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The Why & How of Critique

Updated: Nov 21

In my experience as an art student, the hardest part of the art-making process was presenting my work for critique. It could feel so personal! This was most likely due to many different reasons. Not the least of which was our culture’s tendency to link criticism to negative thoughts and actions. Critiquing the work of others, however, is a prerequisite for creative work. Roberto Verganti and Don Norman proposed in their 2019 article Why Criticism is Good for Creativity for the Harvard Business Review, “Yet without critical feedback, you would hardly understand why your original idea did not work.”1 In other words, we need the insight of others to help us see our own work more clearly. We are simply too close to understand how we can make improvements!

The kind of environment in which the Critiquing Process occurs matters. MIT Sloan School of Management’s Office of Communication October 2020 press release indicated that new research demonstrated that the environment had a significant effect on criticism’s impact on creative flow in group work. In a collaborative culture, where ideas were welcomed and criticism was nonjudgmental, the impact on the creative process led to growth. While competitive cultures, where ideas were judged and eliminated, restricted ideation. The research revealed that if students were concerned about providing and receiving criticism, they simply opted out of the process.2

Yearbook students need to be assured that the Critiquing Process will NOT hurt them. Advisers will need to moderate this learning experience by first creating a safe, non-threatening environment wherein creative risk-taking is encouraged, accepted and regularly expected. An earlier blog, Creating a Classroom Culture, describes some ideas that will assist advisers in creating the kind of classroom culture. This will promote a creative risk-taking environment. Staff will develop an openness to being critiqued in order to grow.

Criticism has at least 3 components:

  • Description--what is seen? Provide just the facts from among the subject matter, art elements or principles of design.

  • Interpretation--what is the story? What is being communicated?

  • Informed Judgment--how well is the story being communicated? For class assignments, this often involves the assignment’s criteria. The degree to which the staff member satisfies the stated criteria, that all understand, provides the basis for the informed judgment to prevail. Judgment, then, is rendered using the context of the assignment’s expectations.

Many Critiquing Processes deploy all three components using just these questions or similar ones. This Critiquing Process is implemented either informally with conversations or more formally through a written Critique. Critiques are important to ascertain the quality of the artwork or design work involved in the project. Criticism equals constructive and relevant feedback. It doesn’t have to be practiced with every photograph or page spread layout, but it should be activated on a regular schedule. This process will elevate the overall quality of the yearbook. This is a more advanced criticism practice; criticism can be addressed in a less in-your-face fashion.

Praise, Ask, Tell, Suggest Post-it note activity.

Initially, the criticism skill set includes the application of design/photography knowledge. The practice of communicating through image and design helps develop a sense of what works best. The Critique Process focuses solely on the work itself and how it fits within the designated format. In this case, the designated format is a school yearbook. Leading students into the practice of Critiquing work can begin with a simple exercise: PATS (Praise, Ask, Tell, Suggest). PATS is a Post-it™ Note Activity based on the Assignment Criteria and shared with students by everyone in the class. This is NOT anonymous! Each Post-it™ note comment is signed by the author. This heightens the expectation for integrity in the feedback shared. It is recommended that each component of PATS be designated by a different Post-it™ note color. A color key of Post-it™ note samples with the prompts indicated can be posted on a board to keep students on track during the learning activity. Prompts initiate the way students communicate with one another, and these can be revised as the teacher chooses. Prompts in my classes were the criteria of the assignments which were the goals for this beginning critiquing activity. My staff were required to be frequently referred to in their Post-it™ note commentaries.

Advanced organizer for photography assignment

For example, this advanced organizer for a photography assignment could be projected during the PATS activity offering plenty of opportunity for staff to reference criteria for their PATS feedback.

This critique activity can be repeated often before moving into higher-level discussion and written critiques. Revisit this process, or one similar to it, as students need a refresher in effective critique communication. The following prompts help students practice respectful communication:

Praise: State one aspect within the image that best communicates one of the goals of the assignment (e.g., “I like X.” Or “It's Interesting to see Y.”)

Ask: Generate a question to facilitate discovery

(e.g., “Why was X used?” Or “How did you do Y?” Or “Why did you do Z?”)

Tell: Simply state what assignment criteria is evident in the image (e.g., “I see that X was used in this way.” Or “The use of X supports Y.”)

Suggest: Provide insight to promote discovery (e.g., “Maybe next time you can do X.” Or “I wonder what would happen if Y was used?” Or “Perhaps consider Z next time.”)

I also recommend that once the activity is complete, take time to listen to some of the staff’s rationale for PATS Post-it™ notes shared. I often had my students collect their Post-it™ notes and reflect by writing their thoughts about the comments they've received from their peers about their work. Practice with this critique process seemed to increase my staff's ability to evaluate work without criticism becoming personal. In fact, the process was so positive, relationships grew stronger as a result.

United Yearbook offers resources to complement your instruction and enrich your yearbook staff’s learning. Our Curriculum & Resources instructional guides (with presentations), provide a Peer Critique presentation for use with your staff. We also tailor Workshop Sessions for any topic from learning the PLIC Books software platform to writing captions, Building Teams, Leveling Up Photography Skills, and Developing Layout and Composition Design Skills. Contact us. We are ready to assist you.

Former yearbook advisor, Lucy McHugh

Contributor: Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing from a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former visual art teacher and yearbook adviser. She received a Bachelors of Science in Art from Columbia College in Columbia, SC, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000, and in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy enjoys her family, making art and gardening.

Yearbook representative, Jessica Carrera

Editor: Jessica Carrera, Marketing Manager for United Yearbook and Associate Editor at TSE Worldwide Press, holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Biola University. She aspires to touch the lives of others through her words.

1Verganti, R., & Norman, D. (2019, July 16). Why criticism is good for creativity. Harvard Business Review.,deeply%20into%20the%20original%20idea.

2MIT Sloan Office of Communications, (2020, October 27). Does criticism help or hinder creativity in brainstorming? new research from the MIT Sloan School suggests that the answer depends on the nature of the group and its task. MIT Sloan.,a%20negative%20effect%20on%20creativity.%E2%80%9D

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