By Karen Cheng

design student

Photo: Carly Lynch

Giving and receiving critique is vital to any creative design practice, but soliciting and accepting feedback is easier said than done. In “How to Survive Critique: Part 1 + Part 2” I made several suggestions for navigating the minefield of design critique. Of course, no academic guide would be complete without homework—in this case, a reading list. The following four books examine the psychology behind critique experiences and offer helpful advice for both what to do (and what not to do) in order to maximize learning.

1) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action

By Donald A. Schön

Donald Schön was one of the first scholars in education to examine the hidden dimensions of a design critique. In several of his books, he describes a desk critique between an architecture professor (Quist) and a student (Petra). In their interaction, Quist draws upon his previous experience and larger repertoire of design patterns to show Petra how her project might be framed and reframed in order to develop a more satisfactory design solution. Schön’s analysis of this critique is considered groundbreaking because he recognized and articulated, perhaps for the first time, the fluid nature of the design process as “reflection in action”—a cycle of doing and thinking where each activity feeds the other.

Schön’s description is also notable for its clear description of a classic apprentice-master scenario, in which Petra (the student) is tacitly expected to absorb and accept the suggestions of Quist (the tutor). Her role is to first observe the master’s performance, then to adapt and develop his concept, making it her own. This top-down model for instruction stands in contrast to more contemporary, collaborative methods for critique and feedback described by others below.

2) Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process: A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make, from Dance to Dessert

By Liz Lerman and John Borstel

Liz Lerman is a MacArthur award-winning choreographer and founder of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. In Lerman’s four-stage “critical response process” the artist is responsible for formulating questions about his or her own work—questions that will generate feedback to improve. Responders are generally restricted to answering the artist’s questions; they may offer unsolicited opinions only if they first ask for permission. Lerman suggests the following script: “I have an opinion about ______, would you like to hear it?” (The artist has the option to say no.)

However, responders are allowed to ask neutral questions about the work. Neutral questions do not presuppose or imply criticism. For example, “What kind of texture were you going for” is considered neutral, but “Why is this cake so dry?” is considered critical. Lerman’s method focuses on creating a safe place for artists to solicit and receive critical feedback.

3) Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

By Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Methods for accepting criticism are examined in even greater depth in this best-selling book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, two lecturers at Harvard Law School. Their book is an entertaining self-help guide to becoming a more effective recipient of feedback. Using examples and research from the fields of psychology and education, Stone and Heen use plain language and gently humorous case studies to explain why getting feedback can be painful—and to provide methods for becoming less defensive and more self-aware. They also offer specific suggestions for how to give feedback that will be accepted by others.

4) Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding It and Doing It Well

Edited by David Boud and Elizabeth Molloy

Boud and Molloy are Australian scholars in the field of education, and their edited compilation of 13 research papers thoroughly examines the problems of giving and receiving feedback from a research-orientated perspective. The field of design is not covered specifically, but chapters on the “impact of emotions on feedback” and the “role of peers in feedback processes” have obvious relevance to design critiques. Any university or college-level faculty member with teaching responsibilities would be well-served by reading this book. Best practices for facilitating learning from feedback are clearly presented and made accessible to teachers from all fields of study.


Karen Cheng is a professor of visual communication design at the University of Washington.

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