Color Play: A Non-verbal Critique Method
K. E. Rajcic | University of Minnesota
Overview: Based on positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, instant gratification, and play theories, the Color Play Non-Verbal Critique Method turns the focus of design critique back on the critique itself. Designated students observe a critique while it is taking place. These observers award colored tokens, with each color representing a positive critique attribute. When a positive critique attribute is observed, the observer(s) place(s) a colored token in a jar near the critique. At the end of the critique, the student(s) who gave the critique has instant visual data of their strengths. If colors are missing or low, they can reflect on areas in which they need to improve. This critique approach provides a two-in-one benefit. A design critique takes place, but the focus is shifted away from the individual whose work is being critiqued and placed on the quality of the critique itself. Both critiques and design work are improved in a non-threatening, playful manner.
Level: Freshmen and sophomores and those new to design critique. An ice breaker for any level.
Duration: This method can be adjusted to any length of critique, and can be done with 3–7 students per table and several tables simultaneously.
- Improve student critique skills by identifying students’ top strengths
- Make feedback stick
- Provide an opportunity for reflection
- Provide metrics for learning
- Aid in experiential learning
In simple terms, the intent of this design critiquing strategy is to improve critiques; the more tokens, the better the critiques. Upon closer examination, however, this method offers several ways to achieve learning goals. Color Play Tokens identify students’ top strengths, enabling them to focus on areas for improvement. The tokens also help make feedback stick. Two essential components of effective learning methods are accountability and feedback. By providing feedback through Color Play Tokens, students hold each other accountable for learning. Students figure out the “why” behind what they need to learn. The tokens also create metrics for learning. Students can set actionable goals based on the tokens they have received in previous critiques.
In addition, the jar of Color Play Tokens facilitates reflection. Through the practice of reflecting (Dewey 1993, Costa and Kallick, 2008), students can understand whether they have implemented new learning. With the visual data of the jar of tokens to ponder, students can be honest with themselves. If they aren’t getting different results, they will realize that they need to practice what is missing from the jar. And finally, the Color Play Nonverbal Method can aid experiential learning by enabling students to create new habits by taking small steps—one token at a time—towards transformation.
The Color Play Nonverbal Critique Method employs five psychological theories as applied to learning: positive reinforcement, instant gratification, use and gratification, social learning theory and the educational theory of play. The first theoretical basis for the idea is skill development through social reinforcers, based on B.F. Skinner’s model of operant conditioning (Mcleod, 2018). This theory grew from Thorndike’s “law of effect,” which stated that a behavior that is followed by pleasant or desirable consequences is likely to be repeated. A recent study on positive reinforcement in organizations provided further evidence that social reinforcement is a powerfully effective method (Yazdanifard, 2014). It follows that positive reinforcement via the Color Play Non-Verbal Critique Method will be effective by providing both the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of encouragement, empowerment, social reinforcement, and mastery of design and critique skills.
This method also employs two gratification theories: the psychological instant gratification theory and the communication theory of use and gratification. The psychological theory of instant gratification, first named by Sigmund Freud, is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans—the tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This tendency is known as the pleasure principle (Ackerman et al., 2018). Because the Color Play Tokens mediate peer communication and interaction, the student receiving them receives instant gratification through social reinforcement, while the student(s) awarding them experience gratification of giving positive encouragement.
Borrowing from the theory of use and gratification (Blumer, J.G. (1979), the Color Play Non-Verbal Critique Method addresses five student needs: cognitive, affective, personal integrative, social integrative, and tension-free. The students’ cognitive needs are filled by acquiring knowledge, information, and facts about the content of the critique and the design work being critiqued. Their affective needs are met by addressing student emotions and attitudes about critique. As students earn tokens, their personal integrative needs are met through improved self-esteem as they grow confident in their abilities to give and receive critiques. By giving and receiving social reinforcers, social integrative needs are met by engaging in a trust building peer- to peer studio environment.
Using the Color Play Non-Verbal Method, peers also learn to model behaviors as in the social learning theory (Bandura, 1971) which proposes that new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others. Students observe a model performing a behavior and the consequences of that behavior, they remember the sequences of events and use this information to guide behaviors of an effective critique. Finally, based on play theory, (Bateson, P. P. G., & Martin, P., 2013) tension-free needs are met in the playful nature of the Color Play Nonverbal Critique Method, which reduces the tension typically associated with studio critiques. “In playful activities, participants are more comfortable taking risks, and risk-taking can lead to more learning” (Mardell et al., 2016).
