Questions on Critiques

Hello all,

I am currently helping my professors test out several new methods of critiquing. In the past, we have critiqued based on mostly professor feedback given verbally after student presentation. Student feedback is encouraged but often nobody comments. It makes for a long and boring day.

Thus, I suggested we try more engaging and responsive methods:

  1. Student feedback only given after student presentation. Professors then write up thoughts and pass them back later in the week. Pros: Professor feedback is more meaningful and concise, more time for engaged student feedback Cons: Students feel they have presented “for nothing”, are upset about time it takes for prof. to write up 20 or so critiques. (about 1 week)

  2. Comment cards for both student and prof. Students and professor feedback still occurs but now there are provided comment cards with questions like “Did the presentation flow/understandable & why/why not? Was the amount of exploration thorough? Did they design something innovative/new & why/why not?” Etc. There are also questions about verbal presentation and visual presentation as well. (in progress)

**My question(s) for everybody out there is…

  1. What kind of critiques did/do you have in school? Where they successful? Why /why not?
  2. Any suggestions for our critiques? Or any suggestions on the type of questions that should be prompted on the comment cards?
  3. What do you think of my suggested critique methods?**

Thank you all for answering and I look forward to the feedback :smiling_imp:

Fact is, prof feedback may be boring, but probably the only useful kind. Students critiquing other students at best is overwhelming positive as nobody want to be that guy who points out holes in a colleagues project. Plus students also don’t have the experience to crit work at their own level (or everyone would be awesome).

Unless you can figure a way to incentivize real student crit (ie. Everyone has to mark everyone and points are given for constructive criticism (a marking nightmare) I don’t see how you could improve.

Best thing I’ve found both as a student and teacher is to make crits honest and helpful. If every prof comment is “well done” it’s boring and nobody learns. If your prof is Randy from Anerican Idol, it is boring.

One good solution is guest reviewers. They can bring interest and honesty as people respect what they say if they come from industry and they don’t care as much about being nice.


Students being quiet during a critique is one of the big mysteries.
We are all passionate about design, go through a grueling educational system and then we’ll just sit there, stare and let this amazing opportunity pass to learn from our peers successes and mistakes through asking the right questions and voicing our opinions?
Baffles my mind.

There is definitely a risk of student feedback not being valuable but in my experience, the student feedback has been very useful. Especially in my Masters as there all the students do have a bit more confidence and experience.

Personally, I wouldn’t exclude the Prof from the initial review as his comments might spark a discussion in the classroom. But this is also where you can tell a good prof from a bad one. His job is not just about giving a valuable, balanced critique but also to entice the fellow students to get a discussion going. It’s his job.

On the other hand, I like the idea to give a bit more guidance through cards. It might help frame the discussion.

Why isn’t the professor facilitating a discussion?

For example, the professor could use a Socratic method and would be an obvious alternative to just lecturing a critique.

Then there are the hundreds of other means of facilitating a discussion.

The professor should be facilitating group discussion by spurring people into conversations. When I was a professor I just hounded people into talking, I also brought in other design professionals as guest critics and used our conversations as a model for students to emulate. That said, the professors voice is the most important assuming she or he is an experienced design practitioner with valuable insights.

As a studen I had an instructor try to institute a comment card system and it was totally useless. Design critique is not social media, and design is not a democracy. You are paying to be critiqued and critiqued hard. The weakest work should be ripped apart, the strongest work should be set as a new benchmark for average.

The social psychology of critiques differs significantly when you have peer reviews and when you have group faculty reviews. I remember our senior thesis critique had two modes; mid-term faculty-only, and final group exhibition. The former being the most productive and value adding, as expected. But also, a brutal truth defining moment of whether you will make it in the normative ID profession. The latter of group discussion, I found as a practice for the presenter to learn about presenting arguments in group format. Whether they succeeded or not is subjective at best. I just have one quibble about the group crits -

13 years later, I found that a good number of my fellow associates rarely push the envelope in our studio. Comfy paycheck always makes us complacent to push boundaries, I guess. I realize it comes with the culture of the company that inevitably trickles down from executive leadership. However, I can’t quite pinpoint it exactly, but I do know there is a definite correlation between having a very strong culture of hard critiques at the student level, and later translating that same rigor into the critiques of a professional studio. From my perspective, I see it as establishing a relevant terminology (not buzzwords) and deeply engaging in a dialogue about finding/creating great design truthfully transcends the end result. I believe that’s not something one applies into; rather, gets invited into.

You want to learn about good critiques, go find out how any great professional studio engages design decisions, then model your student critiques after that. Albeit, try and filter out all the marketing hype of the studio process and learn how they codify the methodology of choice.

