What Design Students Want from Class Critiques

Graphic design students from Sam Houston State University share their perspective

Students Critiquing Creative Work
Professor Anthony Watkins, Student Feedback on Creative Critiques

Written by: Professor Anthony Watkins III

In route to graphic design, Anthony Watkins encountered electric guitars, geology, history, sociology, business, political science, customers, opinion and technology. Anthony is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Sam Houston State University, and maintains his own design studio, The Official Office Of. His work has been recognized by UCDA, Graphic Design USA, AIGA, Time magazine online, Art of the Menu, and Rockport Publishing.

While Covid19 has affected university programs in numerous ways, in class dynamics and communication has certainly been impacted. I'll be honest, I don't hear as well as I used to, and masks and social distancing have made spontaneous conversation a real challenge. Although I employ a variety of critique approaches in my classes including small group, one on one, and a form of cruise critique that results in written assessments from the class, the traditional, put your work up on the wall, in class critique is the one I've missed most.

I recently engaged in a bit of conversation with several juniors and seniors in our graphic design program here at Sam Houston State University to get their thoughts on what has worked as well as what's missing.

Here are the top 5 takeaways from those conversations.

1. Students like variety.

Some students are quiet, some are good at writing, others like to debate. Employing a range of critique formats can offer students the opportunity to do what they do best, and at the same time encourage them to invest in approaches they are less confident in. For those that are generally comfortable in all of these environments, discussing their work one on one with their instructor vs. two or three peers will result in a different conversational dynamic. While defending choices is preferable to being defensive, such shifts serve to prepare students for the range of conversational situations common during the creative process.

2. Some students, for a variety of reasons, are hesitant to talk. Even so, students recognize the value of the presentation experience.

Some students are paralyzed by the idea of speaking out loud to a room of strangers. Will they be laughed at? Will they say something silly or wrong? Will they be judged or ridiculed? I understand these fears, yet it is my observation that students generally want to help their peers succeed. Even though this won't make it any easier for someone terrified of public speaking, it will help them improve once they confront that initial challenge. I've had students that were terrified by the prospect of a two minute project presentation become the most prepared, clear, and convincing speakers in a class. Taking out loud didn't always become a pleasure for them, but they learned how to organize their information and plan their delivery in a way that improved confidence and reduced anxiety. Moving forward in their careers, these students will benefit from the experience of overcoming such challenges.

3. Early on, students find it difficult to understand why you won't tell them exactly what to do.

When a student is exceedingly close to something conceptually, but just hasn't realized where to place a piece of the puzzle, how much can you lead, yet still allow the student to realize a solution and own the result? It can be a challenge to avoid becoming an art director for student assignments, which is, not surprisingly, what some students expect. Despite the fact that this can be perplexing for students, it is ultimately their responsibility to weigh all of the feedback received and determine how to move work forward.

4. Changing how work is viewed can allow students to see their work in a new way.

One of the most valuable aspects of a critique, especially the more traditional style of critique, is how a change in perspective often allows us to see things about our work that we previously missed. We've all experienced this; working on something for days, it can be difficult to imagine how a project might diverge from its current course, or perhaps how color contrast or type size might create legibility problems. We're just too close to the work, figuratively and literally.

Changing the medium in which the work it viewed, moving from screen to print for example, can reveal details previously overlooked, or allow us to more throughly evaluate consistency vs variety by viewing the entirety of a project at once. In my experience, these revelations often require no more than the act of displaying the work to get the light bulb to turn on.

5. Affirmation and improvement are both critique goals.

As students mature, they improve the ability to process critical feedback, and even though discovering the shortcomings of a project is helpful, students like to know if something is working well, or if a particular direction shows promise. This can be tricky, and cultural and/or regional norms may well influence the kind of feedback given and how it is perceived. Growing up in the south, the saying "If you don't have something nice to say don't say anything at all" was generally understood as the polite way to handle difficult social interactions. In the classroom this approach can be frustrating, leading to empty comments intended to avoid discomfort. Additionally, efforts to find a balance between affirmation and criticism might inaccurately suggest that something is better than it truly is.

I think that some of this concern is tempered by students having a range of experiences across classes. It is also possible to deliver a tough review in a pleasant way. We've all invested hours or days into a project only to realize that it just isn't going to work. This doesn't need to be seen as a waste of time, but more hopefully, the elimination of a direction that we now know is wrong. Sometimes giving students permission to start over is the kind of pragmatic affirmation they most need.