The 99designs guide to critiquing graphic design

Kaitlyn Ellison

Design can be a solitary activity. You’ve probably found yourself sitting in front of a computer screen for hours toiling to create the perfect product for clients. It’s a good way to get tunnel vision and to slowly lose the context of your work. Good thing design can (and should) be more collaborative than that. Often the most productive way to bring others into your process is by running a critique.

Whether you are critiquing or being critiqued, there is a lot to learn when reviewing work with fellow designers, clients, and even unassociated friends and family. So to help you get started, we’ve compiled a guide for running a positive critique.

If you’re critiquing someone’s work

Critiquing Art

image from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Why should you critique someone else’s work for them?

Creativity is a collaborative process. Critiquing other’s work not only helps them out, but helps you learn to think critically as a designer and a creative, which you can apply to your own work as well.

Where do you start?

Start by looking and listening. What information is being presented to you by the artist — is it just the work, or do you have access to the original brief, information about intention and inspiration? Take it all in and analyze, ask questions if you need to.

Be aware of who is really in the hot seat.

Critiquing work can definitely be challenging, but in the end remember that being critiqued is much more difficult than doing the critiquing. Start positive. There’s plenty of time to get to the things you think should be changed, and there’s no design that doesn’t have at least one good feature. Just make sure that you don’t make it up — be honest about what you do like, because no one wants to be patronized.

Know how to give constructive criticism.

You’ve started out with something you like about the design to help put the designer at ease, now move onto what you think could be improved. Phrase this in a constructive way — if something isn’t coming across as intended, let the designer know how it could be done better.

Most of all, be specific! Things like “It’s great” or “I’m not sure what I think” aren’t useful. Use those brain cells of yours to figure out exactly what is making you think you do or don’t like a work, and then let the designer know.

Most importantly, give actionable criticism! If you think you know an alternative way to do something, let the designer know. Even if they don’t go with your suggestion exactly, it could help them come up with their own solution to the problem.

What are some tools you can use?

Start with the elements and principles of design and composition. Does the design have any or all of these incorporated into it?

  • Elements: Line, shape, form, color, space, texture
  • Principles: Balance, proportion and scale, contrast, repetition and pattern, unity and harmony
  • Composition: Framing, dominance/hierarchy, fore/middle/background, lead room, rule of thirds, rule of odds

Also think about the style, purpose, goals, intentions, and audience of the design.

Know when to draw the line.

There is a difference between your personal opinion and an unbiased critique. Make sure you separate the two! You may not like a specific style of design, but don’t automatically write something off just because it’s not your thing. Give the designer your perspective, as in the end his product is about the tastes of the designer and his/her client.

If your work is being critiqued

Breakfast Club

Image from the Breakfast Club

Why should you have your work critiqued?

Critiques are a great way to get feedback on a design you’re not sure of, to catch mistakes you have have missed, and to get a new perspective on your work. They’re also a great way to practice your pitch to your client, you’ll have to know the idea behind the work through and through to get it past any kind of audience.

Who should you ask to critique your work?

The great thing about 99designs is that it’s a huge community of designers! Definitely consult others in or out of the community (our Facebook Feedback Group is a great place to start). But they’re not your only resource. Try critiquing with someone completely uninvolved with the project to get a new perspective. Anyone with an art or design background should have a basic understanding of how to critique. It could also be useful to chat with someone completely outside of the design realm! They could give you opinions that you never would have thought of yourself.

What should you present to the person critiquing your work?

The work itself is obvious. But for a critique to be really good, the critic has to know the requirements for the work so they know if you are fulfilling them or not. So prepare a bit of a presentation. Explain what the projects was, it’s goals, and what inspired you to create the work you’re presenting. Be specific! The more information, the better.

Where in the process should you be explaining your work?

Both before and during! Think of everything you can present from the get go, but be ready to answer hard questions. Don’t get defensive, even if they’re tough. Doing your best to answer questions will make you think about your project in a different way. Also, if you can’t answer a question, ask yourself why?

When should you have your work critiqued?

It’s easy enough to know that you should get your work critiqued if you get stuck and don’t know where to go, or if you’re not sure that something is working the way you intend it to. But consider getting a piece that you’re totally sure of critiqued as well — you never know if you’re as on-point as you think you are, due to the potential of the aforementioned tunnel-vision.

Know how to deal with feedback.

Being critiqued isn’t easy. You are going to face the realities of having imperfect work! But the key here is to take it all in stride, knowing that what people say is going to make your work better. Don’t get defensive and don’t take it personally. Work with the critic to figure out what’s making them react the way they are, and then decide what kind of revisions you need to make, and which you can ignore ;). Ask questions, don’t freak out.

What are your tips for critiquing graphic design?

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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