Do You Have The Right To Critique Another Designer’s Work?

I don’t think I really have to go over the old saying about everyone having an opinion because we know everyone does. If we didn’t, clothing would be one style and one color and if my nephew had a choice, it would all be yellow.

Well, while we all shake off the thought of a world where everyone looks like a Dr. Seuss character, it just serves to remind us that diversity in looks are one of the wonderful things about our race and planet. Nature made a thousand different colors just for parrots. It’s a crazy world of differences.

Still, among evening skies that turn a million different colors, there will always be someone who insists it is the greatest sunset ever and someone who stands next to that person who will say the colors make them sick to their stomach. Are they both right? Naturally, they both think they are and tomorrow, there will be a different colored sunset with more joy and sickness from other people.

The recent logo changes from Microsoft and more recently, ebay, brought every opinion out of the shadows. Designers like to pick apart designs.

instantShift - Microsoft New Logo

instantShift - Ebay New Logo

In a Article (50 reasons not to date a graphic designer), there are several nasty truths to which we must all admit our guilt. Among that list are the designer’s secrets:

  • They want to save the world only with a poster.
  • They rather study the paisley pattern on your outfit than listen to what you have to say.
  • Do not know how to dress without consulting the Pantone book.
  • They can’t go to a restaurant without secretly critiquing the menu design.
  • They see ordinary objects and laugh.
  • They idolize people who nobody knows and speak of them as if they were his colleagues.
  • They hate each other.
  • They ask your opinion about everything but they do whatever they want.
  • They dream of the day nobody will make a single change to their designs.

This list has almost two million Google returns because we see the funny side of these quirks but the last one is more than just a quirk – it’s a unique problem we have because while we want others to keep their opinions to themselves, like the menus we pick apart while the crying part-time waitress who designed them stands awaiting our lunch order, we can’t keep our own damn opinions to ourselves. In the days of the World Wide Web, we can now make waitresses cry all over the world.

The faceless internet makes it easy to insult others. Some call it flaming. In most instances it is that same thing as giving a critique. People are freer to give advice and critique when they cannot look into the eyes of those whom they are addressing. As a former art director for several large, well-known corporations that drew creatives from around the globe, looking for that one chance to get hired, I can tell you it’s very hard to face someone and pass judgment that their work wasn’t right for the products produced by those firms. It was never said they were not good enough, just that their work wasn’t appropriate. Still, I know they heard “you aren’t good enough.”

Who Has The Right To Judge Talent?

Unless you are a bit of a sadist, no one could enjoy the position of absolute power over others. After years of reviewing senior art school student’s portfolios, I stopped because I felt one couldn’t judge their talents at that point in the beginning of their careers and I couldn’t take the look in their faces when I made gentle suggestions on work they felt was perfect. When I am asked by a designer, photographer or artist to review their portfolio and “tell (them) if (they) are any good,” I refuse, telling them instead that there are only two judges of their talent; the clients they service and themselves. Then I refer them to another article I wrote, entitled “Who Are You Trying To Impress?

I’ve been told it changed their outlook on their careers. I think the message of not caring about opinions that don’t affect your life or work is a big relief to those who read the article. Although I’ve brought up the same points when speaking in front of an audience of designers, I guess the message doesn’t quite get through. It does, however get through on a one-to-one basis when giving my own opinion on design group forums.

The recent blibber-blab about the ebay logo redesign must have pushed my buttons because of my own postings in defense of the designer I now can expect less birthday wishes on Facebook. The first match to my fuse appeared on a local AIGA chapter group board. The subject featured a press release from ebay; “Our New Logo; eBay introduces a new logo that reflects our commitment to delivering a cleaner, more contemporary and consistent experience.”

The designer who posted it wrote: “Okay gang… GO!”

Critiques ranged from snarky shots at the design, to kerning considerations and accusations of how horrible design has destroyed society. Then I had to open my big mouth.

“Okay, gang…” I wrote. “How many of you would sell your soul to the devil to be able to put the ebay logo in your portfolio and have a bunch of designers tell you how bad it is all over the internet… GO! ;)”

Naturally, the person who started the thread quickly responded with, “What is your point with that comment?”

I wasn’t blameless. It was too sharp a response to be considered constructive. My post was spoiling for a fight and I knew it.

