The value of the crit

Learning to talk about our work is an incredibly important part of art and design education, and I would put it on an equal footing with practice.

At art school the crit is an opportunity to have your work evaluated by your peers. Both the merits and failures are discussed. Ideas for improving the work are put forward. You feel exposed under that spotlight. You must quickly learn to temper the disappointment of, and look for opportunity in, negative feedback. It isn’t personal. It is a game of give and take though: you are expected to reciprocate by pitching in with constructive thoughts on your peers’ work too. That is the theory at least.

I was inspired to write about how I came to understand the value of the crit after reading Mark Boulton’s piece on the subject.

My story

A few years ago I took a couple of evening courses in graphic design at Central St Martins. First the beginners course, followed a term later by the intermediate course. I loved every minute: the opportunity to design, being taught by inspiring tutors, talking to like-minded people, and the buzz of (briefly) studying at a London art school—all the more so because at the time I was commuting up after work from Reading.

The thing that has stuck with me is how—and how differently—the tutors for each course handled the crit.

By its very nature an evening course is short: a course may comprise 6—10 lessons, each 2—3 hours long. A typical evening at St Martins would begin with an evaluation of work from the previous week’s project—the crit. This was followed by an introduction to a new topic (i.e. typography, grids, colour) and a new project brief. The remainder of the lesson and any homework-time was given over to working on the new project.

On the beginners graphic design course the majority of the feedback during the crit would come from our two tutors. They would gather all of the projects together on a table or a wall and talk; picking out points of interest and suggesting directions to explore for improving the work. The class would then be invited to comment … the usual response was a nervous silence. A name might be called: a personal invitation to comment. Rarely did it stimulate any real debate though. I think we were all hoping to get the crit over as quickly as possible, taking what we could and hungry to move on to the next topic and project.

We were there to learn about design, and what better way to learn than by doing. Right!

I’d first encountered the crit on my Art Foundation course several years earlier. It took a very similar format, so this experience at St Martins seemed normal. The trouble with the tutor being so dominant in the discussion of work is that you only engage when it is your turn. I listened for tips, nodded here and there, noting what I could improve on.

The tutor for the intermediate graphic design course at St Martins—David Preston—took a very different tack during the crit. David invited each member of the class to present their work in turn. After giving some initial feedback, he actively encouraged the class to take over the discussion, only pitching in here and there from then on.

The crit would frequently take up most of our evening’s lesson. I was astounded that so much of our classroom time was being spent evaluating the previous week’s projects, and so little time was spent designing.

We were there to learn about design, and what better way to learn than by doing … Right?

It took a few weeks for me to really get the importance of this process. We had become invested in the work of our peers. Our little classroom community had an unspoken rule: give constructive feedback to get constructive feedback. That is where I found the real value. Talking about design forced me to develop the analytical skills and a vocabulary for evaluating design. Both continue to prove useful today: whether trying to navigate sticking points in my own work; or when communicating the decisions in a design with a client or colleague.

For me this time spent in the crit was easily as valuable to my education as the time that was spent producing work. If you have the opportunity to participate in a similar process I urge you to embrace it!