"How to Survive Critique: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Feedback" appeared in ARCADE Issue 30.3, Summer 2012.
In design school, the core of any studio class is critique. Critique provides, of course, the opportunity for students to receive feedback that helps them improve. However, critique is also a challenging and complex learning event for novice designers.
In a three-year survey of 202 students enrolled in a design foundations course at the University of Washington, 45–53% identified critique as “the aspect that contributed most to their learning.” Students described critique as inspiring; it helped them see a range of solutions to the same design problem and hear multiple points of view that were surprising, enlightening, and different from their own.
On the other hand, in this same survey, 14–30% also identified critique as the course aspect that “most detracted from their learning.” Students described how they disagreed with feedback, felt discouraged by negative reactions to their work, lacked adequate input from reviewers, and were confused about how to interpret and implement suggestions, especially when they were vague or conflicting.
Clearly, navigating critique takes skill. During critique, students listen as reviewers analyze their work and provide feedback that may be accurate or inaccurate, clear or ambiguous, ample or sparse. If students accept input, identify accurate assessments, and address design weaknesses successfully, their work improves. If they implement “bad” suggestions — or fail to address weaknesses adequately — their work declines. If students reject input altogether, their designs remain the same.
Still, despite these challenges, certain students succeed in getting value from critique. What motivates these students — what are their strategies for success? The possible following answers are drawn from research on the psychology of feedback, as well as from surveys, course evaluations, and in-person interviews with design students.
REJECTING VS. ACCEPTING FEEDBACK
According to research on feedback, people naturally avoid criticism because it’s painful. Psychologists diagnose avoiding and rejecting criticism as “maladaptive responses” because these behaviors are counterproductive — they deflect the corrective information necessary for improving performance. (For more on this, see Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.)
Successful design students don’t avoid critique — they embrace and even actively seek out criticism that helps them learn. For example, when asked in a survey what advice they would give to future students, one student wrote: “If you hear someone complimenting your project, say ‘Thank you’ and [then] ask, ‘What don’t you like about it?’”
To lessen the sting of negative feedback, successful students focus on the work itself. Researchers believe that compartmentalizing feedback creates a mental shield, allowing people to take in criticism as just another point of neutral data. In an end-of-course interview, one student explained, “You make something, and immediately and automatically you care about it because you made it. You have to learn to detach yourself from the idea that it’s yours, so that you can objectively make it better.”
This detachment — the distinction between “failure of work” vs. “failure of self”— can be developed over time. As one student said in her interview: “I started out taking critique a lot more personally. This made me less receptive to feedback. I would think, ‘No, I’m a good person, my work’s fine!’ But during class, it was mentioned that critique isn’t about you. It’s about your work, just improving your work. After hearing that, I think I responded to feedback a lot better.”
The best critiques occur in groups in which there is mutual trust and respect. In these safe social groups, conversations are robust and productive, as members equally participate in conversations that are sensitive to others’ feelings.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to quickly foster social safety in a group of 20 strangers (i.e., in a classroom at the start of a course). In this setting, most students avoid offending others with negative feedback. Additionally, as novices, students are often insecure in their knowledge and hesitate to offer what might be uninformed opinions.
Successful students in the design foundations course recognized their peers’ reluctance to speak, and described taking responsibility for stimulating discussion by coming prepared with specific queries about their work. Additionally, in a post-course interview, one student explained that critique is most lively when students come prepared with interesting and engaging work, saying, “you have to give people something to go on.” Other students formed their own smaller, supportive study groups (one notably called “Whine and Design”) that were alternate safe places to give and receive feedback.
Still other students focused on learning by giving feedback to others. In one survey, a student described performing a silent self-review during critique by “seeing if my personal critique lines up with the faculty’s judgment.” This is a classic example of how peer review can enable students to calibrate against experts. Studies show that a person giving a review often derives greater benefit than the receiver because reviewers improve their knowledge by having to explain their assessment to others.
Conflicting feedback occurs because design is subjective, and there are multiple paths to a good end product. To sift through conflicting feedback, successful design students employ a range of strategies. Surveys and interviews on the subject found that many students reasoned that feedback from faculty (who were, after all, responsible for grading) outranked their peers’. While rational, this strategy relies on faculty being all-seeing and all-knowing — not always the case. More discerning students judged feedback using critical thinking (does the feedback make sense?). Other students evaluated feedback against a self-defined vision for their project, rejecting input that failed to align and advance their concept (a reasonable approach, as long as the guiding idea is sound).
Perhaps the best insight on sorting feedback came from students who recognized that verbal communication is inherently imperfect, and what matters most is understanding the underlying rationale for a critique. As one student said in her interview, “You have to deconstruct comments. It’s easy to take things at face value instead of thinking about what [reviewers] are really trying to say.”
With this advice in mind, it’s useful to examine the underlying mindset that drives students during critique. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has identified the “growth mindset,” in which students see their intelligence as a fluid capacity that grows in response to challenges and, in contrast, the “fixed mindset,” in which students see their intelligence as an unchangeable, absolute quantity.
Design critiques — and project-based design studios — are environments that require a growth mindset. To successfully create design work, students must self-direct their own inquiries and improve their work through knowledge acquired by making prototypes and seeking feedback. Unsuccessful variations and negative criticism are not cues to abandon the task, but useful advice for future refinement. One student succinctly summarized the essence of the growth mindset on a course evaluation, noting: “This class requires you to own the information, take initiative, and do it yourself!”