Shoving my foot farther into my mouth, I punched back:

“Was I speaking in a tribal clicking language? ;) My point is that subjectivity will give 20 people 20 different opinions but is anyone right? Some designer probably got initial direction, went through endless design-by-committee suggestions and this is what was chosen as the final product. So, do any of our comments really matter? Will people say, “gee, I was going to buy something on ebay but that logo turned me off from using the site.”

“With all of this in mind, and we all know the drill, how would you feel if you were the designer? How would you feel if you made a dump truck full of money to put up with the creative input? Would you walk away from the project once ebay execs started ‘helping’ with the design?”

I also pointed out that Lippincott was the firm that designed the logo. If you’re not familiar with this design/branding firm and their offices all over the globe or the top iconic brands they have helped launch, then you should check out their work.

instantShift - Lippincott

Further responses from the person who started the subject included:

“What you see as irrelevant opinion I see as valid professional critique, at least in a forum of professional designers. I’d have no problem or qualms giving Lippincott a fair critique of the logo, why should I?”

“By your logic good design and competent designers are pointless because everything is subjective, so everybody just shut up and do whatever the client asks you to do. That’s the kind of thinking that’s responsible for mediocre design.”

Others joined in defending this position, including a young designer, just starting out who wrote:

“I’m a big proponent of minimalism, but I’m starting to get worried with all the minimalism I’m seeing in design lately. Minimalism was meant to describe the essence of a company, but lately it seems like designers are like “omg apple does it, we should do it too” where is the creativity? Even within minimalism it seems like it’s all the same stuff.”

She did have to take a left-handed shot at my comments, “h8rs gonna h8.”

“Minimalism was meant to describe the essence of a company?” Someone needs to get a refund from her art school.

Further comments did, however, get less opinionated and turned to discussion of why the choices might have been made.

In another thread of this type on a different design group board, the comments were similar, so I tempered my snarkiness and added my two-cents:

“Interesting comments!” I posted, trying to stay extremely neutral. “The logo was designed by Lippincott – Brand Strategy and Design.”

“Subjectivity,” I continued, using the opening of the post I had put on the other group board, “will give 20 people 20 different opinions but is anyone right? Unless any of us were actually there, we are not privy to what was presented, as some here have pointed out. What was the initial direction from ebay? Did designs go through endless design-by-committee suggestions and this is what was chosen as the final product? So, do any of our comments really matter? Will people say, “gee, I was going to buy something on ebay but that logo turned me off from using the site.”

“By my thinking,” I added, hoping to throw some extra humility into this new discussion, “there are only two opinions that matter; the client’s and the designer’s. Within that, there must be the understanding that we are a service industry and sometimes service vetoes design considerations. That’s the reality professional designers face and have experienced. Personally, I believe including the question of critiques from outside sources, especially when not involved in the entire process of the design is moot and subjective without any insight as to the entire process.”

While I was hoping that post would make an impression, it wasn’t even mentioned in further comments. It garnered a couple of “likes” but that was it.

I did, however, notice that in this thread, some people were blaming those involved for not fighting ebay executives for a better outcome.

“The marketing VP should have fought harder for a logo that would have staying power and strong impact on the consumer instead of pleasing everyone” posted one commenter.

Another commenter closed her opinion with the statement:

“No compromise please!!!”

“Cowardice!” One person wrote. “This screams of design-by-committee, and of a client running the process and a studio afraid to stand up and say, “stop! YOU shape the design PROBLEM and let US shape the design SOLUTION!”

The closest statement with which I could somewhat identify was:

“What we are not able to see is the range of possible exploration that was offered.”

That designer continued, “although it is up to designers to inspire and encourage clients to push their evolutionary envelope, ultimately ‘how far’ is the client’s call to make. To some organizations, baby steps are giant leaps. And in this case I can only assume that to those in the boardroom, this felt fresh yet safe, and an acceptable progression of their established brand equity.”

“Don’t always blame the designer for the design. They hold responsibility, yes, but not the checkbook.”

Other comments about how bad the logo is continued, along with tears and fears for what it has done to the design industry as a whole. An interesting comment posted was short and sweet:

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and if you’re gonna change it, reinvent it.”

