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Web Design Criticism: A How-To

Web design is a relatively young field. It’s youthful, growing and made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds, many of whom lack formal design training. We have learned, and still are learning, as we go.

I came into my first job as a Web designer for Boeing back in the mid-1990s, with no formal design training. I was lucky to get some training on the job, and I would guess that my experience there was similar to that of many who are reading this article. I had the opportunity to work with some very talented and highly experienced designers who all had made the jump from other design fields to the Web.

It was there, as part of that training, that I learned about critiquing, both giving and receiving, through regular design reviews.

Formal Design Reviews = Fun? Maybe not. Educational? Heck, Yeah. Link

Formal design reviews
Image source1

Those reviews weren’t fun. They were difficult and demanding and required quite a bit of effort. However, they were also meant to yield the best possible design work through careful evaluation and constructive criticism. They weren’t inherently negative, but they did focus on what was wrong with a design and what could be improved, rather than what was working—which, to some degree, makes sense. The goal was to improve the quality of work.

Many days I left those reviews feeling like a failure, and some days I felt unnecessarily beat up. But I was often reminded that these reviews weren’t personal and were tough for a reason. In hindsight, I’m glad I had them. They improved the quality of my work immensely and taught me quite a bit about how to evaluate my own work as well as the work of others. Still, I look back and can’t help but pick out problems—not with the process or intent, but with the specific things we used to evaluate our design work.

Almost exclusively, we evaluated the designs based on established visual design principles2, many of which are sound and worthy of consideration when evaluating a website design. But, at least in the beginning, we rarely touched on things that went beyond the visual design of the websites and products we were building. I think we could be forgiven that; again, Web design was new then, and we were all learning.

Shortly thereafter, I got involved with the Web design community outside of Boeing (though Boeing had a thriving, diverse and rather large community in its own right), and I began to see how the rest of the world judged design work. It was mostly limited to informal comments in forums and such, again very much “thin-slicing” and focused on snap judgements and gut reactions related to style and visual design. I felt lucky to have what I had: formal, informed, passionate and professional feedback, even if it wasn’t as deep as it should have been.

How We React Link


This hold true today, more than 10 years later. A person tends to critique a design in one of several ways. The most common, and usually least valuable, is by gut reaction. Gut reaction is valid and can be valuable; in fact; if you look at most established design principles, you’ll see something about emotional connection. On the Web especially, this connection is often formed in an instant. It can and often does develop over time, but the initial reaction should be noted and can be important to the overall success of a design.

Gut reactions often hold little value in a critique because they are not properly articulated. The person giving the critique will reduce their initial reaction to words like “suck,” “awesome,” “like,” “hate,” which does nothing to help the designer improve their design. These kinds of reactions are fine to note, but to be valuable they need to be articulated well. This requires a longer look at the design and a clear understanding of what the designer is looking for.

The most common reason the process breaks down is because it’s hard to follow. It takes time, attention and an understanding of what is being evaluated. Unfortunately, people don’t seem willing or able to go that extra step to make their feedback, whether positive or negative, helpful. They’re more concerned about getting their gut reaction off their chest and moving on. In some cases, they simply don’t have the tools to reflect on and articulate their reaction. A good critique requires time and a grasp of fundamental design principles.

Honestly, why else would a designer fire off a “That sucks” comment? If you’re reviewing a fellow designer’s work, you should feel obligated to make your review as helpful as possible. Those unhelpful comments result more from a lack of understanding than a lack of willingness to put in the effort. To this end, I wanted to see whether established principles exist by which to judge Web design and whether we have guidelines along which to offer critiques. So, I did some research.

As With Most Things, Begin With Research Link

Four in Getting Clients: Approaching The Company

I began with some extensive research on Web design criticism and critique. I didn’t find much, but a few things are worth sharing. Jason Santa Maria, who is a wonderful designer and a leader in our field, wrote a good article about giving and taking criticism.3 He has some good advice there, and through his formal schooling he seems to have had a similar experience with criticism and design reviews that I did. He goes into the specifics of critiquing itself, and any designer could benefit from a quick read of it. As well, a few months ago a good post on responding to criticism4 was posted here on Smashing Magazine. It’s about responding to criticism rather than giving it, but some useful ideas are there.

