Criticism, often considered an unwanted guest at other parties, can be your closest confidant during the design process. Criticism in the brainstorming phase helps me avoid ridiculous ideas that turn my head and lure me into a corner for long hours of frivolous distraction. In the iteration phase, she is a sage advisor more focused than I on the goal…I tend to fall in love with details while the big picture stands unseen in the wings. Finally, when it’s all over, she tells me frankly what worked and what didn’t work, and hopefully, I don’t make the same mistakes twice.
If criticism is so integral to the process, why is good criticism so hard to find? Like dating, the whole dance has yielded to a fast and unsatisfying substitute, comparison. During my brief exposure to interaction design, I often hear the following: “what you’re doing reminds me of…,” or “let me send you some links,” or “I can think of five projects like yours that you should look at.” While references are useful, they are not methodical and worse, they’re dangerous. At least, they’re dangerous for me. I’m easily influenced and influence is not process.
Comparison came to eclipse criticism with the rise of blogging as the preferred method for design discussion. As a design community we aggregate, curate, share and reference design…a lot. Placed end to end, blog content becomes a gloriously long list, but a list is not a method.
In graphic design, the first steps toward problem solving are:
1. to understand the problem;
2. to understand the audience;
3. to understand the limitations around what is to be designed.
As a design educator, I know how tempting it is to jump in and do the heavy-lifting that is involved in steps 1, 2, and 3 so the fun work, giving the content form, can ensue. Those steps, however, are so crucial to the execution of a successful design, that the best teaching (criticism) gives clarity to the understanding and defining phase while also developing a methodical design process.
Working methodically is invaluable for interaction design which is arguably more collaborative and iterative than graphic design. Referencing existing interaction designs can aid digital coding and building strategies, and perhaps explains why the comparison method became popular, but is it discardable at this point? Maybe not. It’s incredibly helpful to leverage existing technologies as a means for creating a design solutions. In this application the comparison method is useful, but it’s not enough. References are only valuable if they can be analyzed for relevance and synthesized with meaning.
Perhaps we need to roll back the clock and share lessons from a previous time. My grandmother used a dance card and various suitors would sign up to waltz with her at a tea dance. She would meet all, be charmed by the few with great wit, and choose who would be allowed to dance with her again, supervised with a critical eye by her parents. She made a great match.