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How Critiques Work at Top Art and Design Schools

by Clara LaFrance | May 5, 2011

Designers communicate visually, and spend a lot of time and energy crafting visual messages. What better way to ensure quality and clarity than to solicit the opinion and advice of an objective third party? This process is integrated in top art and design schools’ programs—online and traditional—in the form of a critique.

A critique sounds harsh; few of us want to be criticized! However, a critique from an instructor will help you push your work to professional quality and become a better designer.

In this third post in our series comparing traditional and online education, we’ll look at the critique process in detail.

What Is a Critique?

A critique is a process in which a designer presents a piece of work to an instructor, who then gives feedback on the work. That’s it! A critique is not a Shirley Jackson-esque stoning of your work, though the word “critique” is very close to “criticism” in our minds.

The design classes I took as part of my traditional degree program were held weekly. Each week, my classmates and I hung our work neatly on the wall before the instructor walked in. Some instructors were very specific: hang the work evenly and use only clear pushpins. (Colored pushpins were an additional design element and distracting to the work.) I hated being late; if a tall classmate hung his work first, the rest of us had to stretch up to align our work along the wall!

top art schools

On the left, the dreaded pushpins of a traditional critique. On the right, an online critique in helpful email format.

In a critique—traditional or online—each student typically has the opportunity to defend or explain the work. When explaining your work, avoid making excuses (“it would have been better if I had more time”), as your work should stand on its own, and simply describe your decision-making process and why you feel the piece meets the project goals.

When explaining your work, and when critiquing other designers or peers, ask yourself:

  • What is the composition like?
  • Do the color choices complement the piece or distract?
  • Is the typography legible and appropriate to the piece?
  • What is the message? Is it effective?
  • What elements of the piece would you change if you could?
  • Does anything stand out as incongruous?

A critique session is a great opportunity to take a step back and be truly objective.

After taking some time to examine the work, the instructor will begin his or her critique comments. Be open-minded to the insights and perspective, particularly if the comments are surprising to you. If the instructor sees a face where you designed a vine, perhaps others will also see the face! While you know your own intentions, you have been immersed in the piece and are no longer objective. Take notes, and consider these observations in your workroom later.

Peer critique is also an important part of the process. In a traditional classroom, after the instructor concludes, the floor is opened to students in the classroom. In a Sessions degree program class, peer critiques take place in a discussion forum. Take your peers’ comments with an open mind and heart! Your classmates have worked with the same assignments, and may have insights and directions you would never have considered. When you comment on another student’s work, be clear in your suggestions. A critique is an open forum, and constructive advice can sometimes be misconstrued, so be clear.

Of course, some critiques are not constructive at all. A professor once walked into a classroom to see our pieces hung, and said, “This isn’t at all what I asked,” and left. Stunned, we sat quietly, and some students threw their pieces away. Hardly helpful and terribly discouraging! Thankfully, that approach never happens in an online program:

How Does an Online Critique Work?

In an online setting, the instructor will still give you detailed input, advice, and suggestions for your design direction, just as he or she would in a traditional classroom (if not more). The biggest difference is that the critique is written out for you in the form of an email message. This is very helpful because it gives you an opportunity to read, reread, and reference the critique over time.

Read your instructor’s feedback carefully, keeping an open mind and considering ways that you can improve your work. Much like a professional client, the instructor may suggest resubmitting the piece with changes or taking some concepts into consideration for your next pieces. “Sessions faculty members are working designers, so in your project critiques, you receive the perspectives of an educator, a pro designer, and a client all in one,” says Chief Academic Officer Tara MacKay.

The peer critique process is not as immediate as it would be in a traditional classroom, however it’s just as valuable. Take your time and reply to classmates’ work thoughtfully and constructively. Give yourself time to process your classmates’ advice before implementing any changes.

Top art and design schools expect students to use critiques as an opportunity to grow creatively and artistically, to build design and communication skills, and to grow as professional designers.

In the next post in the series, I’ll discuss design assignments and workflow. See the previous posts in the series:

Clara LaFrance
Course Producer, Sessions College

Clara LaFrance is a freelance graphic designer when she is not pursuing her dreams as a circus teacher and performer. Clara has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Boston University.