As interesting as those articles are, I couldn’t find anything on giving critiquing Web designs in particular or on established design principles by which to judge websites and applications. In hindsight, and after many revisions to this article, I’m not all that surprised. Given the broad and multi-disciplinary nature of the Web, the subject is difficult to tackle.

Any Universal Web Design Principles? Link

Some attempts have been made to define universal principles for Web design, here on Smashing Magazine5 and over on the much-missed Digital Web6, but these (for me at least) are too broad to be readily usable. They’re a good place to start, though, and worth studying.

More helpful would be to dig deeper and look at more specific principles, such as Principles of Design7 and Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics8. With these, we could begin to dissect a Web design into its component parts and critique each individually. But let’s be realistic: not many will take the time to do that.

Learning the principles of usability, user interface, typography, visual design and so on is something every Web designer should work towards. This understanding will give you some of the language and criteria you need to effectively criticize. The rest is effort.

In addition to my research, I’ve spoken to many other designers about what makes for a useful critique. While one would expect many of the answers that were given, most people believe that it depends largely on engaging with the design and the designer, on having a conversation with them. I’ve noticed a lot of this happening in Dribbble9, a great community for designers that’s currently in beta. I have a few invitations, which I’ll give to those with the best comments. Just note in your comment that you’re interested in the Dribbble invitation.

After all this research and reflection, I’ve come to define a good critique as one that takes a gut reaction, applies context and understanding to it, and then communicates that in a constructive, conversational way.

To this end, I’ve formulated some simple rules for judging a Web design.

Some Guidelines For Constructive Web Design Criticism Link

Pd 4 in 6 Simple Ways For Freelancers To Increase Productivity

1. Note Your Gut Reaction, But Take Time to Explore It. Link

If you can’t articulate your reaction, stop there and keep it to yourself. As I’ve said, gut reactions can be valuable, but we need to explore them. Think of the last time you saw one of your favorite websites after a redesign. You may have liked it or hated it right away, but after using the website for a bit, your opinion (hopefully an intelligent one) became more moderate. Take the latest redesign of Facebook, for example. I was immediately confused. I think I actually typed something to that effect in the search field, which had been moved to where I thought the status update field would be. But I quickly found my way around and was soon comfortable with it. What’s more, the changes made a lot of sense overall. My gut reaction was expected; big changes can be disruptive, but I needed to look more closely to see that these changes were positive.

2. Learn to Articulate Your Observations, and Invite Being Questioned. Link

A designer should never, ever critique another designer’s work unless they are willing to have a meaningful conversation about it. This is a biggie. Expressing an opinion without offering to talk about it holds little value. You may be passionate about your craft (and your opinion for that matter), but for that passion to have much merit, you need to be willing to have a two-way conversation about it. Off-hand comments, particularly anonymous ones, are unhelpful for a number of reasons, most of which are pretty obvious. The point is simply that if you’re going to form and share an opinion, be willing to go a bit deeper and have a conversation about it.

3. Be Specific, and Offer Suggestions if Appropriate. Link

This is related to the last point. The more specific you are in praising or knocking a design, the more helpful you critique will be. Use descriptive terminology, speak the language of design, relate your opinion back to established principles. Think of your critique as one side of a debate in which you have to defend your opinion.

4. Always Consider Context and Audience-Appropriateness. Link

A personal website can be judged on how well it captures the personality of the designer. A mobile-specific website should be evaluated on a mobile device. And so on. This one can be hard, especially if you don’t know the context or audience. That said, avoid critiquing a design without knowing the context going in. Sure, by understanding visual design principles, you can critique just about any design on that level, but that’s usually just scratching the surface—helpful, but not nearly as helpful as it would be if you took the time to go deeper.

