Carefully critique your next criticism

Let me indulge my mediocre sense of irony for a moment: I have a couple of criticisms of Criticism.1 (I have to be honest up front, I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to making these mistakes.)

If you’ve been following anything Apple-related online in the past week or so, you’ve probably managed to read rather a lot about iOS 7 — especially its various shortcomings. Let’s leave aside the ridiculous, trumped-up nonsense that certain publications have wallowed in,2 as is their wont. There’s been also an avalanche of sort-of-warranted critiques of certain elements. The icons, for example. OH THOSE ICONS. They’ve been taking some flak.

An icon, taking some flak An icon, taking some flak

I even wrote my own piece on the icky gradients — although that was really more about my childhood love-affair with Shareware than anything else. (I also wrote it before I saw the hundreds of mockups on Dribbble explaining how Apple could have done it better. If I’d known they were coming I would have thought twice about adding to the clamor.)

I say “sort-of-warranted” because iOS 7 is a beta. Those hundreds of icon mockups are a great example of something that Nick Wynja commented on in the latest episode of Mikes on Mics:

“A lot of artistic people will come out and call out art as a way to set themselves ahead of what they’re looking at, right? It’s a judgment of saying, ‘I’m going to critique this because I think I’m better or I want to put myself ahead,” and I see that in the design world… Designers will just come in and say, “Oh, that’s ugly,” or like, it’s really, really good, and they’ll find the one pixel that’s off, and to just kinda prove themselves as that really sharp-eyed designer they’ll be like, “Oh that one pixel’s a little bit off.”

[Instacast bookmark]( (36:49)

I don’t have anything against design concepts, per se, but I agree with Harry Marks when he says that “the feeling that something must be complained about in order to be understood is a terrible way to live”. Making your own version of the iOS icons is an acceptable way to show off, and might even be valuable in some way — but when that “I can do better” becomes your sole contribution to any discussion you’re cheating yourself (and everyone else) out of any value you might have added.

It’s an easy answer which completely ignores anything good in the thing you’re proving you can do better. Often we take that good for granted. Maybe we even feel that it’s worth criticizing something only if it’s otherwise excellent. That might be true, but criticism isn’t truly valuable until it does more than highlight the bad. It has to point out the good as well.

Replacing the bad elements in something is only half the battle of refining it until it’s great. Accentuating the good is just as important.

That’s one problem with a lot of criticism, but a much more pernicious one is related to something that Daniel Jalkut said on The Talk Show a couple of weeks ago:

“For tens, hundreds of years, if you knew somebody’s name and didn’t know them personally, then they must be so famous that they could take anything.”

[Instacast Bookmark]( (3:54)

Today, especially due to the rise of the internet, we have thousands of ‘micro-celebrities’. It’s baffling to me how often people seem to forget the normal niceties of civil discourse when they’re communicating with these pseudo-exalted demigods. It goes both ways: it’s always cringeworthy when you see a less fortunate mortal Uriah Heep-ing all over a Gruber or a Marco. (I’ve come dangerously close to it myself, on occasion. Thankfully, I never could afford that tattoo of Merlin’s face on my sternum.)

But man, you get more than a couple of hundred people interested in what you’re doing, and the ad hominem attacks start coming in. It’s ugly.

The root of this problem is a fallacy that just won’t go away. If you ever study literary theory you’ll find it cropping up everywhere like nettles: the ridiculous weight that critics lend to authorial intention. The inability that we have to separate the value of a thing from the value of its creator. Here’s a few examples:

  • “I won’t read that book, because I disagree with how the author lives his life.”

  • “That app must be rubbish because the guy who made it is abrasive on Twitter and I don’t like his politics”

  • “The only person who knows what this part of the novel really means is the writer.”

  • “It must be pronounced ‘JIF’, because the man who created gifs said it is.”

The problem with tying things too closely to their creators is that when you criticize them you’re criticizing the creator as well. Any pop-psychologist can tell you that criticizing a person isn’t nearly as effective as criticizing a behavior.

You are not the app you coded.3

This all boils down to motive, in the end. If the purpose of your criticism is to make something better, then you’ll find that calling the person who made it an idiot is rarely going to achieve good results. Too often criticism of things becomes denigration of people, and as soon as it passes that line then it’s lost any use it might have. All you’ve done is make someone sad or mad on the internet.

Next time you think of a glib potshot you can take at something you see, stop and think: am I doing this to exalt myself, or because I don’t like the person that made it? If the answer is yes, stow it and go work on something great of your own.

As long as it isn’t another iOS 7 mockup.

  1. OK, it’s not rain on your wedding day, but it’s in that league. 

  2. semi-Roboto font”, indeed.