How Critiquing Others Can Help Improve Your Designs

Last week Paul Burton shared some thoughts on A List Apart about Artistic Distance and how creatives need to be able to step back from their work in order to see it better. We can get too close, too emotionally attached to our own work masking the ability to see it for what it is.

Paul talked about Dribbble and Forrst, two sites with goals of providing communities that could offer feedback and critique to creatives. Unfortunately as Paul suggests things haven’t panned out as planned. The sites tend to be more showcase and inspiration than a way to get good feedback. Comments tend to be the of the superficial “great work” instead of offering any meaningful critique.

That’s one person’s opinions, but it strikes me as accurate. I’ve seen much the same thing even as I enjoy both sites.

The rest of Paul’s article talks about why critique is important and how to offer it. I’ll let you read his article for the details. I wanted to share a story I’ve shared before about how putting in time to help someone else by critiquing their work helped me even more.

Royal KMM 'Magic Margin' Typewriter

A Writing Exercise Showing the Value of Critiques

Years ago I enrolled in a creative writing course and as part of the course we all submitted our work to the instructor and every student in the class so they could critique it and offer feedback.

On the surface this seemed to be for the benefit of those being critiqued as they could learn how they might make their work better. However I think just as, if not more, important it was an exercise for those offering the feedback. Our critiques were to follow some specific guidelines, most important of which was to:

  • Point out 3 things in the work you liked
  • Offer 3 suggestions for improvement

After receiving everyone’s feedback on my writing, it was obvious few put in any time on the exercise. Some didn’t take the time to offer feedback of any kind, but even those who did often held to the minimum the exercise asked. Only a few people took the time to get something out of it.

I took the exercise seriously. I really wanted to offer as much as I could to help my fellow writers. I wasn’t under any illusions that my opinion was worth more than anyone else’s, but I wanted to help as much as I could.

It wasn’t always easy. Some of the works were, shall we say, less than good and it was hard to find 3 things I could honestly say I liked. Other works were very good and it was a challenge to think how they could be improved. In both cases I did find those 3 and 3 things. It took a lot of studying and analysis. I read each story and poem multiple times, making notes as I did.

I spent time with each work in order to better understand its

  • character
  • structure
  • voice and style
  • point of view
  • plot
  • setting
  • dialogue
  • pace
  • theme

It’s what I should have been doing to my own work, but I was too close to it. I didn’t have the same distance from my work as I had from the work of a group of people I’d just met. I didn’t have any emotional connection to them or their writing. I had artistic distance. I was far enough away where I could see with greater objectivity what worked and didn’t and even better how I might make improvements.

Over the course of the summer I probably critiqued about 15–20 short stories, chapters, and poems. In the end I came away from the course a much better writer, mainly due to the work I’d put in giving feedback to others, than any feedback gave me.

A picture is worth a thousand critics

The Benefit of Critiquing Websites

I’m sure you’ve stopped at a site before and appreciated it’s design. I’m sure you’ve also visited some sites and thought the navigation would work better over there or the first paragraph on the home page could be rewritten to lead people deeper into the site.

Have you ever spent the time to go through every section of a site and think about how the site could be improved? Have you ever put in the time studying and analyzing what works on the site and where it could be improved. Can’t say I have either, but we both should.

Instead of being impressed with some of our fellow designers and underwhelmed with others, why don’t we put in a little extra effort and think through why we like one design and dislike another and in both cases really think about how we could improve them?

You’ve probably looked at something on a site and viewed the source code to understand how it was built. Why not do that with the overall design instead of just the technique? You don’t have to share your feedback with the designers, though perhaps in some cases they would find it helpful. This is more an exercise for yourself.

If you don’t like the colors used in one design think about why. Do they not work together? Do they not compliment the products being sold? Do they send a conflicting message? What colors would work? Improve the site by choosing what you consider to be a better color scheme.