In every great team I’ve worked in there was a strong leader who wanted you to win, wanted you to do your best, and pushed you, hard. We can all share some stories here I’m sure. Here are a couple:

One professor I had would walk around with a coaches whistle. If you started to BS in the presentation the whistle would be blown and he would just move onto the next person. It ensured everyone was honest, to the point, and concise int heir presentations.

My first real design boss who is an amazing designer came up to my desk after I sketched on a projects all day. I was pretty proud of the direction it was taking and walked him through it. He patiently listened, went back to his desk and started sketching. 10 minutes later he came back with a perfect synthesis of all of my best ideas in one sketch and said something to the effect of “not bad kid, you’ll get there”… it was a humbling moment and one that pushed me. The day he came over to my desk and said “nice work” and didn’t do an overlay or have a ton of feedback was huge.

I would implement both of these as a professor later in my career. One of my favorite things as a guest critic is to doodle an alternate solution for each student presenting in the time it takes other people to comment.

Man, I wish I had this in design school. We had this one kid in particular who was a master of BS, the trouble was the tutors ate it for breakfast whilst myself and the rest of my classmates/buddies couldn’t believe the dribble we were hearing.

It reminds me of this segment from Karl Pilkington, a sort of British comedian that works a lot with Ricky Gervais (UK Office):

I think it’s the professors responsibility to lead the conversation without forcing some script. Iab said it great. I think the teacher should use something similar to the Socratic Method, as the problem is that usually students don’t know where to begin early on. Once there’s some momentum, students feel more comfortable tagging onto a conversation rather than breaking the ice.

I think it’s also usually part of a larger cultural issue too. When I studied abroad in Europe the students were far more aggressive than where I was studying in California. The same thing when I took a course at a more well known school.

The Socratic method does not fly over here in Asia. To understand face saving culture, rules out many the western concepts of critique. However, I do try to get the students I work with to understand that there is a different approach to learning in the west and include a variety of design learning methods in the classes I teach.

There is a distinct sadistic element to western style critiquing that is very subtle. Tearing into someone’s work and ripping it apart is actually benefiting the critiquer and not the critiquee. It is a subtle form of sadism that psychologically does not benefit progress among a team of designers. I had to leave the US and work in practice and academia in Asia to understand this fully.

Talking about design is very different than actually doing it. The reflective nature of critique says more about the provider of criticism than it does about the work or the designer who produced the work. Knowing this, I have transformed the classrooms I teach in to run and operate as any design studio would in the practice world. I try to treat even freshmen as designers working in a professional studio rather than mere students who know nothing or are incapable of high performance. Students will always be sugar coating their remarks in critique as they do not want to disturb the class harmony or upset the political alliances they have forged. Professors bring a bias that conflicts with many students real intentions, and industry practitioners can have a bias that usually does not have patience with the students envelope pushing ideas.

When I explain how to critique properly to the students I work with, I insist that the critiquer must see and share a balance of both positive and critical feedback. With freshmen I will even tell them specifically, 3 positive points and 3 negative points as well as whether they personally like the work and why. The seniors obviously need to display a larger scope of critical thinking and must articulate and show insights in their feedback. Feedback of any kind is valuable. Understanding the bias of the audience is the design presenters secret weapon. Teaching students to understand the bias of their audience helps them understand better the criticism that is being leveled, and then being comfortable choosing whether to include the feedback to further their project or reject it.

I tell students to listen and respond to their audience in order to decide later whether or not the feedback is worth including in their project. This helps them to better objectify their work and their emotions towards the work. Design is largely about editing.

Additionally, try setting up a video camera on a tripod during critique. The presence of a camera in the room that is recording dynamically changes the vibe and behaviors of the participants.

I would agree with you that prof feedback is most definitely important but I also think students critiquing students can be valuable too. The class above mine participates more frequently and because of that they are developing the skills to critique. Additionally, students often point out things (i feel) that professors might not see/miss.

I want to share with you how our critiques work and some of the issues students feel are affecting “what they are getting out of the critiques”. First off, we critique for an entire day fitting about 20 or so people into the span of 6-9 hours. We usually have to cut into lunch time and go over our suggested meeting times in order to fit everyone in. We usually present our concepts, work, final design, and then the profs critique us for about 5-10m. Students rarely voice opinions. Some of the issues I’ve gathered through talking around the studio + with profs:

  1. Frankly, the profs are deadbeat tired by the end of the day. Anyone who is last or near last is basically screwed because students leave, the prof is having trouble giving critical feedback (because at that point everything is looking similar), and it’s significantly shorter than others critiques (about 2-3 minutes, maybe)

  2. When students present, they feel that their work isn’t getting critiqued harshly enough. Our profs have had a tendency to critique the presentation lately over the design. Personally, I’ve been trying to combat this by directing my own critique with specific questions or areas I feel need to be discussed verbally.

