aren’t confident enough in their own work and don’t know enough jargon to rightfully critique your art. I also hate to say this, but most people’s work is crap at my school and I find myself biting my tongue as well and I can’t fully understand why. I always want to say something constructive that will be helpful, but usually that suggestion would just be to start over because what they currently have is no good. along with this dilemma, I of course need feedback for my work and I feel like critiques are just worthless when no one can give me some constructive feedback, besides the teacher.

I’ve come to find that the critique process for me has boiled down to saying nothing when someone’s work is straight garbage and I can’t stand to say it to their face or almost as a defense, if someone says something uncalled for about my piece, I’ll return that with some slightly harsher suggestion for them. so really the whole process is futile for me and I’m finding critique days harder and harder to stand.


Rent says:

April 10, 2009 at 9:35 am

also not trying to sound like my art is perfect in the least, but it could really benefit from successful critiques, yet always falters.


Eric says:

April 10, 2009 at 10:06 am

I really think the problem isn’t about a lack of bluntness from peers but a lack of quality instructors. I have never placed much value on class critiques as it comes off as a “blind leading the blind” situation where your peers are usually as clueless as you are. The real value of educational instruction is in the instructor and if they aren’t being blunt, they aren’t a good instructor. I’d expect the likelihood of student critique habits to change as much as I’d expect worldwide human behavior to change.

I think it all breaks down when you translate this to internet communities where practically everyone is a peer in the middle of a significant learning process. Unfortunately these communities are largely void of seasoned professionals who have the decades of experience necessary to give a proper, valuable critique. So honestly I see very little value in online design communities for constructive criticism, also for the reasons Scott mentioned – you usually have no idea who’s on the other side.

I think a great practice is just to be more critical of your own work in the first place and educate yourself as much as possible.


Zachary Kane says:

April 10, 2009 at 10:43 am

I just read this article last night and definitely agree with Khoi’s sentiments. It’s good to see it already permeating reputable design sites!

I know, for me, giving good worthwhile critique seems difficult because (and this was touched on above) I don’t know what I don’t know. Put another way, I’m a student still and I don’t want to offer something as a way of improvement when the person being critiqued or a third party will say that I’m way off mark for the project at hand. Maybe I know more than I think, should be more courageous and just venture my opinions.

I’ve only lately created a personal site and begun pointing people online to my work in an effort to hear more criticism. You definitely need to hear it if you are to get any better at this sort of thing, even if I have to work with anons at first. Now I just need to get off my bum and Save For Web some new stuff!


frank says:

April 10, 2009 at 11:07 am

To me a good critique should be pretty much self-evident. I think it’s a mistake to focus on the taste or credentials of the critic. It’s equally bad for a designer to blindly follow any and all suggestions from a teacher or boss as it is to ignore the potentially valuable input of the idiot with the nickleback posters. Often those dumb, seemingly unhelpful comments can actually point to a real problem that the critic was simply unable to express. It’s really important for a designer to learn how to say “ok, that was a dumb comment that makes me mad, but what’s the impulse behind that comment that has a kernel of truth to it?” Because the fact is the majority of feedback you’re going to get from clients in your career is going to be of the vague and moronic type.

I have a non-designer coworker who frequently gives me annoying unsolicited feedback in a rude and tactless way. And yet much of the time his complaints turn out to be valid. His specific comments and solutions are usually off the mark but they often point to an underlying problem that needs a solution. And when I bristle at his comments without stopping to think “is he right? what is making him say this?” I really just end up wasting time and energy fighting rather than working toward a solution.

I think the best criticism is the kind that can identify and explain the problem in a logical way while also pointing to multiple possible solutions. “I don’t like that font” is not very helpful and it’s easy to dismiss or ignore. What if the font is non-negotiable because it’s part of the corporate styleguide? “That font is hard to read” is somewhat better because it identifies the actual problem rather than being a declaration of personal subjective taste. The ideal though is something like “I think that the font and the background are conflicting with each other, maybe it’s the color, or maybe that background is too busy, maybe the text needs a box behind it.” I think this approach works the best because you’re not simply saying “use helvetica” or “that’s ugly” but you’re explaining why something is not working for you and opening up other ways to think about the problem but ultimately leaving the power and the decision in the designer’s hands.


scott lowe says:

April 12, 2009 at 10:55 am

The key to critiques is to keep giving them and asking for them. Once you stop getting embarrassed to give/receive advice then you can actually have constructive arguments. You can’t do that if you are afraid of being wrong. And let criticism pertain only to the ideas presented in the work.