Design critique

Today I was invited to critique a design critique. It’s a little meta.

Who critiqued my critique of the critique? Probably everyone, once they closed the security doors behind them and they had disappeared into their lovely air conditioned offices.

It was nice to be asked to this critique because:

a. It’s nice to be asked to anything, really. Especially when there’s catering.

b. It’s nice to be around established design practitioners because they know more than me and I can steal their knowledge!


The design critique framework

I’ve never been a huge fan of frameworks because they remove all creativity and spontaneity and thinking from the job. Don’t be constrained by frameworks. Knowledge workers, be free!

Except this is ridiculous and exhausting mainly because you have to be all creative and spontaneous and do thinking and it turns out frameworks are just a bunch of rules you start with, and you can change them as you go anyway if something better becomes apparent.

It’s nice to have a framework.

The other dude there critiquing the critique had a framework his team uses which was very good.

I have my own framework, honed from years of being bashed about by critiques and wondering why people were so unkind.


Here’s my design framework critique:

1. We must both be willing participants in the critique. 

You can’t look over my shoulder and say “that should be moved 10 pixels to the left, you know”. That is not critique. That is being annoying.

2. Start with questions

Here’s a few examples to show what I mean:

  • why are you asking for a critique?
  • what do you need from this critique?
  • what business problem are you solving?
  • what type of users are you designing for?
  • what kind of constraints are you working with?
  • why did you do it that way?

This does two things.

1. It sets the scene for you as the critiquer.

2. It also displays a bit of professional courtesy, I think.You trust me enough not to assume I am a dumb arse. It’s nice not to allude to your colleague being a dumb arse! Unless you want to. Then you should. There isn’t enough people calling other people dumb arses in business settings, but you can only do this to their face, then fight it out and make up. Don’t do it behind their backs.

3. If it’s at the start of the design process go big, if it’s two weeks from final design go small and detailed, if it’s two days from final design too late just a hug will do (don’t touch me)

If you critique the basic assumptions I made in week 1 but now it’s week 12 you are most probably right and time will prove that you are the better designer and probably also a nicer person but you are serving no real purpose by critiquing that so say it quietly so I don’t hear. Unless I say something like, “It’s all gone horribly wrong. Where did I go wrong in week 1?” then go for it.

Bring that stuff up in the retrospective.

4. Don’t solve it for me

There are many ways to design something, and this is both magical and really fucking annoying. Either way, don’t give me the answer because then you’ve given me the answer but you haven’t really made go through the process to get to the answer and I’ll have to ask you again next time. You’ve caught me a fish but you haven’t taught me how to fish. Fishing is very boring, but it is necessary unless you live near a supermarket where you can just go buy a fish. Be careful with Woolies fish though. Not particularly fresh.

Bonus: Why ask for a critique anyway?

We all have biases and blind spots and every now and then it’s nice to be reminded that we have biases and blind spots. Actually, no it’s not. It’s awful to be reminded of this. Do it anyway. Your employer will thank you.

To be honest I’m not sure if this technically is a framework, or just a list of questions, but I think it’s a framework because I don’t truly know what a framework is. Just quietly, I don’t think the other people who talk about their frameworks actually know what frameworks are either. Isn’t life odd.


This is all very nice but it’s not about the design critique. What happened there. 

Some very clever people sat in a room and gave good and respectful feedback to a new designer and it was nice to hear their feedback, because feedback from so many different angles brings up lots of different aspects of a design (or design process).

Can you be more specific? 

Not really. No.




Design thinking, design, Change by Design, other things

I finished Tim Brown’s Change by Design last night.

From what I understand, Tim Brown, along with some other folk, popularised the term design-thinking, and it was design-thinking that resonated with the business-type folk as a way to tackle the need to innovate in order to stay profitable.

Change by Design is, in part a set of stories about how IDEO tackled different challenges, and in part, a recounting of approaches and methods to take a design approach to a problem.

There are some nice insights in the book.

“For design thinkers, however, behaviours are never right or wrong, but they are always meaningful”.

A paragraph about “thoughtless acts”, as described by Jane Fulton Suri, psychologist and pioneer of human factors research. “Thoughtless acts” are the stuff we do everyday without thinking, like propping the door open with our shoe or sticky taping different power cords to the wall so they don’t get in our way.

I really liked this sentence about first time experiences in stressful situations, like first time in the emergency ward at hospital after an accident or the first time you check out an aged care facility for your elderly parents. “In these situations we look at everything with a much higher level of acuity because nothing is familiar and we have not fallen into the routines that make daily life manageable.”

I also liked the piece about convergent and divergent thinking. “Woven into the very fabric or culture is an emphasis on thinking based upon logic and deduction”. Psychologist Richard Nisbett coined the term “geography of thought”.