  3. A lot of students complain of “in one ear out the other” syndrome- where during the prof critique they basically “forget” most of what the prof said. Some students ask others to take notes for them during their critiques but often their notes are spacey or are lacking in detail. I feel this is important to fix because if it isn’t it makes the interaction and effort for both the prof + student feel worthless.

Do you have any advice for students who align with these issues? Or what would you do as a student to try to combat this if you felt this way?

Thanks for the feedback! I like the idea of guest reviewers a lot. I’ve only experienced this a few times + my overall thoughts on it are that the guest reviewers can sometimes be quiet + (it seems) don’t want to overstep the prof.

Hi thanks for the comment. We have 2 profs critique for each class. I know that they are good profs but they doesn’t necessarily help to lead discussion or spark anything. One of the issues I see is that sometimes the profs get “carried away in the discussion” together + don’t give students the opportunity to chime in till the very end. Often, at that point, the critique has become extremely lengthy + nobody wants to be “that guy” that makes the critique 10-15 minutes longer. I don’t think it’s because people want to necessarily leave early but students worry that if they comment now, they won’t get as much time for a critique or their fellow classmates, etc.

Do you have any suggestions on how to spark a discussion in the classroom? Or at the very least, how I can bring these issues up with my prof without overstepping my boundaries as a student? We are trying the comment cards out in the next junior critique (Jan.11) but I want to help the head of the program to find the best possible solution so we all feel our time is being used well.

Hi Yo, thanks for the comment. Its funny because I actually met you a couple years ago when you presented at an IDSA conference in Raleigh, NC. I didn’t realize it was you until I saw your signature.

One of the reasons why I suggested a comment card was not necessarily to create a democratic environment but rather to help the students who are listening to the presentation get the most out their time spent listening to critiques. Students are usually on their phones, computers, sleeping, or daydreaming. It’s discouraging when you go up to present and you realize the only people listening are you professors. I want to eliminate that forcing the students to stay active, even if quietly active. That way there is more student feedback (written), ideas are shared, + students listening are actively developing skills that can help them in the future.

Regarding your statement “you are paying to be critiqued + critiqued hard.” I have outright told my prof. “I want my designs + presentation to be ripped apart. If I go home + cry about it later, you have done a good job + I’ll most definitely improve because of it.” I have still yet to experience this. :confused:

I’m curious, what do you think of DesignBreathing’s comment on “Tearing into someone’s work and ripping it apart is actually benefiting the critiquer and not the critiquee. It is a subtle form of sadism that psychologically does not benefit progress among a team of designers.” Do you disagree + why/why not?

Thanks! :bulb:

Any suggestions on great professional studios? + also what are you referring to when you say “marketing hype”? Are you referring to marketing in general or a specific element that rams itself into the design process?

Thanks for the comment!

I don’t know who taught you the Socratic method, but they obviously taught you wrong. Asking questions allows the critiquee to go through the critical thinking process of their idea. A successful Socratic method, the critiquee will “tear” into their own work and “rip” it apart. Masochistic, not sadistic.

And as a matter of fact, I find that students tend to dismiss some of their best ideas as “bad”. A good critique will show them the error of their way. The Socratic method is a good way to guide a person to an alternative perspective to evaluate their idea.

Wow, that would be simply unacceptable when I was a student (not that cell phones existed). If I were a professor and I saw that happening I would simply make it classroom policy to not have a phone out. Anyone who took a phone out and started snap chatting or shipping tinder would find their phone confiscated, their grade marked down, and booted from the classroom and would have to retrieve their phone from the presidents office. It would only need to happen once and it would never happen again.

As a professor I enacted a policy that on crib day all work had to be hung by the class starting time. Then I would get tot the classroom 30 minutes early and take all the tacks, then get a coffee. I’d come back in 10 minutes ahead of time and see a class full of students and no work hung and I’d ask if they all wanted to be marked down a grade? When they said there was no tacks, I’d say you are presenting to a CEO of a fortune 100 in ten minutes and their are not tacks in the room, what do you do? They all run out and buy tacks… next step, ask the first kid why he has one red tack, or why his presentation board is hung 5 degrees off? “I don’t know” is the typical answer, then I reply if you can’t care enough to hang your work at the same level, have a reason for choosing your presentation size, or choose four of the same color tacks I can’t care enough to crib and grade you… give everyone a 10 minute break to hang their work level with the same color tacks… of course I stole this from a professor who did this to me. It was a lesson we on;y had to lear once and I still show up to meetings with tacks and tape and carefully print things, and I’m sure my former students do as well.

