The Lost Skill of Critique

“Make it pop some more.”

“I don’t really like it... I am not sure why, but this isn’t it... I’ll know it when I see it.”

“What the hell is this?”

“Can you make it look like Apple?”

“You should move that text to the top of the page and make all of the buttons icons.”

If you have spent any time building, designing, or crafting something—or working with those who do—you have probably heard something along the lines of these statements, which are often followed by something like, “Well, I’m just giving you some feedback.”

Or, perhaps you were part of a program in school that included critique where your professor tried to “break you down” for your own good. Although this is not the situation in all academic settings, some schools and educators use critique and feedback sessions as a way to prepare students for the “real world,” but often they just leave students upset and with some bad memories.

There is a lot of ambiguity around feedback and why we share it with others. When feedback lacks a focus and appropriate purpose it is counterproductive and can even be harmful at times. Even in social interactions we see this type of feedback being used to express opinions. So often, when a new product is released or updated, before you know it the masses are providing 140 characters of opinion about what should have been done or created.

The more we hear stories (and experience situations ourselves) of out-of-context opinions, harsh phrases, and directional statements shared as feedback, we’ve seen that the real value and utility of feedback as part of design and creative processes being lost.

In short, we’ve forgotten how to critique. Because of this—and because of how feedback often is used—we harm not only the products and services we create, but our teams, organizations, and working relationships, as well.

Critique is supposed to be helpful. It should be an analysis that helps us understand what is working and what isn’t and whether we are on the right track toward reaching our goals. But the critique and feedback we see in so many teams doesn’t do this. Instead it’s often used as a way for individuals to assert their own authority or push their own perspectives and objectives. It could be someone trying show expertise to others in the room by pointing out all of a design’s faults without the real intention to help the design get better. I have also seen individuals pick a design apart as a way to eliminate any competition between the design being reviewed and their design.

The practice of real critique has become a lost skill.

The lines have become blurred in relation to feedback, critique, and how we communicate while working together. So the questions arise. What can we do to better understand the issues that are keeping us from productively talking about what we are designing and ensuring that it meets the goals that were set for it? How can we improve the way in which we give and receive critique so that it is helpful?

What This Book Is About

This books sets out to answer these questions in a way that provides individuals, teams, and organizations with techniques, tools, and resources that will help them improve the quality and usefulness of the conversations surrounding ideas and designs within their teams and with their clients.

We will analyze and define critique and examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of both giving and receiving it. We’ll examine the cultural aspects that support or hinder critique. And, we will provide tips and insights on how to integrate critique as a part of your process.

Why We Wrote This Book

This book was born from many conversations that Adam and I were having separately with our peers on the topics of feedback and how we would like to see it improve in our practices and community. A mutual friend, Whitney Hess, gave us the idea to collaborate on this content together. Before long a blog post turned into a conference submission, which in turn grew into many talks and workshops at conferences and for companies across the United States.

The more we heard individuals’ stories and were asked about how this content could be worked into various teams and environments it became clear that putting together a book that could be used both as an examination of critique and communication as well as a reference for advice and tips would prove helpful.

That is the core of why we wrote this book. We have been there. We have heard the harsh feedback and tried to work with a lack of useful comments and “suggestions.” We have felt the nervousness of presenting designs to teams and clients for feedback and we have had our designs shredded and picked apart, leaving us feeling defeated.

We have also felt the satisfaction that comes from having productive conversations about what we are designing, feeling like you can do something actionable with the insights gathered. We wrote this book to help teams better communicate about what they are designing together, to improve collaboration, and establish a framework for productive critiques.

Who Should Read This Book

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all well and good, but I’m not a designer or artist. Why should I read this book?”

To that, we’d look you dead in the eye and say something like, “Designers and artists don’t own critique. Critique is for anyone who wants to improve anything that they are building or doing. Critique isn’t a ‘design’ skill, it’s a life skill.”

This book has been written based on experiences that included multiple roles within teams and organizations: product owners, project managers, designers, developers, executives, marketing professionals, and more. If you are a part of a team or project working to design or create something, you are a part of the conversation surrounding it. This book serves as a reference for anyone who is a part of the process and can help team members work to improve how they communicate and collaborate with one another.

Terms We Use

Though we have written this book for anyone who is a part of building something, we are using some general terms throughout the book for the sake of consistency.

We will use designer to refer to anyone who has come up with an idea or works on the creation of an idea in any way.

We will use the term product to refer to whatever it is that is being created or is being proposed.

Critique and feedback are often seen as interchangeable terms, and to some extent they are; we will explore common misunderstandings of these terms and how they work together best.

How This Book Is Organized

This book will cover the various aspects of critique, its definition, and how we interact with one another in critique settings.

Chapter 1: Understanding Critique

In Chapter 1, we explain the various forms of feedback that are often seen in a critique setting, the challenges that come from specific forms of feedback, and the types of feedback we should look to gather. We will also discuss the various perceptions associated with critique.

Chapter 2: What Critique Looks Like

In the second chapter, we talk about what critique looks like and the importance of intent in the critique process. We also cover best practices for giving and receiving critique and tips on how to know when you are not giving good critique.