And the piece on the difference between analysis and synthesis. “Synthesis, the act of extracting meaninful patterns from masses of raw information, is a fundamentally creative act; the data are just that-data-and the facts never speak for themselves”.


Wicked problems – what do designers bring to the table?

Last night I went to listen to Dawn O’Neil, former CEO of beyondblue and Lifeline, deliver a talk – Collective Impact and Social Change – A challenge and an opportunity for the Service Design community. Ms O’Neill’s talk covered some interesting stuff, including:

  • an introduction to the Collective Impact Framework
  • the Cynefin Framework
  • a sense that design was valued for something beyond the aesthetic (hooray).

After the talk I walked away with this question:

At what point do designers actually provide value when organisations are working on complex (or wicked) problems? And how? 

I thought I’d take some time today to try and answer my own question.

Ms O’Neill’s talk showed an enthusiasm and understanding that design can be a valuable tool when tackling big, hairy social problems.

Her talk began with an overview of two frameworks that have helped inform her own approach to leading organisations involved in tackling this problems.

The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is a sensemaking framework. It’s useful for identifying:

  • what type of problem you are working on
  • how you should approach this problem.

 The Collective Impact Framework

When you’re working on complex problems the Collective Impact Framework is a useful approach. The Collective Impact Framework sets out the following requirements for working on a complex problem:

  • Common Agenda
  • Shared measurement
  • mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication
  • A backbone organisation – an organisation dedicated to coordinating the effort.

There are also three prerequisites:

  • An influential champion
  • Financial resources
  • Urgency for change (the ‘burning platform’)

There’s a lot more about Collective Impact here at
Collective Impact was first described by Stanford Social Innovation Review here

Discussions and case study

After discussion about the frameworks we broke off into smaller groups to work through a case study about an indigenous community. I’ve paraphrased the case study below. This is the general gist. It’s definitely not the whole case study though.

Money has been poured into an indigenous community from different government oragencies for decades without any tangible change. The community elders have identified they want to improve the opportunities for younger community members. Violence, incarceration, lack of employment and homelessness have been identified by the elders as key issues for the community’s young people. How would you approach this task, as a group?

When the different groups shared their approaches at the end of the evening I realised that there were probably more community development workers, and other NFP types, in the room than design practitioners (I think).


Community development – what is it anyway?

My partner Eilis, is a community development practitioner, so I felt like I had a basic understanding of what community development is (mostly obtained via osmosis and nodding). I already knew that community development and human-centred design share some pretty fundamental similarities in philosophy.

But what are the differences? Why engage designers on a project if community development workers are already there, doing the same work?

(I’m think I’m also wary after a previous experience. “I’m a designer! I do human-centred design! I’m here to help you work on your complex systemic problem! Oh, you want me to build a website…”. I take full responsibility for that misunderstanding, but I don’t want to find myself in that position again.)

So, what do designers add?

Where community development and design overlaps

1. Both practices share similar philosophies and visions. People first, human-focused.

2. Community development workers and designers are not the subject-matter experts. We both work to uncover the problem and frame the problem.

3. We both focus on positive change for people.

4. We both use tools and frameworks to engage with, and understand, people.

How designers are different (what we bring that’s unique)

When we listened to other groups present their response to the case study last night, there were a couple of things I noticed. Here’s a few examples of how groups had responded to the case study.

“I already know that one problem facing indigenous people is availability of food, so we’d work on that by doing these things …”.

 “We’d bring in young mentors from other indigenous communities to mentor the young people.”

There were quite a few other responses like this.

These approaches may be very good approaches (they sound logical to me), but these approaches weren’t derived from a design process.

Designers work with assumptions

Designers validate their assumptions. They don’t start designing solutions until they have:

  • completed some form of research (usually ethnographic research)
  • identified themes and patterns that have presented during the research
  • understood the problem.

For a designer pre-existing knowledge about an issue is only an assumptions until this knowledge has been tested and validated by the people you are designing for.

Following these processes are important because they help us mediate our own biases.

Human-centred design process

Here’s how IDEO maps that human-centred design process.

IDEO's Human Centred Design Arc
IDEO’s Human Centred Design Arc
Here's what I heard
Here’s what I heard in response to the case study


So I think this is how designers (or design-thinking) may add value.

This quote from Wicked Problems also supports (I think) the approach for validating our pre-existing knowledge about an issue.

Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe “poverty.”

Please keep in mind, my intention here isn’t to be critical of community development, but instead to identify what designers offer that make them valuable. I reckon designers have a lot to learn from community development. And if you agree, or disagree, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.