What is the point of this? Is it sadistic as design breathing suggested? Not for me. It is about imparting lessons in the most efficient manner. If your professors are talking more about presentation style than design, my your presentations suck and are not up to the level were design can even be talked about yet. Make better presentations. The only way to force the conversation to be about design, is to eliminate other objections.

This will happen in the professional world as well, so learn these lessons now. When I worked at Nike I saw it all the time. A great idea presented poorly becomes a poor idea.

Focus on being the best designer you can be. Push yourself and raise the bar. Don’t try to fix the school. If your professors are not good enough, make a formal complaint and ask to have new professors, or transfer to a different school, or do an exchange semester. Your peers are your competition, if they want to be on the phone, and your professor doesn’t stop them, their problem.

Last preach anecdote of the post. When I was at RISD we were quite vocal as students. Peer debates in cries was pretty epic, but the quality of instruction was a little patch at the time, so I did an exchange semester at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The instruction there was really pretty amazing. Most teachers were professionals and they even had classes on Saturdays to make it easier for professionals to teach and be visiting critics (genius, Art Center does this as well). The thing was the student participation in cries was almost nonexistent. I continued participating just as I had at RISD and I got a lot of the discussions with professors, who as I mentioned were mainly professionals. Who do you think they spent more time with? I remember a student came in half way through a crib and moved other people’s projects aside and put her work next. When it came time to crib her I was conspicuously silent. The professor asked me “Michael, you have been quiet, what do you think?” which amazed me that he cared what I thought. I responded “xxx can’t show up on time, I can’t care to give her feedback, get here on time like the rest of us.” The professor cracked up and said “thats why this guy will go far.”

Ironically, it is the simple things that will get you there, because shockingly so few people actually bother to show up on time, participate, hang their work straight, present clearly and concisely… easy stuff.

OK I lied, one more story, remember that professor I mentioned earlier with the whistle? He blew it on me once. It was a final presentation, the class was designing a Chrysler branded vehicle of our choosing. I decided to design a family car for GenX (It was 1997 so people were not thinking of Gen X as family people yet). I had a 22’ by 6’ presentation space and for the final I laid out the entire project from research on who gen x was, core values, key personas, functional insights, exploration sketches, innovative details, and final design. I got about three sentences in and the bulls!t whistle got blown on me and I think I yelled “What the heck!” and the professor said “You did it, I got the entire thing by just looking at the wall, good job kid, you don’t need to sell me”. Focus on doing your work and aim for that.

From the show “Idiot Abroad” I love that show and have seen that episode. So good!

Agreed, and this is the professors job I think once the work is at least up to standard to merit the amount of time this usually takes. You are right, a lot of times students will miss their own good ideas. Hopefully the professor will help them find it in a mid term crib and not the final!

Ha. My prof did the tack thing too also locked the doors promptly at starting time. If you weren’t there with work up, you fail.

When I teach, I’m hard but practical. I take the view that I’m the client. Presentation also is important. I mark for both thinking (concept and rationale), as well presentation and execution. All 3 need to be in place. I recall one student who had a great project, great boards, who complained about his presentation mark. I told him he looked like a homeless guy, with ripped jeans, dirty shirt and messy hair. I could listen to his presentation and it was distracting, and unprofessional, hence the mark.

From the sounds of it, the issue may be more with the profs or students rather than the format. If that’s the case, take the lead in your own crit and don’t worry about others. If you aren’t getting good feedback, ask questions. Simple.


We had a professor come in from Germany when I was in school. He demanded high quality work and presentation from all of the students and made sure everybody’s work was pinned up and ready before class started. I remember thinking it was great… and he would heckle students about misaligned boards and pages…it made sense… Why should he take the student seriously if the student doesn’t take her/himself seriously. He’d also want everyone’s presentations aligned with the one next to it and would make everyone take down their presentations and realign everything.

I’ve also seen a problem with the headphones and phones. One time during a crit there was a guy sleeping with his headphones in…The prof called on him, and the guy was right up next to the presentation wall asleep!

My favorite profs are the ones that are upfront. In one of my foundation courses, I had a design rendered in chrome. I was so proud of it and thought I was a master of rendering chrome by using these black blobs to represent the theoretical forms reflecting from the surface. The prof walked up and said " I told you to render chrome, not a cow print". Needless to say…I learned how to render chrome after that.