Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Giving Design Critiques I Learned from Tim Gunn

I went through two years of studio critiques while getting my Master’s degree in design, and have been through dozens of them in the five years since then, but I can honestly say I’ve learned more about how to appropriately give design criticism from Tim Gunn, one of the hosts of the US television show Project Runway.

For anyone not aware of the show, it basically puts 16 clothing designers together and gives them challenge after challenge, with judges voting one designer off a week. The challenges can be anything from designing evening wear for pregnant women to make swimsuits out of trashbags. It’s pretty harrowing on the designers, but luckily for them, Tim Gunn comes into the middle of their design process to offer a critique. This will give you a taste. (Many more are on YouTube.)

Now, I’m sure he doesn’t really have these, but Tim Gunn’s principles for critique seem to be:

  • The purpose of a critique is to make the design better. It’s not to make the designer feel bad, or to make the teacher feel superior. It’s to provide guidance using an outside, experienced eye.
  • Be supportive. Even if you don’t like a designer (and Tim hides this pretty well), you can objectively look at the work and try to make them a better designer through gentle steering in the right direction. Never say you hate a design unless you can also (gently) say why and offer suggestions for improvement.
  • First, figure out what the designer was trying to accomplish. Tim tries to get a sense of what the objective was. If there’s a problem here, if the designer doesn’t know, then the overall design is going to be a mess. If Tim can’t figure it out, the judges won’t be able to either.
  • Offer direction, not prescription. Tim doesn’t often tell the designer how to fix the design (although he will say what specifically isn’t working for him.) But it is up to the designer to come up with a solution (“Make it work!”).
  • Humor and metaphor work better than criticism alone. Tim often chooses references from pop culture to make a point. “This looks like The Golden Girls,” for example. Which is devastating, funny, incisive, and instructional all at once. The designer understand where the design has to go (or where to move away from) next.
  • Accept multiple styles. Tim’s style is, in all likelihood, very far away from the aesthetic of most of the designers. But he doesn’t try to impose his style on them, just sharpen their own while still applying some universal principles of good taste and design.
  • Know the domain. If you know what’s been done and what’s being done, you’re better able to offer suggestions (and to alert designers as to what seems dated or out of style).
  • If you don’t understand it, be cautious in critiquing it. If Tim doesn’t understand where a design is going, he openly admits it (“I’m puzzled”) or (if he likes it) says things like “I’m intrigued…” Know your limitations as a critiquer.
  • Don’t take it personally. Tim rarely gets upset or angry, even when designers refuse his advice. It’s not his design, after all.

Seasons of watching Tim Gunn work have been extremely instructive in forming my own teaching style. Everyone who reviews the work of designers could learn a thing or two from him.