Canadians are often stereotyped as being polite and apologetic — almost to a fault. Most stereotypes are rooted in truth. And though we have a diverse workforce representing many different cultures, I still can see the Canadian in the people I work with.
Despite our polite demeanor, as Interior Designers we have to have strong ideas about creating space. And if we are reticent to offer up those ideas or critique our work, we limit our own success. To get an opinion about our design is our lifeblood, yet many of us don’t express them about our work or our colleagues’ work as much as we should.
Is that a Canadian thing?
The peer review process and the design critique are not new concepts in the design business. In education, critiques are crucial and at work the peer review helps us ensure that our projects comply with industry standards. So why do we not employ them more when developing our own work?
It has nothing to do with being Canadian.
What happens when your ideas get put to the test?
We recently went through a quite challenging project with a very sophisticated and savvy client.
They know the design process, and they used their industry expertise to put us through the paces when we were developing the design for their approval. They remained professional, open and direct, but at times their extensive critiques cut deep. Being a Canadian firm with a Canadian client working on a Canadian project had nothing to do with it — their process is what it is.
We learned an important lesson through that exchange: Defending our thinking made the resulting design better.
Many of our clients are not as sophisticated; they generally accept the ideas we present to them. The feedback we get from them is more superficial — a colour or shape or configuration is not to their liking. Easy stuff.
But when you are asked to explain how you arrived at a design, when your line of thinking is challenged, those conversations are much more in-depth. Personally I found the exercise invigorating. As challenging as the process was, the resulting design was better.
Much, much better.
That got us thinking about how we review work internally. Are we doing the best work we can? Or would our work improve with more targeted critiques? As a design firm we are as sophisticated as our clients, in many instances more so, and we certainly have the expertise to offer valuable critiques of each other’s work.
With that in mind, we looked to see whether our processes could benefit from not only more formal critiques, but also more regular general critiques.
What’s stopping you from speaking your mind?
Bob Gill is a designer, an illustrator, a copywriter, a filmmaker and a teacher. After freelancing in New York, he went to London on a whim in 1960 and stayed for 15 years. He started Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, which is called Pentagram today. Gill returned to New York in 1975, and he was elected to the New York Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. The Art Directors Association of London recently presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
What caught my attention was his quote in the introduction of the show.
How true is that? And how relevant, given our recent challenging project and the recent critiques I gave of student portfolio work, where my opinion hopefully was beneficial to young designers aspiring to improve their work.
So, what’s stopping us from expressing opinion?
It’s just like unsolicited advice: No one wants to hear it. The prevailing mood is that if you don’t ask me for my opinion, I should mind my own business. Fair enough. But my point is that you should ask. That’s why formal critiques exist, and that’s where we need to focus our efforts. After working in seven firms over 27 years in the design industry, I definitely can say critiques are not happening as regularly as they could.
In the podcast, Bob Gill talked about the early days when he and his partners walked around and critiqued each other’s work. He said he knew they were collectively smarter than he was, so he often would change his work after they took a look. It worked in reverse, too — his opinions were considered by his partners. The critiques, though informal and unstructured, were for their collective benefit. It was like a sneak attack. Sounded like fun!
The idea was good, and they had their hearts in the right places. But I also got the impression that they were all very strong personalities. Though it’s true that a career in design is not for the weak-willed, we also have to be somewhat sensitive to others’ level of expertise, their time and their effort. It’s a fine line though, because if we worry too much about everybody’s egos, then we lose the opportunity to improve through constructive critiques.
What are the hindrances to expressing your opinion in a studio environment?
There aren’t any.
If your firm is inclusive, open-minded and constructive with criticism, there shouldn’t be any issues.
That takes maturity — both from the firm’s perspective and from its individuals’. Let’s face it, inclusive and constructive attitudes don’t always exist from top to bottom. That’s life. But we can work hard to ensure that those of us at the top encourage everyone to share criticism constructively, and that we don’t pull rank. (Easy to say, but hard to do.) As I’ve written before, leading by example is the best avenue to success.
No matter how constructive you are, there always are going to be people who don’t yet have the confidence to accept criticism. However, if they can’t learn to take criticism, they may not be cut out for a career in design.
So, we’ve established the need to critique each others’ work in a constructive manner and in a constructive setting. If one-to-one critiques intimidate you, try a group setting. There are some interesting tricks to offering critiques in group settings that can be very inclusive. One thing we have done to level the playing field between the extroverts and the introverts is to ask everyone to write thoughts and ideas on Post-it notes while listening to a team’s presentation. Everyone participates equally without feeling put on the spot.