5. The Most Important Measure of a UI’s Success Is How Well It Meets Expectations. Link

I recently wrote about this in depth. The point is that you should judge the utility of a user interface by how well it meets your expectations. Of course, if your expectations are exceeded in some way, that’s great, too, but simply having everything behave as you expect is a good start.

6. Subjectivity Is Fine if Labeled as Such and Articulated Properly. Link

Following on the point about noting your gut reaction, judging a design subjectively is perfectly fine. Sometimes, even after having taken our time and knowing the context and audience and all that, a design still just doesn’t feel right. As long as you articulate that in a way that makes it clear you’re not sure why you feel that way (and if you accompany it with other helpful remarks), the feedback is probably worth sharing.

7. Don’t Neglect the Content. Link

Unless you take the time to use the website and to read and absorb the content, your review will likely be superficial. While content doesn’t often fall under the responsibility of the designer, it’s still a big part of the design. Judge a design based on how well it presents the content and facilitates its use or consumption. Of course, here we have one of those “it depends on the website” situations, so context is doubly important.

8. Study the Principles Used to Judge Design, and Learn the Language. Link

I’ve touched on this quite a bit already. It’s probably the best thing you can do to give better criticism and to become a more educated designer. In order to properly form and articulate an opinion about a design, we need to know the principles and patterns we’re dealing with. And without understanding the language, we can’t easily have a conversation about the quality of the design.

Conclusion Link

Giving a great critique isn’t rocket science, as long as you take some time and use a proper frame of reference (knowledge, context, criteria) to engage and think critically about the design. So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? I’d love for readers to weigh in here on what they think makes for a useful Web design critique and share what they think makes a Web design successful. Also, feel free to critique this article… I know I could use it.


Footnotes Link

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D. Keith Robinson is a writer, designer, artist, publisher, etc. currently living in San Francisco.

  1. 1

    nice article

    one thing i missed –

    how to deal with criticism that comes from ppl of a far away department. i had this situation once where it was my turn to present and i was prepared for a discussion between designers, coders, performance guys and this project management dude who wasn’t really involved in the project spread his gut all over the place, re-openening questions, issues we already had solved weeks ago … really annoying

  2. 2

    Luv this kinds of articles.


    • 3

      I agree, these articles are not published enough on these sort of web sites.

    • 4

      Good article, but please do not label your conclusion with “Conclusion”. It’s rather high-schoolish.

  3. 5

    True, critiques can be hard. Especially from people who don’t have a background in design like many clients. Sometimes I find it hard to convince them what is right and wrong. I’m pointing at critiques like “Make my logo bigger” or “Can u make that button brighter?”…

    • 6

      Yes, this is a problem. For people who don’t get design it’s more about knowing how to sell your decisions to them than it is trying to get valid feedback to improve your designs. Don’t get me wrong, I think client feedback from non-designers is useful, but it’s not the same as a design critique.

    • 7

      @Illusiv – I find nearly every client of mine has a reaction as you describe at one point or another. What I have found is not to take their suggestions so literal. Consider alternatives to making the logo “bigger”, possibly there is an improvement to the design you can make so the logo is more prominent. Same goes with “make the button” brighter. I’ve found that 99% of the time what my clients are saying is their gut reaction. But potential improvements to the design can satisfy their needs. In my opinion, the most naive (design wise) clients sometimes give the best and most raw feedback, you just have to know how to interpret it.

    • 8

      As long as you can answer a critique with good arguments – you shouldnt let your clients influence grow too much.

    • 9

      How do you deal with critiques like that? When a client critiques your design and asks for changes that you know will result in a bad design – and is very stubborn about his/her way – do you pass on the project? What is the best way to deal with a situation like that? Thanks for any input.

  4. 10

    Christopher Da Sie

    March 2, 2010 6:30 am

    Absolutely fantastic. These articles are always extremely useful. Critiques are extremely hard and never fun for anyone. It always amazes me how much people like to critique but don’t always have the words to explain what they actually like or don’t like. This is a great article that I will be passing along to my colleagues. Thank you.

