If you want a good critique to help you grow as a designer (or a writer) here’s something to consider: Ask for the criticism before you touch the tools (or crank up the printing press).
Because of my odd path through life, almost all of my early furniture designs were vetted, savaged and usually improved by a group of experienced woodworkers before I started the construction process. For 15 years, all of the editors at Popular Woodworking would gather occasionally around a table to plan out future issues of the magazine. We would review proposals from outside authors and we would present our own designs for review.
The short critiques sounded like this: “That rail is too heavy. You don’t have enough meat in that joint. That overhang looks clunky. You might consider adding a sympathetic curve here. It needs a cup holder. If you tapered the legs it would look a lot lighter.”
Everyone had to go through the process, even the boss who went to a fancy furniture school.
This sort of pre-construction critique is so helpful, that I seek it out even now. Before I build a new chair or cabinet design I like to show my drawings to someone who knows their stuff and isn’t afraid to speak up.
I don’t act on every piece of criticism, but it always makes me think. And sometimes it pushes me down a new path.
On the other hand, criticism that comes after a piece is built is a different animal. With pointy fangs.
I’ve spoken to woodworking clubs all over the country. Many times they invite me to critique pieces made by their members. The first time I was asked to do this, I thought: “What a brave bunch of woodworkers.”
Then the club’s president took me aside and said: “Please be nice about it. One speaker was so mean that a couple of the guys ended up in tears.”
I empathize with this approach. Most of the members of a club are there to have a good time, learn about woodworking and help their community. They aren’t looking for a withering critique that will thicken their skin and question their choices as a designer. And so when I critique a finished piece I focus on what they did right and (I hope) encourage them to keep building.
Another Way to Do It
What if you don’t have any friends who are experienced designers? One thing you might try is to get a few friends together and have something like our “Chair Chats” (we have two more publishing real soon). During each chat, Rudy Everts, Klaus Skrudland and I dissect the design of a few chairs. Because these are historical pieces, we are free to be as honest as possible.
What has been amazing to me is to see these pieces through the eyes of someone else I respect. We all pick up on different aspects of a piece. And by the time we completely take apart a chair verbally, I find that I understand the piece much better than I did before.
We do it via a texting program (Whatsapp) so that everyone’s opinions are heard. No one can talk over the others and dominate the discussion. It doesn’t take a lot of time, either. We spend about 30 to 40 minutes on a chair. And at the end of each critique I feel oddly refreshed, energized and full of ideas.
And that’s the best feeling ever for a designer.
— Christopher Schwarz
11 thoughts on “First Critique, Then Build”
Super important to do, I went to a not so fancy furniture school and was shredded several times…
I completely agree that the critique is invaluable to the design process. However, – and I’m still trying to develop this thought as I typing – We cannot always rely on a drawing to portray the essence of a piece as a 3 dimensional object. Would an alternative path be: build (mock up), critique, build? Iteration is nothing new to you – But can it be used as successfully in the process of making one-off pieces that aren’t saw benches and work benches? This does two things for me – I can see the object’s form as it exists (as an alternative to the abstracted nature of plans, elevation, section, and even perspective drawing) and secondly, if I’m going to screw up my technique I would rather screw it up on version 1 rather than the final. A good critic can be constructive, but it takes an amazing critic to see intent. Maybe it even relieves a bit of the imaginative pressure on the critic to see something that is real and in front of them.
I think that resonates with many fields involving creative activity – like science and engineering – and motivates including diverse viewpoints from those with relevant expertise – i.e. not those in the “cheap seats”. BTW love your efforts and Go Cats!
Excellent post Chris.
When I was studying Architecture in school and at several firms where I worked prior to starting my own firm, we would critique each other’s work (sometimes as often as weekly).
Currently, the one thing I’ve found to be the most difficult today is to convince my friend(s) and/or a few fellow woodworkers that my feelings will not be hurt so even before we start we have a little session on the concept of “Constructive Criticism”.
And, a key element to this approach is to bring the person into the thinking process rather than direct criticism, i.e. ask the questions “What do you think about …….?”, or “I really like such and such but what would happen if ……..?”
I’ve never experienced a bad session, only an honest one.
Interestingly, I’ve also found that my success in design has generally been inversely proportional to my ego.
Rock and Roll!
When you critiqued my first chair you pointed out a few things that I had already noticed. I made that chair from scratch and with no plans. I did learn a lot from it and it prompted me to get your templets for the welsh chair. with the templet I have made 2 chairs out of Cherry and I think they are best work I have done. So I guess what I am saying is your critique helped me to do better. so Thanks for that. if you want to check them out check my FB.
I rely on a handful of non-furniture makers to critique my designs, my wife being one and an experienced interior designer being two exames. It is important to find people who can mentally translate 2D into 3D. Woodworkers
are the wrong people to ask for design advice, they tend to focus on things that have little to do with the aesthetic success or function of a design. It is important to know your audiences’ biases as well – my interior designer friend gravitates toward a custom/built-in look that doesn’t always work for moveable furniture. But she has a great eye for proportion and can spot woodworker indulgences (excess curves, proud joinery, over-designed profiles) a mile away.
Chris, love your concept about the plan vs the completed project.
Couple big lessons I’ve learned as a private music teacher:
0) BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE: ask the person what they think could be better. My professor (one of the top performers in the world for my instrument) used to say, “I can only teach you what you already know.”
1) be specific and point out at least one thing done well for every thing that needs improvement.
2) Taylor comments to the level of your audience (for example if commenting on a first attempt at dovetails ignore the gaps and make a comment that will improve sawing technique)
3) ensure the person understands and has command of the basic rules of design and construction so that the person is free to bend and break the rules artistically. I.e. if you can demonstrate proficiency, then do whatever the heck you want so long as you execute it convincingly.
Did the morris chair plans in the picture make it to print?
Good idea using WhatsApp, I will try that with friends now that I am slowly starting to introduce some of my own design in the furniture I make.
I’ve been learning from the chair chats, thanks for bringing us along!
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