While browsing through a vintage bookstore, a modest brick-red hardcover lying atop an unshelved stack caught my attention. Paging to the foreword, the text stated, “Something has obviously gone wrong with the world and with people generally. What is it? And what can be done about it?” Intrigued, I decided to adopt the 1947 publication titled The Rediscovery of Morals by Henry C. Link. The book, I discovered, examines a variety of topics, including: politics, religion, class, race relations and individual decision-making; and, as indicated in the title, morality is the framework through which these topics are discussed.

Morality can be defined as, “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Based on this definition, I think it is fair to conclude that personal morality consists of the ideals and beliefs of the individual, as they relate to right and wrong, good and bad, justified decision-making and social interaction.

Thinking about morality and how it influences our daily lives, I began to question the impact it might have on creative work and its process, wondering if morality plays a significant role in one’s ability to honestly and effectively critique the work of others. Can providing honest feedback put us at odds with our morals? Is there a battle between professional responsibility and doing right by others?

As a college professor, I am able to monitor and participate in critiques on a daily basis. In a typical semester-long course, two styles of critique are regularly implemented. The first consists of evaluating, discussing and dissecting professional work found on the Internet or in design publications. The second consists of questioning and evaluating work created by members of the class. In administering these critiques, I have found that students tend to migrate into one of two groups. The first group will be consistently critical, and thorough, in either of the critique settings. These individuals are as comfortable and reliable in critiquing the work of a non-present designer, with whom they have no personal relationship, as they are evaluating a peer’s project. This group is often the minority.

The second group will also display little reservation in thoroughly evaluating the professional work of non-present designers. However, this group has the tendency to close off, become guarded, or speak superficially about the work of their classmates in attendance.

This behavior may be related to fear of confrontation, lack of self-confidence, or not wanting to upset a classmate. It could stem from the subjective nature of evaluating art and design. Personality type may play a role in the amount of participation one engages in during critique, however, the quantity of participation seems to have little effect on the depth or significance of the criticism or feedback. Shy individuals, though they participate less, are more than capable of giving praise, questioning intent or even giving honest yet uncomfortable criticism. I think one’s ability to effectively critique must exist on a deeper level, something inherent—perhaps it is an issue of morality.

As individuals, do we consider it fundamentally improper to question or criticize the efforts of others, even if those results may be a benefit to their work? Are we doing more harm by allowing our moral sensibilities to silence our professional thoughts? It seems that there is very little hesitation in regards to offering positive, encouraging or non-confrontational insight. This is not the case with opposing criticism. The combination of peer feedback and personal morality can result in well-meaning, good-spirited partial-truths. This will certainly help in confidence-building, but may stifle the growth of the designer. Herein is where the difficulty lies, by adhering to a lifetime’s conditioning of personal morals, many designers are being short-changed in peer feedback, on the perceived basis of impropriety of wrongdoing, or poor social behavior toward others.

In exploring research and writings related to moral decision making, I became aware of a comprehensive analysis on the subject titled “Moral Decision Making—An Analysis” (2002) by philosophy professor Dr. Chris MacDonald of Saint Mary’s University (Halifax). The following three aspects of his moral decision-making analysis seemed appropriate in relation to the classroom critique dynamic.

The first is “Shared Values,” which are moral values in common. “Moral values are generally shared values. If we did not have any values in common, it would be exceedingly difficult to agree on any one course of action.” Shared values are what allow the critiques to naturally develop. All in attendance are accepting of the process of presenting work, discussing it, and receiving feedback. This shared gathering facilitates the permission and acceptance needed to proceed. Very few, if any, will be morally opposed to contributing to a critique.

The second is “Room for Disagreement,” in which a hierarchy of moral relative importance needs to be established. MacDonald uses the example, “if faced with lying to protect someone’s feelings, which value should take priority?” This is a common occurrence in critique—deciding between objectively evaluating the work and the feelings of the creator. There is a social component involved that does not exist when critiquing the work of a designer not in attendance. Consciously or not, this is the point at which students in the second behavioral group will favor protection of the individual over objectivity.

The third is “Moral Justification,” in which MacDonald explains that “there are more or better moral reasons weighing for a course of action than against it.” This allows each participant to morally assess the critique as a whole and mentally justify the decision to protect the individual or determine that objectivity is best suited. Moral Justification creates an interesting dynamic of both groups acting and responding in a manner that reflects their chosen course of action. Morally speaking, both are correct.

I want to be clear that this is neither a call for unbridled negative criticism, nor a desire to condone an increase in confrontations. I have witnessed firsthand that one’s ability to handle criticism is entirely individual, and criticism needs to be rightfully acknowledged as a tool that is capable of significant harm to the young and sensitive designer. Nobody enjoys criticism, but the mature designer recognizes its importance in helping to develop work, and as part of the creative process.

Personal morality has taken each of us a lifetime to develop and is difficult to modify or circumvent. However, in the instances of peer review and classroom critiques, I feel it is important to acknowledge those feelings of perceived impropriety towards others, even to the point of verbalization if necessary. As leaders of the critique process, studio owners, creative directors, art directors and professors alike, share a responsibility to create an environment of comfortable criticism by discussing the conflict of feelings, the self-consciousness that arises from providing or receiving negative feedback, and of keeping the commentary directed specifically on the work and not the individual. This will ensure that regardless of one’s personal morality of expressing criticism toward their peers, they can feel supported in the notion that any well-thought-out and fully explained criticism, even if it’s a comment we would rather not hear, is for the benefit of the individual and offered in good moral standing.

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