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Regulars / The Graduates 2017

The crit: a survivors guide and how to make the most of feedback

Most creative courses have an assessment process that sets it apart from the other degrees. The name alone can strike fear into the hearts of the even the most experienced creative. The crit is a formative experience in education, or, without being too melodramatic, life and tales often emerge of the most bizarre interaction between students and tutors.

Crits are, by their nature, very stressful – you are expected to justify and explore your work in front of your peers, tutors and invited practitioners. Often, review days are extremely long, and everyone involved is only human, so tempers can fray, minds can be distracted and things can go awry.

It can also be a confusing time. You may be exposed to conflicting views, you might not fully understand what is being said or you might be showered with praise and offered a job. Every crit is an intense opportunity to develop presentation skills, expose your work and thinking to new people and to test idea in a public forum.

It’s not only a valuable part of your education, but the situation is also great preparation for professional life, or a Britain’s Got Talent audition – whichever your career path dictates. Joking aside, when facing a review panel you can learn about what makes you relaxed, how to deal with confrontation, how to say "I don’t know’ if need be. Wherever you end up, the crit can provide a useful insight into when you feel most comfortable talking about your ideas.

It’s Nice That has spoken to a number teachers and tutors and asked them for their thoughts on responding to feedback in crits, and tips on getting the most out of them. It’s in no way a surefire guide to success, but draws on years of experience. And, to make you realise that you are not alone, the It’s Nice That team and our sister company Anyways have shared some crit disasters – anonymised for our own sakes.

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Answer on a postcard

“One of the most valuable things I learnt as a student was the importance of being able to explain what your project is about, and why you are doing it, in a maximum of two sentences,” says Billie Muraben, a tutor at Central St Martins and the RCA. “Otherwise known as ‘the elevator pitch’. It is key that you have a clear sense of purpose, process and who your audience is; and it’s important that you both want to and are capable of defending your work, if you can’t, maybe you should be focussing on something else?” 

Be Yourself, and self-aware

“Crits need to be open, respectful environments if they are to be effective. Don’t be afraid to say what you think, or have people tell you their opinion,” says Billie. “Draw a line between your professional/creative conversations and your social lives, knowing how to approach and take on critique will not only be a massive help in your work now but generally in life. 

Be open to feedback – whatever you think of it

“As a tutor, I’ve realised how important it is that as a student you actually respond to feedback. It’s so easy to listen in the moment and then forget about it as you go through your own ideas and intentions,” says Billie. “But in order to make the most of an education environment, where people are actively engaged in what you are thinking and doing, you need to bring the opinions and ideas of your peers and tutors into your practice – you’ll miss them when they’re gone!” 

Never assume anything

“‘That’s great, I like it’, is the worst thing I could ever say to a student about their work in a crit, without quantifying why I think that, what makes it work and most importantly how they could improve it,” says Rebecca Davies, course director in foundation studies in Art & Design at Kingston University. ”Very often after hours, days and often weeks of wrestling with your ideas, spending time and money on testing out a pile of unresolved or failed iterations, like an actor, hoping for a standing ovation after a heartfelt performance, you only really want to hear that’s great and anything other than that feels disappointing.

“But valuing this feedback in the same way as that performance can often be misleading, as it assumes your work has reached a conclusion, it’s finished. I see the questioning from either your tutors or peers, that should be integral to any useful crit, as a way of unpicking and understanding your thought process, physical manifestation and intension behind the work. Within the context of education, for work to have real value, its not about making a great final piece but working out how you can repeat and build on that greatness.“

See the crit as an opportunity

“Crits can be one of the most intimidating parts of the design process, but also the most valuable. The focus should rarely be about just your tutors insight, but about your peers in studio, the ones you maybe don’t talk to so much, who in any other situation don’t get a chance to informally react to your work. Seek out and soak up others’ viewpoints on your work, their interpretation, their references, and be brave to share your whole project including the undeveloped ideas without fear someone else will steal it,” says Henrietta Beadle, who runs the visual communication pathway at Kingston University.

“The crit is your chance to use 10 amazing heads rather than just one. Your studio should be a safe and valued community, where you feel you can test, take risks and get things wrong," she adds. "If this is in place the crit should be a personal place for sharing your secrets….but don’t take the feedback personally – this is the hardest part to learn. Know that each comment and viewpoint will develop your project, even if that happens because you have reacted against it. Sometimes someone telling you something you completely disagree with helps you to clarify what you are really doing with your work.” 

Confession time

And here, for gossip’s sake and to make you all feel better, are our crit disasters. Best of luck in your final reviews, we look forward to seeing all your great work!

“He took one look at the work and sighed. The reviewer then turned to me and said ‘I don’t think you are taking your education seriously’, stood up and walked out. I got off lightly. He tore someone else’s work from the wall.”

“We used to have group crits, where you would just hang your work on the wall and the tutor would walk around discussing what he saw. He spoke about everyone’s work but mine. I asked, politely, if this was an oversight. He said ‘No, it was intentional’.”

“I did that thing where I was struggling with an illustration brief. Instead of coming in and getting help from my classmates and tutors, I stayed at home for days and worked day and night and basically lost my mind. For some reason I started drawing shitloads of owls! For no reason. There was absolutely no concept or narrative behind them. So even later on that night (the night before my big crit) I decided to post-rationalise my creepy owls with A POEM ABOUT OWLS. All I know was that it was crap because when it came to my crit, and I read my poem out loud, surrounded by owl drawings, my tutor who knew me, my work, and my abilities, just laughed (with her hand over her mouth in kind of a shock horror laugh way) and screamed ‘WHAT IS GOING ON!? Why have you done this poem? No more owls! Just stop drawing owls!’ And I knew she was right (even though I was still mortified).”

Supported by A/D/O

Founded by MINI, A/D/O is a creative space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn dedicated to exploring new boundaries in design. At its heart is the Design Academy, which offers a range of programming to professional designers, intended to provoke and invigorate their creative practice.

If you’re after more advice and insight into the creative industries, sign up to Lecture in Progress – It’s Nice That’s new sister company, which was launched to inspire, inform and empower emerging talent with information on the workings of the creative world.