The amount of materials needed for the method depends on the size of class and the structure of the critiquing sessions. If several critiques are taking place at once, you will need several mason jars and multi-colored (pom pom) tokens (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Mason jars filled with tokens.
Figure 2. Example of a positive critique of attribute KEY.
You will also need to create a Color Play token attribute key (Figure 2) and, if desired, bring a handheld timer or designate a student to keep time. Student observers should have paper or note cards for noting reasons a token was given or not given (this is for their own learning, not to justify tokens awarded). Each student should also have a journal in which to record reflections after Color Play critiques.
Before students do an actual critique, the instructor should make sure that students know the elements of a good critique for that particular class. Introduce the Color Play Nonverbal Critique Method by informing students that the goal of the method is to improve their critique skills. Follow this with a role play demonstration of the method. The instructor can ask two students to be the designer and critic. The instructor will act as the observer and award tokens. The designer will use a piece of work (their own or not) and present it to the critic, and the critic will proceed to critique the work, with the instructor awarding tokens accordingly. The demo does not need to be a full critique for students to understand how to use the method. The instructor has the choice of table arrangement and number of student participants (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Sample table arrangements. Each Observer can award one or more fuzzies depending on the attribute KEY.
Depending on the type of studio class using the method, each token attribute can be tailored to a critique goal. Instructors can formulate their own rules of engagement, such as close listening, no side talking, and only judicious awarding of tokens. Assign colored tokens to student observers. The instructor should have a token attribute key (Figure 2) on hand that students can reference during the critique. Depending on the type of design studio class, the key can change according to the goals of the critique. The flexibility of this method is that it can be tailored to any studio class by establishing ground rules and using a content key that is shared with students before critique commences.
Note: If it is not possible for each student to have their own jar of tokens, the Color Play journals that students use for reflection after critiques can also be used to record awarded tokens. At the end of the critique, students count their tokens and according to each color record them by date, number, and attribute. The jar and tokens are then free to be used for a new critique.
This method creates a safe space for design critique and fosters a sense of play, with students wanting to award tokens as much as receive them. Observed outcomes and benefits include improved critiques through skill building and shared trust, and improved design work by all students, not only the one who is critiqued. The student giving the design critique builds verbal, socio-emotional, and critical skills. The person receiving the critique feels less stress and anxiety knowing the focus is on the critic rather than the work, even while the work is being critiqued. There will be a noticeable reduction in classroom tension. Once learned, the method can be implemented without direct instructor supervision using peer-to-peer group work, a preferred learning environment for millennial learners.
Figure 4. Example of alternate use of tokens. Instructors can change attributes to fit the goals of critique.
An alternate application of the Color Play Nonverbal Critique Method makes it possible to quickly conduct several design critiques at once. One attribute or several can be critiqued per session. Critics move through the studio, stopping at each design work, and award tokens according to a prescribed key (Figure 4). Because the critique is non-verbal, there is less tension for all participants. Students can rework their designs based on the data provided by the tokens. A second or third round of critiques of the same design work can be conducted until all token attributes are present in a student’s jar. Since peers cannot verbally provide ideas or solutions, this nonverbal method also encourages students to come up with their own solutions.
Ackerman, C.E., Donaldson, S.I., & Warren, M.A. (2018). Scaling the heights of positive psychology:
A systematic review of measurement scales. International Journal of Wellbeing, 8(2):1-21.
Bandura, A. (1971). "Social Learning Theory" (PDF). General Learning Corporation. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 October 2013. Retrieved April 15, 2020.
Bateson, P. P. G., & Martin, P. (2013). Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blumer, J.G. (1979). The role of theory in uses and gratifications studies. Communication Research, 6, 9–36.
Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success retrieved April 15, 2020 from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/108008.aspx
Daniels, A.C. (2016). Bringing out the best in people: How to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement (3rd ed.).
New York, NY, McGraw-Hill Education.
Dewey, J. (1993). How we think of a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery Co.
Mardell, D., Wilson, J., Ryan, K., Ertel, M., Krechevsky, M., & Baker, M. (2016). Toward a pedagogy of play. http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Towards%20a%20Pedagogy%20of%20Play.pdf
McLeod, S. A. (2018, January, 21). Skinner - operant conditioning. Simply Psychology.
Yazdanifard, R., (2014). The impact of positive reinforcement on employees’ performance in organizations. American Journal of Industrial and Business Management, 4, 9-12.
Photograph of three jars with colored pom pom balls, retrieved in 2020 from
Photograph of twelve colored pom pom balls, retrieved in 2020 from