From Critique, A Language Emerges

Jared Spool

May 16th, 2012

I’ve been fascinated by critique lately. It’s a fabulous tool to help the entire team – designers and non-designers alike – learn more about what makes great design great.

I’ve learned that you can tell that a team is taking advantage of well-done critiques by the new, personalized language they are now sporting. They have a set of terms and phrases that only have meaning to them, but the meaning is deep and thoughtful.

I saw an example of this from Kate Brigham, as she talked about the work her team at PatientsLikeMe was doing. They had a term they used to describe the buttons on their pages: lickable. Lickable buttons are buttons that look like bright colored candies and are so vividly yummy, you just want to lick them.

They started employing these lickable buttons to get past the dull, mechanical look of the operating-system-supplied checkboxes and radio buttons. Lickable buttons are fun. They encourage pressing. They don’t look formidable, which is important when PatientsLikeMe’s designs are asking their users about serious things, like how much pain or fatigue they’re feeling due to their chronic illness.

What’s neat about this button nomenclature is that it’s 100% PatientsLikeMe. I’m not 100% sure of the origin story, but it sounded to me like it emerged during a critique session when the brightly colored buttons first made their appearance in a design. Someone made the comment about how they looked so delicious and the name just stuck.

This is often how these things work. Someone just says it and it catches on immediately. That’s the first stage.

That’s cool, but what happens next really excites me. The PatientsLikeMe team decided that being lickable is a good goal for future designs. Whatever that means.

Now, the team has the duty of exploring the true boundaries of the term. What does it really mean to be ideally lickable? When are buttons not quite lickable enough? When have they gone past the ideal lickability into something too undesirable?

It’s in these conversations where the team gets a chance to explore what design is really about. Well-run critique sessions let a designer bring proposed designs to the table, and the team discusses how close to an ideal notion of their design the can get.

This testing of the boundaries cements the language and gives everyone a way to talk about design in a positive, ever-learning fashion. The team grows as a result and the designs get better.

Critique is hard. Well-run critique is really hard. But the payoff is wonderful, because the team moves beyond the specifics of the designs into learning what makes a great design. Once that happens, you can see the output of the team jump to a new level.

That’s really exciting.

3 Responses to “From Critique, A Language Emerges”

  1. Newman5 Says:

    Hey Spool!~

    I wonder if the power of ‘lickable’ is the fact that the team coined it organically. It wasn’t something that they read in a book, but rather it was the output of there creativity. They own that word. It’s definite evidence that the team is in a creative state that they are generating new terms and descriptions.

    hehe – I imagine the intern bringing in her design “Lickable?”, she asks. And the team just laughs.


  2. Gary Boodhoo Says:

    “Lickable” is a fun term that always makes me smile, perhaps because of personal associations with the fruity sour-sweet taste of a Jolly Rancher 🙂 The term itself seems to have been introduced in 2000 with Apple’s “Aqua” visual language for OS X. As I recall, the aesthetic was part of a design strategy that corresponded with the industrial design of the first iMac.

    Jobs commented that “one of the design goals was when you saw it you wanted to lick it”. Riffing off that comment, New York Times tech journalist David Pogue later described the scrollbars as “lickable globs of Crest Berrylicious Toothpaste Gel”

    How interesting it is that a simple word can convey such a rich (and pleasant) set of sensory experiences. My favorite part of any project is seeing how language and coded messages become internalized by the team, and I consider it a great success when the preverbal communication a team shared can be conveyed to our users and customers.

  3. Irith Says:

    Man, I think the IXD gods are smiling on me today. I am currently drafting a research paper on our healthtech project’s design language (I call it a design vernacular) and offering it as maybe useful to healthtech projects more generally. The terms are ‘pointy’ and ‘soft’. Trying to explain in the paper what an IXD design language is and why it’s useful for design (in contrast to engineering terms like ‘safety’ and ‘functionality’). If anyone can help me out with the concept of a design vernacular I’d be very grateful!

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