Chapter 3: Culture and Critique

Chapter 3 explores aspects of our individual and organizational cultures that influence our ability to effectively critique. We also look at some of the common barriers that you can encounter when trying to establish a productive critique practice.

In addition, we discuss the foundational elements that teams can use to effectively critique any effort, such as goals, principles, and scenarios.

Chapter 4: Making Critique a Part of Your Process

In Chapter 4, we talk through making critique a part of your process, and some of the challenges that come with this effort. We will cover things to remember when making critique a part of your process. We will also cover the areas where we see critique taking place (standalone critiques, design reviews, and collaborative activities) and their differences. Chapter 4 also covers when, how much, and how often we should critique.

Chapter 5: Facilitating Critique

Facilitation plays a key role in critique. In Chapter 5, we dive into this skill and how to use it to keep critiques effective and on track.

We share rules that you can use to help participants understand how a critique session is supposed to run and what to avoid doing to help make the session productive.

Chapter 5 also covers how to prepare for, kick off, run, and follow up after a critique. It includes tips on who to include as participants, advice for presenting designs, and making sure everyone understands not only the goals of the product but the goals of the critique session.

Chapter 6: Critiquing with Difficult People and in Challenging Situations

It’s inevitable that as you work to improve collaboration, communication, and critique, you’ll encounter situations and individuals that present a challenge. In Chapter 6, we examine some common challenging situations and strategies we can use to work through them.

We’ll also discuss what to do when people become difficult in a critique, providing tips and techniques for dealing with them and still salvaging the critique. If you’ve ever experienced someone giving you a list of changes or a design showing what they want instead of feedback, we explain how to respond and get back on a path to critique.

We hope that the breakout of these chapters will not only provide a solid understanding of critique as you read through it, but that they are broken out in such a way that they can be used as a reference when needed.

Chapter 7: Summary: Critique Is At The Core Of Great Collaboration

We circle back around and summarize main points from each chapter, putting a nice bow on everything and preparing you to get out there and improve the design conversations you have with your teams.


Aaron—I would like to thank my amazing and beautiful wife, Amanda Marie, and my daughters Ashlyn and Audrey who are the inspiration for all I do. Adam Connor, you are my partner in rhyme, and I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been able to collaborate with you on this content; your friendship means even more to me. To all of my luchas at the Daq, it is truly an honor to work with you.

Adam—To my wife, Tria, and my kids Owen and Lily: thank you for being my energy and inspiration and for supporting me and putting up with all my excitement and stress during the course of writing this book.

To my parents, Kerry and Martha, and my sister, Meghan: thank you for always believing in me through all the choices I’ve made and things I’ve set out to do.

To Aaron: it’s been awesome, my friend, and turned into far more than I ever thought it would during that first Skype call. Thanks for being there every step of the way and for your collaboration and friendship.

To my Mad*Pow family, especially Amy Cueva, Mike Hawley, and Dan Berlin: thank you for always having my back and pushing me too keep going.

To my MassMutual family, Jenny Fabrizi, Dawn Vitale, and Donna Hiersche: thank you for believing in me and helping me see that I can take my ideas as far as I want to.

From both of us—To Mary, Angela, Sonia, Nick, Marsee, and everyone at O’Reilly: you are amazing to work with. Thank you for your patience and guidance.

To Whitney Hess: thank you for getting annoyed enough with each of us after so much bitching about this topic and suggesting that we start bitching together. Who’d have thought that it would start such an interesting journey?

To Russ Unger: thank you for your kind words and contributions to this book. Your friendship and guidance are more appreciated than you know.

To Jared Spool: thank you for seeing something in our vision and message and for helping us hone and share it with so many people.

To our amazing friends and contributors, Kim, Jeff, Brad, Kevin, Chris, and Veronica: it is a great honor to have your thoughts and stories in this book, thank you.

And to all our friends...

Angel Anderson

Debra Gelman

Will Sansbury

Stephen Anderson

Megan and Matt Grocki

Bill Scott

Chris Avore

Andrew Hinton

Boon Sheridan

Fred Beecher

Shay Howe

Amy Silvers

Scott Berkun

Phillip Hunter

Ian Smile

Dan Brown

Jessica Ivins

Brad Smith

Michael Carvin

Leslie Jensen-Inman

Carl Smith

Carolyn Chandler

Jennifer Jones

Joe Sokohl

Dana Chisnell

Joel Kilby

Kyle Soucy

Denise Chroninger Philipsen

Jonathan “Yoni” Knoll

Joan Vermette

Adam Churchill

Donna Lichaw

Todd Zaki Warfel

Josh Clark

Dave Malouf

Thomas Vander Wal

Abby Covert

Christian Manzella

Noreen Whysel

Lauren Cramer

Amy Marquez

Christina Wodtke

Christian Crumlish

Matt Nish-Lapidus

John Yuda

Jenn Downs

Eduardo Ortiz


David Farkas

Adam Polansky


Ian Fenn

Lynne Polischuik


Nick Finck

Lou Rosenfeld


David Fiorito

Dan Saffer


Aaron Gustafson

Ant Sanders


...and to everyone who has supported our talks, workshops, and this idea as a whole over the years, you have our utmost gratitude!

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