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Be a Constructive Critic

September 19, 2016

Steve Harvery appologizes


It was the final moment of the Miss Universe Pageant and the two remaining contestants—Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines—stood nervously at the front of the stage holding hands. The host, comedian Steve Harvey, glanced quickly at the award card then said, “And the 2015 miss Universe is… Colombia!” The rest is internet history. In the ensuing moments, the teary-eyed Miss Colombia was adorned with the “Miss Universe” sash, handed a bouquet of flowers and crowned, and then stood exultantly blowing kisses while waving a tiny Colombian flag. But then Harvey could be seen sheepishly making his way back down the stage. “Ok folks,” he said, visibly embarrassed, “I have to apologize. The first runner up is Colombia.” In what was called the biggest blunder in TV awards history, Harvey had announced the wrong winner; the real winner was Miss Philippines.

This spectacular moment, which went viral on Twitter and was viewed by millions of people, was, depending on your temperament, found to be hilarious, cringeworthy, or both. But for those in the design community, it was a call to arms. Brand strategists, creative directors, UI architects, and tech CEOs—including big names such as LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and the design luminary Don Norman—took to social media in a storm to point out problems with the award announcement card read by Harvey. Critiques included: the font for the winner’s country should have been larger than that used for the runner ups; the winner was placed too close to card’s edge and thus obscured by the cardholder’s thumb; the contestants should have been listed in a single vertical column. Improved designs were proposed, and then they were critiqued. (When a new layout was suggested with the pageant winner framed in a pink box, some wonks chimed in to mention banner blindness, or how advertising has lead us to disregard colorful rectangular areas). All of this goes to show that as much as designers take pleasure in experiencing beautiful products, they become outright giddy at the opportunity to harp on crappy work.


The original Miss Universe award announcement card read by Steve Harvey:


Proposed re-designs of the Miss Universe award announcement card:


 


All of this goes to show that as much as designers take pleasure in viewing gorgeously designed products, they get outright giddy at the chance to critique crappy work. The key thing is that they don’t just harp on problems, but offer their own creative solutions. (A fun example of this can be found in the usability engineer Michael Darnell’s site “Bad Human Factors Design, at http://www.baddesigns.com.)

Similar to designers, you should actively seek out and critique the work of hacks. The key thing that you shouldn’t just grouse about what’s wrong, but think of how you would do things differently. For example:

  • If you are communications director reading a lackluster product release, consider what changes you would make to the content, organization and voice.
  • If you are manager attending another group’s chaotic meeting, think of how you would have set up and organized things.
  • If you are a software engineer viewing another person’s messy code, consider the structures, styles and practices that would lead to a more elegant solution.
  • If you are an architect observing a claustrophobic monstrosity of a building, sketch out changes that would improve the spacing, lighting and flow.
  • If you are corporate leader who is dealing with an obtuse service worker, consider the organizational values, training and culture that you would implement to avoid similar situations within your organization.
  • If you are a scientist reading a journal article with sloppy analytics, think of the research methodology and statistical models you would have employed.

By regularly spending time studying poorly executed work, it helps you turn a critical eye to your own creative process. As a creator, you need a finely tuned and decisive capacity to recognize when you’ve gone astray: when you’re chasing a bad idea, your technical execution is lacking, your design is flawed, or your work product is trite, derivative, or just plain bad.
 

Organizational Tip: Developing a Constructive Critiquing Culture

When teams try to critique their own work, there are two ways that things can go astray. The first—which car result from an overly competitive organizational culture—is when an aggressive naysayer’s mentality dominates the discussion, so that nothing positive is recognized. This is both counterproductive and deadly to team moral.

The second way that team critiques go wrong is when there is an over-identification with the creative effort: team members get so caught up in the sweat and tears that went into making something (either theirs or their colleague’s), that they can’t bring ourselves to find fault with it. The discussion then falls into backslapping group-think (“Hey Jay, I love your idea of having a three-way power switch!”), leading to products that are overwrought (Google Wave), unnecessary (Pepsi AM, for the morning cola drinker), dangerous (the “Walkie-Talkie” skyscraper in London, whose convex reflective windows melt nearby cars), unwanted (3D TV anyone?), or flat-out embarrassing (the Microsoft Kin smartphone—almost a billion dollars in the making and pulled from the market in two months).

A simple way to help establish a more constructive critiquing culture is to dedicate time in team meetings for critiquing competitor’s products. Have a team member overview a product or service, and then open the floor for a group critique. The rules should be that when a positive feature is mentioned, there should be an elaboration upon why it is well done; and when a problem is pointed out, it should be accompanied by suggestions for improvement. By spending time critiquing external products (e.g. without personal investment), it helps team members shift into a constructive analytical mindset that can more productively critique their own work.

 


References

<JH1> John Havel, ”Look at Steve Harvey’s Card – He Was Set up to Fail”. http://thehustle.co/steve-harvey-was-set-up-to-fail-in-miss-universe. December 21, 2015

<ET1> Eric Thomas, “How Bad Design Wrecked Steve Harvey's "Universe". https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-bad-design-wrecked-steve-harveys-universe-eric-thomas. December 22, 2015.

<JL1> Jeff LeBlanc, “And the Winner Is…(The (Miss) Universe of Bad Design)” http://www.ics.com/blog/and-winner-%E2%80%A6-miss-universe-bad-design December 22, 2015.

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