1. Begin with the Obvious

TLDR: Consistently investing time in strategic thinking before implementation will save you time, money, and headaches.

The premise

For those of you who may not have experienced the wild beast that is an art critique (and certainly for those of you who have) suffice it to say that there are an abundance of learnings in this environment, both explicit and otherwise. First, perhaps, an introductory run-down.

The premise is something like this: an art or design student has completed a project and installed it for review in a semi-public environment (e.g. department gallery or crit space, or perhaps a studio which will temporarily serve as host for this group discussion). Other students and faculty will likely have had an opportunity to visit the work in advance of the critique, and perhaps one or two have been tasked with preparing written notes to get the conversation going.

In any event, once the group has shown up and settled in, something needs to get the ball rolling to get past the potentially awkward silence which may otherwise ensue. Depending on the faculty overseeing the festivities, there may be introductory questions or prompts (at least early in the day — by the time students are looking at the third piece on display it is mostly expected that they should have hit their stride by as caffeine will have kicked in and a sort of natural group rhythm emerged). Likewise there may be more or fewer guide rails to the crit as some faculty subscribe to a driver seat approach and others more of an assisted passenger seat sort of set-up familiar from driver’s ed vehicles — they are there to step in if needed, but otherwise learning happens best in the act of doing.

Finding a shared language

So. Where critiques can and often do go awry (and rather quickly, at that) is when the group skips over the crucial observation phase and moves straight to interpretation and judgment. In these situations something very simple has happened: nobody has taken the time to state the obvious. What is the thing in front of our eyes? The physical, tangible (or occasionally intangible but still sensorial) thing whose formal and material and durational qualities we can name? By starting with this basic approach we are consistently and helpfully reminded that what is obvious to one person is often not obvious to another, and sometimes not even easily navigable except by way of carefully delineated thought processes. In other words, our experiences and frames of reference shape our most fundamental understandings and without a clear, shared language for the object of our encounter, by the time we have jumped to interpretation or judgment or anything more advanced than “this is a painting” we may be hopelessly beyond any sort of consensus (or constructive complexity and dissensus, even).

Okay, you may be thinking, so all this to say that art school is exactly the kind of weird lawless place you always imagined it to be where what passes for education is a far cry from your own college or graduate school days. Maybe so — yet the lesson we have repeatedly extrapolated from these experiences holds true, not least of all when thinking about the most foundational of business practices: strategy and implementation.

All too often when we get in the thick of things and are just trying to keep our projects and businesses moving forward we make certain decisions that, while obvious to us, may not have a broad shared understanding team-wide. Add to the mix the additional contractors and vendors amidst our ranks who also don’t have the benefit of deep company knowledge or hours working side-by-side where other crucial learning takes place — particularly these days where remote working and hybrid schedules mean that some of the people you have on the ground (with their hands on the proverbial keyboard) might be working mostly in isolation. Without taking the time to put strategic thinking into so many words in documentation available across teams and departments, implementation is a gamble at best.

Differentiate through documentation

Perhaps an example to clarify: in our line of work it is common practice for companies to hire out graphic design work to freelancers or creative agencies (much like ourselves), many times on a campaign or project-by-project basis. In these circumstances, a thorough brand style guide is everybody’s best friend and the creative team’s guiding light. At a minimum, having key elements explicitly spelled out (the exact fonts to use to remain consistent, hex or Pantone codes to ensure the colors are just right) means that the assets your hired help are putting together have a greater likelihood of looking like they are yours.

Going a step further, however, can be the real game changer. By including more detailed written documentation about why decisions were made as well as graphic examples of a visual system in play, your semi-nomadic vendors can best work within the framework you intended with your strategic foundation, or bend the guidelines to their limits to create a fresh look and feel that still communicates all the essential characteristics of your brand. It’s this bigger picture thinking spelled out and explained — the shared understanding about why things are done and for which audiences, for instance — that can transform good outcomes to truly memorable and impactful.

Begin with the obvious

Invest the time to spell out your key strategic foundation — your brand personality, primary and secondary stakeholders, your vision and reason for being, among other things — along with the project-specific goals your team is there to achieve. By putting this in black and white before getting to implementation, you reposition a game of chance to much more solid ground — and likely save yourself a lot of time, money, and headaches. By making strategy before implementation standard operating procedure, your deliverables (whether copywriting or design or whatever other piece of the puzzle you may be tasked with) will cohesively communicate the brand — building you equity, loyalty, and that oh-so-important bottom line that proves return on your investment. Take it from us — we’ve sat through critiques that ignored the obvious, and we’d like to spare you the trouble.