The Purpose of Critique
Stephanie Zollinger, Ed.D. | University of Minnesota
The words critic, criticism, critical, criterion, and critique are derived from the Greek verb Krinein, meaning to make judgments, distinctions, and selections (Attoe, 1978). While design instructors often see the critique purely as a place for constructive evaluation, for many design students, the critique is synonymous with judgment day (Buster & Crawford, 2007). True to its Greek origins, the critique is seen as the place of reckoning, where a classroom authority blesses or belittles a project in which the student has become personally invested. The critic’s job is to provide useful assessment, deconstruct the project, and evaluate its parts with an eye to offering the student practical solutions to perceived deficiencies (Cameron, 2014). The student’s role is to distance himself/herself enough from the work so that they can constructively participate in its demise (Buster & Crawford, 2007).
Critique has long been considered a standard of design education, serving as both a structural mechanism for providing regular feedback (Cennamo et al., 2010) and a high-stakes assessment tool (Anthony, 1991). Classroom critiques are forums where students learn that the creative or analytical process is as much iterative as it is inspirational. When interspersed throughout a project, classroom critiques foster iterative thinking and production. Critiques thus teach students that creative and cognitive acuity of all types and at every level is available to all, can be nurtured in small steps, and, like a muscle repeatedly exercised, can grow strong and vital (Owens, 2007).
Unlike many educational methods that have undergone dramatic change over time, studio critique has remained much the same over the past thirty years, all too often utilizing an unformatted approach or framework in which work is assessed according to the opinions and biases of the critic(s). Most instructors do not establish clear goals or objectives for design juries or specify how to ascertain if those goals and objectives have been met (Cameron, 2014). This is problematic, because design feedback that lacks a framework is nothing more than a reaction or response. Often, instructors fail to guide feedback to address areas of high interest and importance, and to do so in ways that address the learning objectives. Without guidance, the feedback is often a critic’s gut reaction, which may be in the form of a list of instructions or suggestions on what to change or comments that align with the critic’s vision rather than the designer’s (Uluoglo, 2000; Connor & Irizarry, 2015).
To improve the conversations surrounding the development of design work, instructors must understand three forms of critique—reaction-based, direction-based, and critical thinking—and how each form affects design.
Reaction-based criticism is essentially a gut reaction, and usually happens quickly and instinctively. Such responses are determined by someone’s expectations, desires, and values, and are often filled with passion. Reaction-based feedback can also be driven by an individual's understanding of what they are expected to say, typically informed by cultural and social norms, or what they think the presenter wants to hear (Connor & Irizarry, 2015).
Direction-based critique typically begins with instruction or a suggestion. In many cases, that’s also where the feedback ends. The individual providing direction-based criticism is often looking for ways to modify the design to be more aligned with their own ideas about what the solution should or could be. Similar to reaction-based feedback, direction-based feedback without any explanation or dialog indicates nothing about the effectiveness of meeting the designer’s objectives. If the person providing the feedback is the one who ultimately approves the design, the critic might supply a to-do list that will ensure their approval. Obtaining approval and creating effective design solutions, however, are not necessarily the same (Connor & Irizarry, 2015).
Critical thinking is the third—and arguably the most important—form of critique for design. Critical thinking involves the process of receiving information and determining if it is true or false. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often as it should in a studio setting. When students work on an assigned design project they are doing so to meet or achieve some set of objectives. During the course of a project, students receive feedback concerning their design, and must determine whether the criticism has validity and is relevant to achieving the project goals, visions, and requirements. Design instructors should implement a framework that encourages students to engage in an analytical approach to processing feedback. When there is a framework for critics and students alike, it results in a richer and more meaningful review process. According to Connor and Irizarry (2015), a useful framework includes three key elements: it identifies a specific aspect of the idea or decision in the design being analyzed, it relates that aspect or decision to an objective or best practice, and it describes how and why the aspect or decision works to support or not support the goals or best practice.
Good critiques are the result of purposeful dialogue. The giver and receiver engage in back-and-forth exchanges about the project, and from those exchanges arrive at useful, actionable insights. When a critique is productive, it often includes many questions asked by both parties. Great critiques are often more about the questions asked than the statements made. When critiques are open to inquiries, assumptions can be validated, eliminated, or further examined in a collaborative way. This means that the feedback being collected is based upon a mutually understood foundation rather than on each individual’s different interpretations. It’s also useful for the recipient to pay attention to the deeper meaning behind the questions being asked, as they indicate what elements of the design might be unclear or confusing to others (Connor & Irizarry, 2015) or can highlight unintended consequences of a design.
In summary, design critiques are opportunities for mutual discovery. Students discover their growth as form-makers, instructors begin to see students’ potential as designers. Mutual discovery and trust continue with the growing complexities of problem-solving (Tate & Smith, 1986). Reactional and directive forms of critique are limited to helping students understand if their design choices support a project or objectives. Critiques that facilitate critical thinking, in contrast, support a fluid exchange of information and acknowledge multiple points of views. Everyone enters the conversation as a participant, focused on the common goal of promoting dialog, allowing both critic and designer to articulate and engage in discourse concerning the outcomes of various aspects of the design.
Design critique is meaningful when input from students and teachers are equally encouraged and valued. Fostering this as an educator means understanding that each form of feedback engages distinct dynamics of discourse, and that each can be purposefully applied to support the development of a project and growth of a learner. This book presents alternative strategies and perspectives that demonstrate how each critique is an opportunity to enhance this essential component of the design education process.
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