I suppose that would have saved ebay a few dollars.

I wrote to Lippincott to ask a few questions for this article and received a quick response from someone in their public relations department.

“Changing our logo was not a decision we made lightly. We recognize people feel a special connection to our previous logo, but too often it reminded people only of what eBay was, and not what eBay is today: a modern global marketplace. We are proud that the eBay community remains diverse and connected – and that the eBay shopping experience is now more modern, clean and consistent. We wanted to reflect these elements in our identity.” – Attribute to Richelle Parham, chief marketing officer, eBay North America

“We wanted to reflect the right amount of change in eBay’s new logo. The design is inspired by today’s vibrant marketplace and sleeker experiences. We leveraged the iconic color arrangement and approachable form to reflect eBay’s heritage and evolved it with a brighter blue and darker yellow and a streamlined arrangement to create more visual harmony.” – Attribute to Su Mathews, senior partner, Lippincott

I can’t say I blame them for not answering my questions – they certainly don’t owe anyone except the client any explanations. The client was happy, so what else matters?

I went back on the group board and posted this message, hoping it might create enough shock to end the flow of misspelled critiques from the group members:

“The cries of blah-blah-blah from designers not there as witnesses will go on and the senior partners at Lippincott won’t lose any sleep from it all. They will still receive more résumés they can view, from panting designers hoping for a shot at the big clients and to be a part of the firm and, as John Steinbeck wrote, ‘the world (was) turning again in greased grooves’ (meaning, in his book, Cannery Row, that nothing really mattered as small problems passed and faded into time).”

“Time for us, as designers, to look to our own houses and smile at what we can accomplish and learn to stand move on from what we cannot.”

That statement didn’t stop a thing. No one even referred to it but the comments continued about how bad the logo is, etc. and so forth.

So, Who’s Right?

The easy and probably best answer to who is right about un-requested critiques and opinions is that no one was right in all of the exchanges I’ve outlined. I think that any designer would change their opinion on the freedom to critiques others work if they suddenly found their latest design at the center of the web spotlight and, as I first wrote, ” have a bunch of designers tell you how bad it is all over the internet.”

I remember a TV episode where some character is embarrassed in front of his schoolmates when they find out he has sexual thoughts about a teacher who is… less than attractive and they tease him mercilessly. When he manages to lock himself in the school administrator’s office and read every student’s private file aloud, over the intercom, mentioning ALL their “unique” quirks, the school then turns into a very quiet and polite place as nobody can meet the gaze of anyone else.

As designers, we are all proud of our work and try to promote it to each other (just look at sites like Dribbble). How would one of the people throwing around comments of disgust for the design work for ebay or using descriptors like, “cowards” without thought of others, feel if suddenly one of their logos were to pop up on a discussion board with the suggestion of “go!” inviting brutal critique from those who sit outside the process or, perhaps, just don’t have the professional experience to know better?

instantShift - Dribbble for Promotion

“Art is uncompromising and life is full of compromises.” – Gunther Grass, novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. Perhaps you think a man of his achievements and notoriety is just a babbling moron? Okay, gang… GO!

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  1. What an insightful article. This is true and every one has something to say always, not just the design or logo but everything else in between. Thanks for the article!

  2. A designer has always something to say good or bad, we have different Idea, The good designer can respect the idea of once’s art.

  3. I think your post will help us most. I’m really proud for finding such helpful tips.

  4. I have to add something a follower tweeted to me about this article. “Most successful people don’t spend time complaining (about other people’s work).”

  5. It’s a good point. Thanks for teaching me something new. I appreciate it!

  6. Well written Speider! Criticism is a gift, which if you get along fine as a web designer. I would also like to suggest that there is a whole lot of difference between ‘Criticism’ and ‘opinionated’ statements. Another funny fact is that sometimes you get to face both from people who do not have any idea about web designing or the latest trends. I usually advice my colleagues to take criticism with a positive attitude as it often proves to be your ladder to improvisation. Each individual has his or her own way of conceptualizing things (like you mentioned about sunset and sunrise), which often takes a toll on the creativity of a web designer and de-motivates him. Good going!

  7. Loved reading this article. I’ve never been a good critiquer and I finally think I know why…because I was always thinking what you just wrote.

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