The formal critique is probably the most feared and loathed part of art and design school, often ending in tears (or in decisions to just go into accounting instead). But for her thesis project at Maryland Institute College of Art, Christina Beard actually volunteered to have her graphic design work critiqued, over and over again, by 23 of the most successful designers around today, including Maira Kalman, Stefan Sagmeister, Debbie Millman, and Paula Scher. The project is chronicled in her new book, Critiqued: Inside the Minds of 23 Leaders in Design, which reads as part memoir, part interview series, and part survey of how some of today's leading design figures think.
Beard’s iterative design experiment worked a bit like the children’s game of telephone. She began by designing a poster with a simple message: Wash Your Hands. It started as an illustration of blue and green hands in a tree-like formation, reaching up, with the message in simple capital letters at the bottom. "With poster in tow, I sat down with a series of designers, writers, and curators as they shared their ways of thinking and revealed their processes," Beard tells Co.Design. "At the end of our conversation, I walked away with a good sense of how they think about design and how they would go about designing a simple message. And then I went on for a few days to inhabit that mindset."
At each stop, the participant critiqued her poster: “Integrate language and image,” suggested designer Ellen Lupton, her first critic. "Posters are for human beings, so they should be human," said Paula Scher, of Pentagram. “Too masculine,” said designer Deanne Cheuk of Henri Bendel. "I definitely think there's a difference between designs that come from men and designs that come from women."
Beard redesigned the poster according to each critic’s feedback. The project went on and on for a year, until Beard had designed 25 posters, all conveying the same message—Wash Your Hands—in magnificently varied ways.
"Talking with leading designers meant that many of them had strong opinions about how I should design this simple message," says Beard.
Some were harsher than others—“Ugh, I think it’s really depressing,” Maira Kalman said of one iteration. “It could work in a prison.” Then, when Beard made the poster pinker and brighter, Sarah Gephart of MGMT told her to “Start over.” After this commentary, Beard slashed a big X over her image, along with snarky comments like “Militaristic lettering?” and “Smeared lipstick?” MGMT's advice was to “Be informative. Try to engage your audience by visualizing information in a compelling way. Explore ways to inject narrative and humor.”
After this critique, Beard transformed the poster from a stenciled, pink spray-painted message of “wash your hands” into a complex black-and-white infographic about hand washing. But she couldn't stop there: when Steven Heller saw the new poster, he said it was “Too much information.” Like the little designer that could, Beard soldiered on.
"There seemed to be two camps of feedback," Beard tells Co.Design. "One set of designers literally and specifically gave me a direction. Whether they sketched it out or gave me references to look at, I walked away with a clear idea of what I needed to do." For example, Stefan Sagmeister suggested incorporating "bathroom humor," or designing the poster as a reflective mirror. "If you're going to do simple, be extreme about it," Sagmeister said.
"The other set of designers asked a lot of questions around context, distribution, language, and audience. Instead of jumping into what the poster should look like, we had a critical conversation about the purpose of the poster," Beard says.
The variety in process and opinion among these leading designers serves as a reminder of how there’s never a perfect formula, and there’s no rulebook. Beard's advice to those suffering from criticism phobia: "Be open. Hearing others' feedback and unique perspectives can help you refine and evolve your own approach."