  5. 11

    Kalle Hiitola

    March 2, 2010 6:36 am

    Great article, I couldn’t agree more. Even tough some of the principles that were pointed out in the article seem so self-explanatory, but that’s simply the beauty of it. Giving criticism isn’t all that complicated but to notice the obvious principles how to deliver the message is why many of need this kind of articles, me included.

  6. 12

    I found this article very informative and will be very useful on my current web projects. I am currently working on writing up a review for my friends website and hopefully by using the write language and exploring the site that you have suggested, it will benefit him and myself greatly.

    Also, if I am not too late and you still have any of those Dribbble invites left, I am more than interested.

  7. 13

    It also helps when being specific to take the time to think about the words you choose during the critique. Most of us are primarily visual, I think, and don’t necessarily weigh our words carefully. It’s not that we need to try not to hurt another designer’s feelings, but that we need to speak precisely in order to convey the message we intend. I’ve run across many critiques where a phrase was fired off and it derailed the entire critique because it was over the top of what was actually meant. The designer being critiqued couldn’t get the over-the-top phrase out of his head even though it was meant to be a minor aspect of the critique. It takes far longer to get the critique back on the right track once this has happened than it does to pause and phrase your idea more carefully.

    This is particularly difficult when you’ve been working with a group of people for a while and begin critiquing a newbie who may not be used to your group’s style of critique.

    (I’m interested in a Dribble invite as well)

  8. 14

    Smashing Buzz

    March 2, 2010 6:52 am

    As a web designer i love to read your helping article.

  9. 15

    Great article…constructive criticism is hard to do well. Choosing carefully the words we use and the way we describe the problems is important. Also it is important not only to point out the flaws, but possible solutions and also what works with the design….

  10. 16

    Good article. I was drawn to the title because I find a lot of times my initial reaction is to go into defense mode when I’m being critiqued. I know it’s important (if the critique is valid and well spoken) to listen and learn. So it’s something I’m working on. It’s especially hard when the questions and critiques come from non-designers…

    (I’d love a dribble invite).

    • 17

      @Hawk O, I agree with you; it’s hard to take criticism – especially from people not in your discipline, but there are two parts of this that should be explored.

      1) It is definitely an art to receive criticism and learn from it, but it is also an art to give criticism, which is why these types of articles are so valuable and should be shared across all disciplines (or even taught in school!).

      2) Part of the beauty of receiving *constructive* criticism from people outside your discipline is that you gain an outsider’s perspective to help uncover areas that designers may not readily think of.

      However it is so very important for people not to jump all over the person of the work being critiqued. This is where the collaboration process can fall apart, which is quite unfortunate. As Keith mentioned, a lot can be learned and gained from sharing your work with others to receive feedback. If a critiquing session ever gets out of hand there should always be a responsible participant who can bring the session back to the “constructive” aspect of the critique and be prepared to ask questions to guide the critique-er to the reasoning behind his/her opinions. Getting to the root and understanding what it is they are really trying to convey, as well as the reasoning behind the designer’s methods helps facilitate better communication.

      Great post!

  11. 18

    I went to several colleges and received 3 degrees related to design and visual communications and of all that schooling I had only one teacher who truly pushed for hard reviews with constructive criticism. The most relaxed reviews I ever received were in getting a B.A. in Studio Art. We were given the chance to critique one another and about the most constructive thing anyone said was “that’s great… I love it.” It wasn’t that we couldn’t critique each other, but often other people just didn’t want to.

    I always missed that one teacher who let us, and made us, go at one another for our design flaws. I’ve been in the workforce now for 3 years and one of my favorite things to do still is to deconstruct a design and make it better.

    I don’t know what Dribbble is but sign me up! Thanks.

