Critique Versus Defense

Both are useful

“Remember — critique is not defense; critique is conversation.” So told me a friend on my first day of my design graduate program. He was right to caution me. As a historian, I had been trained in the arts of rhetoric, debate, and defense: how to do thorough research, form a precise, razor-sharp argument, articulate that argument elegantly, even when speaking extemporaneously, and to anticipate and refute counter arguments quickly and coherently.

Those are great skills, and I’m glad I learned them. But in graduate school and through my time in the federal space, I have also learned their limitations. Defense is by definition a reductive and binary posture. The person defending seeks to be ultimately, completely correct in the finely defined area of their argument, leaving no room for anyone else to also be right. But in complex spaces in which design teams try to make impact, such as in the federal government and as bounded by the data triangle, a solution is unknowable and undefinable for a large part of the design process.

The interplay between defense and critique is crucial to a robust and healthy design group. They are required at different points in the design process, as seen in the diagram of the design phase from the Human-Centered Design Design Phase Operations Guide that's on this page.

Critique is a generative engagement with an argument, as opposed to a reductive one. It allows for multiple sets of truth, accessible through multiple channels. It builds off of peoples’ different perspectives in order to define new territory. It centers on “yes, and” instead of “no, but”. The purpose of critique is not to resolve to consensus, but to uncover nuances in situations.

The convergent portions of the design process require the skill of defense (though not, hopefully, quite as aggressively practiced as I was taught in my history courses) in order to make decisions about how to proceed based on the evidence the team has uncovered. x`The divergent portions of the design process, on the other hand, require the art of critique. In this part of the process, new ideas are created and explored generatively. This exploration allows the team to achieve understanding of the unique, complex situations with which they are grappling and to create solutions for them.

In this way, defense allows space to question, to assert, and to cite evidence for positions, while critique allows team members to discuss, play off of one another, and create new ideas from a synthesis of viewpoints. Although they often seem at odds with each other, I view them as balancing forces. 1  They check the inclination to coalesce behind one strong personality with a talent for defense or to meander continuously around in pleasant, endless in critique. To generate newness, critique is necessary; to identify strong, evidence-based throughways, defense is the indispensable tool.

  1. For more on working in teams, see the On Teamwork article