Also remember that if you have a suggestion, you need to be ready to help implement it. We know that if we are critiquing work, that it might result in the need for extra effort. Nobody likes a seagull manager — that guy who’s every opinion is met with a covert eye-roll because he’s going to spout a bunch of directives and leave. Be ready to roll up your sleeves and get involved.
Also, you could always talk to a student. Many of us have them in our firms for internships, and regular critiques are part of their lives. They regularly have to present their work to their peers and to their professors. There probably are a lot of “out-of-the-box” ways students use to get feedback on their ideas.
How else can you get an opinion or get your work critiqued?
None of these five ideas are new, but perhaps they will spark some enthusiasm to reinvigorate your studio’s approach to the design process overall.
We have a ton of informal pinup areas around the office where we post the progress of project work. It’s OK to leave a Post-it note with an idea or comment (with your name on it) if everyone is busy. If there is time, an informal discussion with a designer about what they see in their solutions is encouraged. We have noticed both approaches open the door to new or improved design solutions.
We also conduct more formal design pinup sessions in the studio on a monthly basis. A design team is selected to gather its project information and host an hour long session. The sessions are informal, voluntary and open to anyone in the studio, from accounting to senior management.
This is similar to a design pinup, but geared more to the outset of a project. We have also used a charrette to develop specific ideas for an aspect of a project in progress.
Normally a short brief is issued to a select group, expressing the problem (you have to do that anyway) and some ground rules. The fundamental difference here is that the participants are hand-selected to ensure that the discussion yields tangible and valuable feedback on the project’s constraints. The charrette is designed to get perspective from a variety of viewpoints before design development begins. Ideally a design charrette takes place once the client’s needs are understood by the project team or, at minimum, the problem at hand can be concisely communicated to the charrette participants.
Design meetings with all disciplines are an essential part of the project process. Integrating a pinup or charette-style meeting is difficult because of workload and consulting costs, but all-discipline design meetings at key points in a project can improve the flow of ideas. Asking the entire team to do a little research and openly contribute their problem-solving ideas can open the door to an influx of possible solutions.
There often is pushback on involving adjunct consultants too early in the design process, but it is important to see the value in sharing design at the right time. Too early or too late can be unproductive. The right time is different on every project, and the design problem drives the appropriate timing of such wide participation.
Don’t let the normal flow of the design process get in the way of sharing information and ideas openly with your whole team. Silos between disciplines occur naturally, but effective cross-discipline communication is a way to break them down and improve results.
Formal critiques need to be scheduled and organized to be effective.
At our firm, a third-party review happens on every project. The review is technical, formal and follows a strict process.
A design critique is, in a way, cut from the same cloth.
It needs to be a collaborative meeting among a team, or face-to-face between colleagues. The formality is in scheduling and documenting the review, and in following up on the ideas discussed.
Documenting the meeting, in whatever manner the participants choose, brings rigor to the process. Without any formality, you risk that the critique will have no influence on the design. And then what would be the point? Our peer review process formalizes the technical review, with the goal of making sure that the project employs best practices in construction, and that it complies with all local building codes.
If you’re going to do one, a design critique should be held in the same regard.
Even though the Pecha Kucha is more of a presentation, it can force a team to distill its design problem to its essence and present it in a clear, concise manner.
The Pecha Kucha is less likely to yield as tangible results than other methods may, but the ability to communicate your ideas succinctly is crucial to project success. Think of the Pecha Kucha as an opportunity for a critique of your communication skills.
We all suffer from the curse of knowledge, and a presentation — regardless of its format — can prove to us that our design is being communicated in a way that is clear and concise.
What are we trying to achieve with these methods?
We want more collaboration, formal and informal, on projects across all design sectors. By scaling the silos between consultants that grow out of the natural divisions of work, we can realize better results. Direct collaboration helps with everything from reducing the curse of knowledge to improved coordination and better-thought-out solutions.
Recognizing that the people around you have the skills to improve your process and design thinking will allow you to produce better design than your competition ever will.
And all it takes is time. We can’t produce time; we can only choose to use it wisely. If we find the time for a critique, peer review or presentation, we open the door to making our design solutions better.
Go ahead! Get an opinion.