Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Critique

This is a paper I gave (am giving?) at NACIS's annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. I hope you will find it of use.


Critique is basically looking at something someone has made, usually in the presence of the maker, and talking about why it does and doesn’t work. Critique is a core methodology for teaching fine arts, which was my college major. Critiques have become a core part of NACIS, including the Cartotalk gallery, the Map-off, and roundtable map talks. Whether it’s with colleagues or with clients, we all engage in feedback. We all need the outside point of view that allows us to see our maps freshly.

However, I want to start by reading from a 1997 interview with Stephen Sondheim, from the TV series Inside the Actors Studio. For those unfamiliar with Sondheim, he is probably the greatest living writer of Broadway musicals, with his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

When you were ten and your parents divorced, your mother moved to Pennsylvania and it was there at the age of eleven that you encountered Jimmy Hammerstein and were welcomed into the family of Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein. I understand you’ve said that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, you would have become a geologist.

Yes. He was a surrogate father and a mentor to me up until his death. When I was fifteen, I wrote a show for George School, the Friends school I went to. It was called “By George” and was about the students and the faculty. I was convinced that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t wait to produce it, so I gave it to Oscar and asked him to read it as if he didn’t know me. I went to bed dreaming of my name in lights on Broadway, and when I was summoned to his house the next day he asked, Do you really want me to treat this as if I didn’t know you? Oh yes, I said, to which he replied, In that case, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. He saw me blanch and continued, I didn’t say it was untalented, but let’s look at it. He proceeded to discuss it as if it were a serious piece. He started right from the first stage direction; and I’ve often said, at the risk of hyperbole, that I probably learned more about writing songs that afternoon than I learned the rest of my life. He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make stage directions practical.

Of course when you’re fifteen you’re a sponge. I soaked it all up and I still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon. From then on, until the day he died, I showed him everything I wrote, and eventually had the Oedipal thrill of being able to criticize his lyrics, which was a generous thing for him to let me do.

This is a different kind of critique than most of us will ever get. I'm not going to suggest that the Oscar Hammerstein of maps— I don’t know who that would that be anyway—is going to offer you the secrets of his or her trade. But I want to hold up this example for clues how we can position ourselves best to receive and give critique. Specifically, I think there are social barriers that often keep our critiques from being what they could be.

The first thing I want to call your attention to, is that Sondheim and Hammerstein were crystal clear about the field in which they were playing. Hammerstein wrote Broadway musicals, and Sondheim wanted to win at that very specific game. If he had wanted to write a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, or an art-song cycle, or radio jingles, Hammerstein might have been supportive, but would not have been able to offer such specific advice, grounded in experience. Same if Sondheim had wanted to write something new and revolutionary, to jump tracks. Sondheim wanted to perform within a specific, evolving but established tradition.

Too often in cartography, we act as if “knowing how to make maps” is a singular tradition. And there isa basic unity to modern cartography. But I make urban navigational maps as my primary specialty, with a secondary specialty making regional thematic point maps, in both cases within the context of a for-profit map publishing company. Pretty much everything else I do is a kind of experiment. I shouldn’t really be trying to pass myself off as an expert on choropleth maps, or mountain hiking maps, or geological maps, or any other of a hundred other map types.

That phrase “map type” sounds like it’s all about definitional categories, but it’s also about context—how do you sell the map, or otherwise get it out to the audience. Broadway musicals were defined at least as much by the business structure of producing a show as by artistic theory. I can tell you this kind of issue is central to commercial map publishing, that actual cartography is only the most obvious part of the job. Whatever branch of the map world we’re in, we know this, but somehow in discussing cartography, it’s harder to bring that element of our work—call it the business end, maybe—into our critiques. Maybe it feels like some kind of sell-out, the tainting of pure mappage by the finger of mammon, or pandering to the public, or maybe it’s because we really don’t understand who we’re making maps for—we just keep making maps and dang it, the public keeps using them. But that public is who we’re making maps for, so if we pay as close attention as we can to how that public are being reached, it should help us make maps that do a better job.