  12. 19

    Some initial thoughts from a rookie web designer for a software company who comes from a legal background. As critique has really boosted my personal progress, I must agree with some of the points in this article. However it is worth pointing out two things; firstly the difference between critique and criticism (often forgotten) and secondly that critique is very much related to personalities and commonsense. Therefore I find critique to be interlinked with knowledge of people personalities, especially at the receivers end, but perhaps most importantly professionalism is often neglected in favour of taking things personally.
    Ps. if there are any Dribbble invitations left, I would very much appreciate the gesture. Thanks.

  13. 20

    This is a good example of quality content. You can tell from the preceding comments that it has provoked thought. The type of posts that gather “cool post” or “like this” comments are often not worth the time it takes to read them, but here’s a quality, in-depth and well-written one.

    I believe that critiques are one of the hardest things to do in a clear way. This may be partially due to my personality, because I hate to tell people that they did this or that wrong or their work is mediocre, but it’s difficult to criticize someone’s work.

    I think the main issue is that a critique is not personal in any way (or shouldn’t be!) and should not be taken personally as an insult to one’s design skills or the problematic “personal style.”

    If perhaps you have a dribbble invite still waiting to be given, I certainly wouldn’t mind one! :)

    • 21

      Critiques really should focus on the work, you’re right. I think it usually gets personal when the designer being critiqued has an attachment to their work, which is perfectly fine and can often be a good thing.

      It’s important for designers to try to divorce themselves, at least to a certain extent, from their work when receiving a critique. It’s much easier to understand, learn from and do something with a critique if you can look at it somewhat objectively.

      Easier said than done though. Haha. :)

  14. 22

    This article hit on the problem of communication. I have to agree with Michael that in class we weren’t very helpful to each other because we were being too nice. That, in my opinion, is the problem that occurs when you are more personal with each other.

    The opposite is true in a critiquing situation where people don’t really know each other and may never meet. It borders on rude, with one-word, unhelpful comments. In each situation we have to remember that we have the opportunity to be helpful. A little detail, please!

    And I would love an invite to Dribbble!

    • 23

      Communication is something illusive to the most highly educated persons. The illusiveness of communication is rooted in it’s source, people. Persons have their own context (history, education, experience, state of mind etc) add the context of the situation and the receiving end of the communicationprocess and you have some very strong variables that (partly) define a response.

      Like said in the article. Take into account the source of the critique and engage in conversation. Try to throw some design principles at them and find out whether they know what they are talking about. Dont simply accept what they say.

      I’m a communicationsadvisor and in my work many people i work with simply accept what I say to be true. Even though half the time I might be guessing, granted my guessing is probably founded on different principles but still. I think that a little insight in the person will prove to be invaluable.

      Most people giving critiques can be molded to see your viewpoints. So before you have to go and change anything in your design, It is your job to educate them and convince them you are right. Because you are the authority in your field.

      I’m not saying nothing can be gained from criticism.. On the contrary. A lot can be learned!!.. but make sure the source is valid!

  15. 24

    It’s 2010 and almost everyone has had some experience with the online world. This means that almost everyone has an opinion of how a website should function. As web designers, we need to keep this thought at the forefront of dealing with other less experienced critics who are also stakeholders.
    I would highlight content considerations to be at a higher priority. This is something most people forget about, even the most content-focused stakeholders. That is the heart of all web design I believe.

    I’d never heard of Dribbble, but I wouldn’t mind checking it out.
    Sometimes it’s good to get together.

  16. 25

    Thomas McGee

    March 2, 2010 8:07 am

    Nice article. The importance of good critiques are often overlooked these days, but as with anything, they are an essential piece to getting better at what we do.

  17. 26

    I really like this article and plan to share with my colleagues. One question I have is: How do we relay these guidelines to the customer?

    Our team builds internal web applications for other departments (engineers, HR, finance, etc) and often time they barely know how to open email let alone understand how to critique and provide useful feedback to the team. In addition, we use the Scrum process so we are demo’ing the product every two weeks. The last app we worked on, we ended up redesigning one section 3 times based on the gut reactions of the customer who were so unclear on their internal process that they didn’t really know what they wanted from the app.

