In art school we were required to participate in public critiques at regular intervals as we worked on a project. While these critiques were often stressful, they almost always led to fresh insights, a-ha moments, and great discussions. Since art school, I’ve spent a lot of time using public critiques to help individuals give/receive constructive criticism and work iteratively. Let’s take a look at best practices using critiques in the classroom, workplace, or small teams.
Failing at Making Clouds
In sixth grade, we studied different types of clouds. At the end of this unit, we were tasked with creating simple representations of types of clouds by gluing cotton balls to construction paper. As often occurs in a traditional, chalk-and-talk learning environment, there was a correct way and a wrong way to complete this assignment. The correct way was demonstrated by the teacher on the day the project was assigned, and weeks later were expected to turn in our version of the correct way. By any measure, I was generally not a great student. I sort of listened to the teacher describe her expectations and weeks later I haphazardly completed my cloud project the weekend before it was due on Monday. My effort was something less than what the teacher expected and I received a poor grade for this assignment.
To be fair, I waited until the last minute. I was not listening as well as I could have on the day the assignment was described. But perhaps there’s a better way to help individuals and groups make something they feel satisfied with and proud of, but still meets the requirements of the environment in which they are working.
Objective vs Subjective
We all do it. We get attached to our work and it becomes our baby. It’s hard for us to be objective about the things we love (this is why editing our papers/books/videos is so tough). However, it’s often easy for us to be objective about what others are doing. For example, we’ve all been in the situation in which a distraught friend describes a crisis they are going through and we can clearly see the solution — why can’t they??? As humans, we put emotion into what we do and make, and this emotional viewpoint is one of our superpowers. That subjective, emotional lens — when combined with objective feedback from our peers — can lead to profound insights into what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Benefits of Public Critiques
Having regular, public critiques at each stage of a project or assignment has numerous benefits:
- The individual or team being critiqued has an opportunity to present what they’re working on, talk about their goals with the project, and show off what they’ve done so far.
- The people in the audience provide objective views and suggestions. These can be used by the person or team being critiqued to improve and understand what they’re doing.
- The individual or team has the chance to work iteratively. Working through iterations of a project leads to incremental improvements. This technique of gradual refinement leads to successful final projects. It also increases the likelihood that the person or team working on the project will be proud of and satisfied with what they’ve made.
- The individual or team being critiqued gets to practice speaking intelligently and critically about their work. They also get to hone their skills and comfort level with public speaking.
- The ideas or insights that come up during one person or team’s critique become part of the communal body of knowledge and expertise. Often, what will help one person or team will help others.
- The audience members get to practice giving constructive criticism. More on that in a bit.
- The individual or team being critiqued gets to practice receiving constructive criticism.
Framework for Conducting Constructive Critiques
I’ve tried lots of different critiques techniques with my students, coworkers, and teammates over the years. The framework I currently use has been the most successful and democratic. ( Please note: critiques can be used for a wide variety of projects…not just art or design work)
This is the positive thing you notice about the person’s work ( I like how you used stripes to give your unicorn’s head extra texture). Things stated here should be descriptive and specific. Audience members should not simply say “I really like it.” That’s nice to hear, but it won’t help anyone get better at what they do.
This is chance to list the negative things you notice, or the things you don’t like. ( I wish you hadn’t put some many horns on the unicorn head…it’s confusing and looks like a different mythical creature.) This is not the opportunity to say, “I hate this…it sucks.” This is the moment in which using constructive criticism is so important. Constructive criticism is designed to help some get better at what they do and/or refine what they are doing — and that’s really what we are after.
This is your suggestion for improving the I wish you just mentioned. (What if you made all the horns tiny expect for the main horn? Then it would still look like a unicorn but would still have lots of fun horns all over.) If you had an I wish, you are required to suggest a What if. Things stated during the What if stage should also be strictly constructive. If you’re the one proctoring the critique, require the participants to list specific things that might be done to correct or improve the issues listed in the I wish. If they have trouble thinking of suggestions, ask them what they’d do if it was their project.
Tips for Using This Framework
If you’re the one proctoring the critique, make sure you let everyone know when it’s happening and what to expect well in advance. Go over the framework, expectations, and ground rules. Decide how you’ll handle the order in which individuals or teams present — you can ask for volunteers, draw names from a hat, or simply call on them.
If you’re the proctor, it’s also important to ask the individual or team being critiqued to listen (and not argue with) the comments they are receiving from the audience members. I like to give the individual or team being critiqued the opportunity to say something brief about their work (usually ~one minute) at the beginning. After that, it’s important that they listen.
Time it!! Stating upfront that everyone gets x amount of minutes is key. This prevents some critiques from lasting half of the entire allotted critique time and ensures that adequate time will be left for those who go later in the lineup. Figure out how much time you can allot to the entire critique session, divide that by the number of individuals or teams being critiqued, and grab a phone or stopwatch and stick to the timing!
Hold on…This Sounds like a Nightmare for Introverts
Some unintended consequences of an increased focus on collaboration and public speaking in modern school and workplace setting s are the negative effects these types of activities might have on individuals who identify as introverts or who might be extremely uncomfortable participating in them. I have had several students and co-workers over the years who are terrified and/or extremely uncomfortable in a public critique format. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have the opportunity to receive constructive feedback about their work. Here are some alternatives and accommodations that might work better for them:
- Small group critiques: Some individuals might be ok with presenting their work to a smaller group. If that’s something they are comfortable with, provide them with an alternate location to present their work to a small group and have a discussion.
- Handwritten Comments: If a smaller group is still too daunting or stressful for an individual, they can place their work in a central location along with small pieces of paper and a basket (or other container). Others can come observe the work and follow the I like, I wish, What if format by writing their comments on a piece of paper, folding it, and placing it in the basket.
- One-on-One Critiques: Yet another alternative to the public critique that might work better for some is the one-on-one critique. The individual can station themselves near their work and others can meet with them one-on-one.
These accommodations require extra care and time, but lead to a more inclusive environment that acknowledges that not everyone prefers being front and center, presenting their work to a crowd.
Public Critiques can lead to productive and fun community and team building. They can help individuals and teams make incremental improvement to the work they do and ensure a successful outcome. They build a collective body of knowledge from which everyone can benefit.
If you’ve never participated in a critique or proctored one, it’s easy to get started. No special equipment or tools are required — just time and space.