Managing designers / typography critique

theforgetfuldesigner's picture

Hi,
I am new here and have been motivated to join to ask for advice about managing designers. I have just began to be 'lead designer' in charge of critiquing other designers work in our studio. It has made me realize that although I have 'an eye for typography' being able identify and verbalize what needs 'fixing' is a whole new ball game.
I find myself holding back and not wanting to offend or seem like a nag by seeking perfection. I am at the point where I feel a simple list of 'rules' would be good to pin on the wall - to allow designers to do a little self assessment.
Most of the 'fixing up' that needs doing usually revolves around layout, proximity, white space (lack of), and type sizing.
Any suggestions?

hrant's picture

From my extensive experience criticizing people in public I would offer the following advice:

There is an Art-Design axis, and every individual falls somewhere on the axis, and probably never changes (at least not much, and certainly almost not at all after a certain age). The closer an individual is to the Art end of the axis, the more sensitive he will be to criticism, and the more likely to hold a grudge against you as a result of a single, even mild, case of criticism. I'm not saying you should play along too much with such a destructive attitude, but if you can figure out about where each individual on your team falls on the axis, it will help you manage the team.

hhp

brianskywalker's picture

I am not a lead designer nor have I experience with public criticism, so take my words with a few grains of salt. I think that one needs to be able to be honest, even brutally honest. It's best to remember that the worst thing that can happen is that the designer will be offended. I don't think that's something to be worried about. Sometimes a little offending is just what is needed. No one should be afraid to say what isn't working, or fear praising what is working.

JamesM's picture

If you're the leader, you need to be able to critique people's work honestly. No one likes to be criticized, but there are ways to do it which will minimize hard feelings.

• Maintain a positive attitude (remember that the leader usually sets the mood of the group). Show courtesy and respect to your staff (things like saying "please" and "thank you", for example).

• Let everyone know up front what your expectations are.

• When critiquing work, frame your comments as ways to make things better instead of being personal attacks (for example, instead of saying "this layout is terrible" say "this layout might be better if you...").

• Remember that it can be embarassing to be criticized in front of others, so be tactful in group meetings, and if you're really unhappy with someone, discuss it with them in private.

oldnick's picture

Based on my personal experience, I found that being the oldest of eight children was ideal training for being an Art Director and/or Lead Designer. You can make your job easier by remembering a couple of important strategies.

First, look for each of your charge's individual strengths and be sure to praise them at every available opportunity. Nobody excels at everything—not even you—which makes an occasional critique more like constructive criticism than blanket "dissing".

Second, as a middle manager, you run interference between your charges and top management. Practically speaking, you have to keep all parties happy. So, sometimes—if you're dealing with a particularly sensitive soul—you may have to make your boss the bad guy. Middle Management 101, but it works.

eliason's picture

Emphasize the consequences of design decisions (here are the costs of doing it this way/benefits of doing it another way). And be specific about what is done well, too (here are the benefits of the way you've done it).

Nick Shinn's picture

Only you can decide how much of a micro-manager you’re going to be.
Those who are more inclined to be “creative” may need to have their babies killed; it’s a dirty job, but that’s why they pay you the big bucks.

Chris Keegan's picture

Having an 'eye' is great. But if you can't articulate what is wrong with a design, that is an issue. While design is subjective, there are rules about composition, balance, etc. that you should know how to defend and explain. If you offer criticism make sure it's to the point and based on solid advice, not opinion. Also, be sure to offer positive feedback along with the negative. A good creative director always makes the project better because of their input.

JamesM's picture

> While design is subjective, there are rules

That's an excellent point. While there is always a subjective element to design, you're on more solid ground if you can explain your reasoning on the basis of design principles.

And an unrelated thought — as the lead designer, you are responsible for the work that comes out of your department and should be willing to stand behind your staff's work. I remember a manager I had once who would tell staff designers that he liked and approved their work, but then if management questioned a design he would tell management "you're right, I don't like it either". The staff lost respect for him pretty quickly.

aluminum's picture

It's subjective, but note that most in this industry would say there's a difference between critiquing and criticizing.

Good designer can take objective critiques and good art directors can give good critiques. Criticism, though, is a much more difficult thing to deal with.

In either case, always strive to be more objective than subjective.

aluminum's picture

I'd also say that great art directors aren't necessarily great designers and vice versa. Many are, of course, but not always. Play to your strengths.

eliason's picture

By the way, you might be interested in the epic "Rule or Law" thread from 2007.
http://typophile.com/node/37310

theforgetfuldesigner's picture

Thanks for all your advice - I think this is my problem. I've been a designer for twenty years (it's the only job I have ever done) but I finished my formal 'training' about a year before the institution I trained at got computers. Typography was a very small part of my training (as were computers).
I guess most of what I know is self-taught, so it's kind of like you 'know' it in an insular kind of way, you know what needs adjusting - but explaining to some one why takes a bit more thought.
Do most art directors critique on the fly? I feel like I would do better marking-up a hard copy (or PDF) than having to consider their work on-screen while they await my response.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

A few weeks ago I read on online article about the daily review process at Pixar. Seemed to work and could be worthwhile to follow.

I couldn’t find that specific piece, but here is an older one that explains some of it:
http://sisucg.wordpress.com/tag/teams/

rs_donsata's picture

Your role as a lead designer is to help your colleagues envision creative and effective solutions while capitalizing on their strenghts. It is always important to help the designer understand the design problem, to start with very clear expectations and specifications and to suggest possible paths for solution.

First encourage exploration with little regard for quality, then focus on the improvement of a selected path.

Critique is very important but you must not direct it to the person but to the work in an objective way. Say things like "The bullets distract attention from the titles" instead fo things like "YOUR bullets..." or "YOU placed very colorful bullets".

Start by talking about the virtues of what you are being shown and then talk about what goals is the design failing to meet or the problems you find. It is equally important to offer feedback on the opportunities of the design which may not be evident to the designer.

Take some time to critique, you need to really think what you are going to say in order for it to be constructive and help the designer to get in the right path. Good cirtique is not so much about poiting out what is wrong but about helping to get it right.

Also, as pointed out, there are some things that are simply wrong: widows, missalignments, defective masking, bad color balance in photos, etc... You don't need to make a big deal abou them, just point them out briefly and focus on the overall conceptual quality and graphic achievement.

Compliment a lot.

timd's picture

Set the Crystal Goblet essay.

Explain why you have made the choices you have, then invite your colleagues to mark up a proof with corrections – set a discussion rolling.

Set your basic rules – use of ligatures, en or em rule, space or thin space, whichever gets your goat – and then invite people to break the rules if they can justify the decision.

Tim

theforgetfuldesigner's picture

Your comment: First encourage exploration with little regard for quality, then focus on the improvement of a selected path.

I find this very helpful thank you, I am finding pointing out the design problem that has caused the unsatisfactory result is more constructive than focusing on the unsatisfactory result.

theforgetfuldesigner's picture

Do you mean get them to mark up my work? - that could be be fun and useful - make me justify my design choices... good non-threatening learning forum.

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