    Is there a “quick and dirty” way to explain to them how they can best interact with the design so that their feedback helps to improve the design rather than influencing a total redesign based on a gut feel?

    p.s. I am interested in a Dribble invitation. I am currently pursuing a Master’s in HCI so I would love to see how those conversations mesh with my learnings.

    • 27

      Hi Sarah. Your question is one that many seem to be having and it’s more related to how to get sign-off, explain design decisions, etc. to someone who is a non designer.

      This is a big topic, but I can tell you a few things that have helped me in the past.

      First, you should set expectations with them, let them know what kind of *specific* feedback you are expecting and how you want to receive that feedback. You’re not going to get the kinds of things I talk about here from non-designers because they don’t have the frame of reference to give you that kind of thing.

      As part of this you should be working out and getting an understanding with your client about what the review process is. Sometimes this will fall apart, but it’s good to give it your best shot. One way that helped me in the past is to attach costs to their feedback. Meaning, I’d set the expectation that they could review the project two times and then, if we hadn’t settled on something, they’d have to pay for any further review/changes.

      Second, a big part of being a professional designer is learning how to educate non-designers. You should be having conversations with them about what their gut feeling signifies. You might point them to this article and let them know that it’s a valid feeling to share, but it’s not always helpful.

      Third, if you can invest in something like user-testing that provides you data to back up your design decisions, do so. It sounds like in your position some simple, informal user-testing with these folks might get you better, more focused feedback and at the same time help open their eyes a bit to what you are doing.

      This is a big topic. I hope this helps some.

      • 28

        Thank you Keith, it does help. We are starting to implement usability testing and while some customers are open to the feedback we get from it and how it helps with the design, other customers are adamant about what they want and are not willing to look at the data. I think the hardest part at our company is getting non-IT people (let alone non-designers) to trust IT people to do the right thing.

        I also really like the idea of explaining to them the cost of redesign. We have started doing that in the Scrum with the requirements but I think we also have to do that with redesigns. I don’t think that non-IT people understand that the design is more than slapping some text and graphics on a page.

        You have definitely given me some food for thought on how to approach my next Sprint demo and how to solicit customer feedback.

        Thank you.

  18. 29

    “… a good critique [is] one that takes a gut reaction, applies context and understanding to it, and then communicates that in a constructive, conversational way.”

    This, to me, sums up this article perfectly, and describes an ability that most of us should have in some form or another. Isn’t web design all about taking abstract or image-heavy ideas and applying them somehow to a system (or should I say applying a system to them)?

    I’m currently a student taking a 2-year college course. I have yet to actually complete a web site (just months away), but I’ve been reading articles on sites like Smashing Magazine for quite a few months now. The one thing that actually bothered me in any capacity during all this time is the presence of the types of comments you talk about. When I see negative, “gut-reaction” comments like this, I immediately think “unprofessional and lazy”. I’m curious as to how people like this conduct their business, especially in the online world where your communication skills will form a large part of the impression you make on clients.

    From the perspective of someone entering the field, the ideas presented in this article can really be put to great use with regards to learning from the experienced, as well as the inexperienced, and even with regards to forming an online presence and networking with other designers.

    Very well written article, thanks for inspiring me to post my very first comment!

    (Dribble seems to be great, but I have a feeling that it might be public by the time I’m able to really make use of it.)

  19. 30

    Very well written and very helpfull. Not before the end of the article I realized the author, whose blog I´m already reading with pleasure!

  20. 31

    Before giving any critique it is helpful to know the design’s purpose and it’s restraints. Without that, too much is left to preference. A quality of a good designer is articulating the purpose, restraints, and audience (mentioned in #4) upfront and also listening and filtering critiques that are relevant vs. personal preference or style. Also known as “having a thick skin”. A good read. Any Dribbble invites left? Thanks.


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