Our audience—who we’re making the map for—is not just the end user. Hammerstein’s critique, if it was anything like his 1949 essay Notes on Lyrics, was focused not just on lyrics as text, or on the experience of the audience, but also on the work of the singer. His critique of Sondheim was broadly structural: how to compose a scene, how to structure a song. Your map is probably part of a presentation your client or organization will be making to someone. It’s in no way shameful to factor that wider performance into your critique. It’s not a sell-out unless you personally cannot stomach the client or organization’s message.


I was a studio art student in college as I mentioned earlier, and critique remains a crucial part of studio education. For me, the frame for critique was as much collegial as professorial, about getting students to talk critically about each others’ work. I want to mention an interesting book from 2001, Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students, by James Elkins. It’s actually just about the only literature on modern post-secondary art teaching. It makes the point that because fine art is no longer about following specific technical traditions—learning to paint like your master—the idea that art teachers can critique from a position of stylistic authority breaks down: we expect art students to find an original voice, rather than be measured on how they can speak in the copied voice of the teacher, or of canonic Old Masters. And so while art teachers are still teachers, and often lead a discussion, they focus in part on students learning from each other. This is an oversimplification of course, but that to me is the nut of the situation. And thus the title of Elkins book, Why Art Cannot Be Taught

We don’t really have the problem of lack of technical traditions in cartography—there is still a clearly defined broad visual language in our field, and the ideal of self-expression doesn’t loom large. Cartographers largely share the same tools and tricks. And yet in our critiques, in forums like NACIS and CartoTalk, we maintain a strong collegial quality: even when there are clearly newbies in the room, asking for basic feedback, we feel like we need to respect their work. And we do, but too often, we also feel the need to be nice. We don’t want to hurt feelings by putting ourselves in the position of Hammerstein, telling people that their map is garbage.

This is not as much of a problem with clients. Clients are usually willing to tell you when a map you made for them is not what they had planned on paying you for. The trouble is, they often have a hard time telling you what they want done differently. They probably believe they don’t know map design, and so they don’t know what is possible. Often they have no design background: “This map is too, you know, blah-ish, or too, kind of, hard to read, or just not PUNCHy enough.... You figure it out. You’re the cartographer.”

And so we find ourselves in this weird position: we are the authority on making maps—the stand-in for Hammerstein—this is why they hired us after all; and they are the ones with the authority of the checkbook who aren’t happy with what we are producing for them. And that can be really awkward.

More than ten years ago, I was at a party at my brother's house, and a friend of his, really insistently, came to talk with me. I'd never met him before, but he was happy to tell me at length why my map stunk. It was Professor Pathfinder’s Downtown Denver, and although my brother still cringes at the memory, it was a really useful critique, because it centered not around how I was violating some preconceived standards, but on how he had a lousy experience trying to use my map.

You cannot deny any user their experience. You can try to cast it as illegitimate or ill-informed—an outlier experience—but you can’t say they didn’t have it. And to me, that’s the best way out of the incoherent client critique trap: focus on their experience and how that isn’t working. You’re then essentially doing what I said earlier: working within a shared audience-centered environment.

But what about the niceness trap? Most people I’ve dealt with are not as clear and direct as my brother’s friend. They simultaneously want to be friendly, and think your map has serious issues. Critiques often come from positions of power—teachers, bosses or clients—and despite stereotyping, most people aren’t interested in playing the heavy with people they have a continuing relationship with. I think it’s the fear of being seen as mean that inspires a lot of forced collegiality.

Hammerstein was in his late 40s, a very successful lyricist. Sondheim was 15, clearly ambitious, but also clearly in awe of Hammerstein. But Sondheim was a family friend. He taught the elder Hammerstein to play chess. He spent the weekend there a lot. Hammerstein was “Uncle Ocky” to him, a surrogate father.

There was a moment at the beginning of the critique, and it almost seems like a formality, but I think it’s actually central. Hammerstein says, “Do you really want me to treat this as if I didn’t know you?” and Sondheim replies, “Oh yes.” What they’re doing is agreeing to play-act. By agreeing that Hammerstein will treat this script by his young friend as if he wasn’t a friend, they’ve set up a privileged space, an afternoon-long social parenthesis, where Hammerstein can impart some really important information. Without that parenthesis, with Sondheim being the crushed teenager and Hammerstein the rejecting parent-figure, would that exchange of information have been possible? I don’t think so.