You can take it as far as you want, even copying down the source code of the site and tweaking it to improve those 3 things. I think if you do you’ll find your own designs improving and you’ll develop a greater sense of confidence in your skills.

Since it’s not your design you’re critiquing you’ll have artistic distance from it and be better able to look at it objectively.

Illustration of two people looking at artwork with one saying 'I dont get it'

Would You Like Feedback on a Design?

A few years ago when I first mentioned the writing exercise I made an offer at the end of the post that if anyone wanted I would critique their blog. A couple of readers took me up on it and I offered feedback according to the exercise I described above. I listed 3 things I liked and 3 suggestions for improvement.

Since I mentioned the exercise again I’ll make a similar offer, though this time I’ll only critique the design. If you’re up for it send me a link to a site you designed and I’ll write a post with my feedback. Keep in mind I’m only one person with an opinion and just because I like something or think something could be improved, it doesn’t make me right.

Again I think the real value in this is for the person offering the feedback so I stand more to gain than you do. However, it might help to see someone else critique a design as an example for how you might critique one too.

If anyone is game send me a link. No need to feel shy or worried about what I might say. The nature of the exercise is to offer the critique in a positive way.

Even if you want don’t feedback on a design, do think about taking the time to analyze the designs of others and think about why they work and how you could improve them. If you put in the time and effort it will pay off for you. You’ll gain a better understanding of what works in general in the design of a site and you’ll also start to see how some artistic distance can help you spot errors in your own work.

Have you ever studied the designs of others in detail and thought about why they did or didn’t work? Have you ever taken the time to truly critique the work of another figuring out how you might improve on their design? What did you think? Did you find the effort worthwhile?

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

18 comments

    • Cool James. I’m glad someone took me up on the offer. :)

      I should be able to get a critique written and posted by Thursday. I can email you to let you know when it’s published so you don’t miss it.

  1. Hi Steven

    I would also like to take up this offer!
    Designed by a coder with little or no design knowledge so would like to know how these fare according to you

    recipesnext.com
    bargainnext.com

    Thank you very much in advance

  2. I am a start-up freelance designer and I would appreciate if you would look at my portfolio. It is still a work in progress as I am just finishing school and only have a few real examples. The rest is school work and when I am done I will alter it to just be professional. Anyway, keeping this in mind could you concentrate on the design, not the content. On the landing page I intend on having a small rotating picture box highlighting each service offered.

    Thanks in advance,

    Scott

  3. I enjoyed this article. I like to look at new websites and email the web developer when I like their site. However, I dont tell them what exactly I like about their sites. Thanks to your article, I’ll start doing that from now on.

    I donate my time/skills maintaining a site for a non-profit organization in the Washington, DC area. I’d love if you can critique it. There some things that I’m already tired of and new things that I’d like to change in (e.g. fluid and responsive design). I’m sure you can tell me other designs things I can fix. The site for Cantigas, the organization, cantigas.org.

  4. Hi Steven,

    I enjoy reading your excellent blog and will definitely take you up on your offer. :)

    The page in question is my personal portfolio page, http://joshdick.net.

    I am a software developer and not a designer, so I’m curious about your perspective.

  5. @Scott, Jorge, and Josh. I’ll do my best to get you all critiques. Bear with me as it will take a few weeks to get to them all.

    For everyone else reading after this I probably won’t be able to offer any more critiques. Remember the point of this post is that critiquing someone else’s work is more beneficial than having your worked critiqued. Or at least it can be.

  6. Hi Steven, I would love to hear what you have to say about my website. My bounce rate is high and I would love to know how I can bring it down. Any feedback is welcome. Thank you!

    • Hi Kat. I’ll be glad to offer a critique. It’ll probably be a few weeks before I get to it, but I promise I will. One thing you should know in advance is that I can guarantee anything I say will improve your bounce rate, since I would need a lot of access to data and an ability to test something things that I won’t have.

      However I’ll do my best to keep bounce rate in mind while I’m working on the critique and come up with some thoughts.

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