(As a pre-emptive disclaimer, this has nothing to do with my first two weeks at Twitter. I have an in-depth update coming up about my job and my coworkers, who are wonderful human beings. I believe with all my heart that they would never say such a bile-inducing phrase).
There are many bad terms for people we don’t like. Here are a few. Hussy. Dick. Douche.
What do all these insults have in common? In a single word, they not only tell you that the person they are referring to is a jerk, but also illuminates gender.
The glory of artful language is that if you pick the right word, you can efficiently describe a situation. Instead of, “male jerk who likes to sleep with anything with legs,” you can say, “manwhore.” When you tell a story, this effect can be powerful. Crassness and judgments aside, it replaces the slashes of verbal parrying with a Zorro-esque Z.
Let me run another word by you. Pretty.
This word makes me want to burn down the crit room. When you call something ‘beautiful,’ it’s overwhelmingly positive. There is never room to mistake ‘beautiful’ as a derisive comment. ‘Pretty,’ however, is a backhanded compliment that people feel obligated to counter. Some proof: here’s a comparison of the first four results for, “designers just make pretty pictures” and “designers just make beautiful pictures”.
None of the results for ‘beautiful’ are actually related to that statement, while all of the ‘pretty’ results are articles or comments appealing people to respect designers.
While ‘it’s pretty!’ is a synonym for ‘it’s beautiful’ to most innocent wielders, in critique it often has the efficiency of ‘manwhore.’ When someone says, ‘it’s pretty…’, they typically mean, ‘eh, it’s beautiful, but thoughtless.’
First off, let’s address the fact that snarkiness and cynicism don’t have a place in a productive critique. If our intent is to improve each other and do good work, veiling your feedback with sarcasm is harmful.
Secondly, why bring the issue of beauty into the matter at all? While beauty is subjective, one of the goals of design -is- ultimately to create beauty through evocative contrasts, gruesome or golden. No one approaches any interface saying, “I’m going to make this thing all busted and ugly,” and people don’t fault a good interface for being beautiful.
Should we really despise a work more so for being visually considered and thoughtless than for being ugly and thoughtless? Should we hate a physically beautiful person for owning a symmetrical face, or because they ask why poor people can’t keep their yards clean like the rest of us?
Perhaps the scornful ‘pretty’ is a disgust for deception. Perhaps the outward beauty leads us on, and that’s what we really hate when we say, ‘pretty’. The promise of a delightful experience, dashed by the reality of flippant thinking.
Regardless, to give specific and actionable critique, let’s be transparent. If a piece has a harmonious composition but inappropriate typefaces and colors, be specific and state both sides. It’s okay for a thoughtless design to get a couple things right. It’s still thoughtless regardless of good kerning, and would be thoughtless with bad kerning as well. Leave ‘manwhore’ and ‘douche’ for storytelling.