And this is the weird crux of hearing critique: You have to be able to pretend the critiquer really knows what he or she is talking about—and you have to be able to trust them. And this is where that social parenthesis is so useful. It’s a kind of suspension of belief, from which both participants are released at the end of the discussion.

When you’re in a position of direct power—employer and employee, teacher and student—that parenthesis is really hard to come by, which I think is actually a great case for seeking outside critique. It’s hard to pretend that the person giving you the grade is coming at you as a total stranger, or that you aren’t judging your employee on their performance when you are in fact... judging their performance.

This is where that most common comment I got from fellow cartographers on critique comes from: “focus on the work, not the person.” I want to suggest two approaches here. The first is the focus on user experience. Then your judgments aren’t about you, the judge, it’s about an amorphous “them”. The second, which I like even better, partly because it seems more honest, is to focus on the Work, with a capital W. How do we get better maps to exist, in general? This makes the critique a joint exercise. It also takes performance pressure off that pathetic excuse for a map you have sitting between you. You still don’t want it to fail, but it’s failure is part of a process, not the failed summit of Everest.

If you put these two things together—the social parenthesis, and a focus on user experience—you come up with an interesting model that’s not too different from any good performance: the audience enters the performance space not knowing the performer, but being mostly willing to trust that the performer will reveal something important or at least interesting. The performer’s job is simultaneously to connect—to reward the audience trust with a sense that they are in fact on our side—and to tell us something new. We then leave the performance changed.


And then there’s the critique we all desire, deep-down.

Folks who have learned the lesson of positive reinforcement will start off by telling you how great your map is, and then say “BUT”... And then you’ll get to the real point of the critique— what isn’t working and how to make it work. Other times, you’ll get thumbs-up for doing something which you’ve been promoting you do well. Call these “affirmations”, perhaps. They’re great, they boost the ego, but they aren’t news. They don’t change you.

And every so often, you’ll get a comment that’s like a little moment of grace. You’ll be praised for something that you weren’t really paying attention to.

I had this great moment on CartoTalk, a couple years ago, where Derek Tonn made some really lovely comment about my hand at label placement. Totally out of nowhere, and I had certainly never thought, “well, if all else fails, I can always go into label placement, because I’m good at it.” What that little unexpected bit of praise did was to make me pay attention to something I was doing and taking for granted. There’s a singing and dancing friend of mine who is great about this: when I first knew him, he just seemed a little overexcited about stuff, but now I can see that what he’s doing is pointing out moments we might just take for granted, things like, “Wasn’t that just a perfect night and it was so cool to see four sets of parents and kids each leading songs.”

Like I said, it’s like grace, in that you can’t force it. Having to find nice things to say doesn’t work when you just don’t see them.

And the key to seeing them is to give yourself time. This is one of the biggest problems with most critiques: they’re scheduled, and you’re in busy, get-it-done-on-budget mode. A really good critique requires a kind of mental state that allows the critiquer to wander over the work, and allow observations, both positive and negative, to develop. And it’s in that time and space that you can find surprises, and find structures and qualities the map-maker wasn’t looking for, and then suss those out a little bit internally before you blurt them out.

To conclude:

Some of you may be familiar with the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. The frame story doesn’t matter here: the central premise is that a bad movie is shown to a human and his robot friends (they’re puppets). We see them in silhouette, and they wisecrack their way through the show, taking it down a usually well-deserved notch or three.

So we have a performance—the bad movie—that fails. Then we have another performance on top of that, a commentary on failure and how we can still enjoy a work that is bad. The wisecrackers enter the performance ready to mock, and we are happy to mock with them—it’s a comedy, as most bearable works about failure are. Most of us do not want to be that bad movie, and if the movie is our friend’s work, we don’t want to be the wisecrackers. We really don’t want to be in a comedy when it comes to work with people we care about.

But we are in a comedy. We all make bad maps, one way or another—or, to speak more gently, deeply imperfect maps. We all have to look at imperfect maps other people make. We don’t have to be wise-cracking jerks about it, but if we aren’t able to admit this basic fact, we’ll get nowhere: that we are all at least partly Stephen Sondheim, aged 15—full of potential, not necessarily knowing what we’re doing, wanting desperately to please and to be successful, wanting people to think we’re more than competent, and always in need of some good critique.