Being a design critic is good, right? Wrong.

Most designers struggle with turning off the constant design critique program that runs in the back of their head constantly.

“It would have been nice if the designer knew how to pair fonts… did they not even test this site with users… why is that gradient even there?”

You probably find yourself thinking thoughts like these… every… single…. day.

This could have been designed better. That could have been tweaked a little more.

Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes we’ll never really know because we often don’t have any actual data to support our viewpoint. Regardless, we have an opinion on everything design. As designers, that’s how we roll.

Always looking for a way to iterate and improve on a design is part of who we are. In order to even be a designer in the first place, we’re working under the premise that we can design something better. Better than what already exists, or better than what the stakeholder had in their head.

Thinking critically as a designer is an important skill. However, there is a distinction between thinking critically, and being a critic. A definition from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for “critic” is “one given to harsh or captious judgment”. Yikes.

That’s not what anyone wants to see in a team member.

I’m not here to tell you exactly where the line is between critic and critical thinker. I will, however, offer my own brief description of what I mean by a design critic: When you always know best and when it’s never good enough.

If you live there you’ve gone too far. You’ve crossed over from critical thinker to critic.

With all the constant design critique going on inside our heads, how do we still pursue the best possible design solutions without crossing the line? How do we not become the critic?

Don’t say it just because you thought it

You may be right. You might actually have a better solution in your head. You may have done a better job with the navigation design had you been the designer for the project. But, just because you thought it doesn’t mean you have to say it. When we ask ourselves; “am I sharing this feedback so I look good or am I sharing this to make the product or department or process better… will this comment add value or will it just prove that I’m ‘right’?” Filtering our thoughts with comments like these ensures that there is true value added before speaking.

Have some empathy

Do you really have a better solution in your head? Or are you as the critic simply not aware of the constraints of the project? There’s plenty of variables beyond a designer’s control that can compromise a design. A toxic stakeholder. A ridiculous deadline. An unclear objective. The HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Last minute changes. Missing requirements. There’s hundreds of reasons why designs can go awry. Would you really have done any better yourself under the same constraints? Don’t be too quick to judge.

Stop acting like perfect is a real thing

Is there always room for improvement? Of course. But as I wrote a few months ago, “There’s always room for improvement in our designs. Chasing perfect is like chasing the horizon. It’s an imaginary place somewhere ahead that exists just out of reach. Chase perfect, and you’ll find yourself constantly chasing the horizon but never actually reaching it. When you’re chasing the mythical ‘perfect’ design, you’re actually giving yourself an excuse to not finish your passion project.”

Have enough humility to know you’re not always right

It’s important to have some confidence in your viewpoint and your skill set. Having confidence on your side can take you a long way in your career. Go too far down the confidence path, however, and you can easily find yourself quickly being a prideful critic. The reality is I don’t have all the answers. You don’t have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers. We have to be confident in the design decisions we make while being humble enough to understand that we’re not always right.

Ask more questions

Instead of sharing opinionated statements, start asking some questions. Not statements wrapped up in a thinly veiled question format. Real questions. A question like “can you share with me the thought(s) behind putting this feature at the bottom of the page?” is a productive question that challenges the other designer in a healthy productive way (assuming the person asking the question really wants to learn why). Questions like this prioritize an anti-fragile learning mindset and critical thinking over being right or having an opinion.

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