How to Smash Your Crit
Excerpt taken from the 1 Hour Crit Workbook
'When you are at architecture school, every semester or a couple of months you get to take the stage and put on your big performance. A crit or critique - is the chance for your tutors and peers to sit around a wall of your work and judge it. A crit is a traditional, cultural part of the university culture where students are asked to present a selection of their current work to their tutors and other guests in a limited time usually lasting from 5-10 minutes. It ends up being a lot more about the build-up of pressure and anxiety as well as a game of luck and judgment for every architecture student.
In its simplest form, a crit is your sales pitch and your goal is to convince the panel that your design is incredible. But as Ellie Howard puts it, “the big reveal is highly pressured and becomes a priority, distracting efforts away from project development and concentrating them on presentation.”
The days (and sometimes hours) leading up to a crit can be absolutely manic for architecture students whose countdown begins the moment they hear of an upcoming crit. Having observed many of my peer’s struggle with trying to get their whole project done in 24 hours and lining up for the printer minutes before their turn, I quickly realised that most students didn’t really have a set plan or workflow when it came to putting together the material for their crit.'
After 3 years of studying architecture, I have come to the conclusion that there really are two key pillars you need in order to have a successful crit. Number 1, planning - lots of it. I don't really believe in doing things on the fly and without preparation because for me at least, it doesn't work out the way I would like it to. I cover planning your crit in the 1 Hour Crit Workbook as well as in my webinar, 1 Hour Crit Plan (linked below 😉)
Number 2 is confidence. I've only really come out of my shell in the past couple of years and I think it isn't a surprise that many people who go into this profession are natural introverts. It makes it super ironic that we have to present on a very regular basis. But having confidence in yourself and in your work is really important because it shows through during your crit.
There is however a limit, you don't want to get overconfident and come across as cocky because the point of the crit is to discuss the idea and design and work together to come up with possible solutions. It's the best time to look at your work through another lens so as much as it's important to be confident about your work, you need to be able to know where to draw the line.
Crits are difficult for many and we've all felt that awful feeling in our guts before a crit. But there really is nothing to be scared about. If you do need some kind of motivation to get through the nervousness, think about treating yourself afterwards or just keep in mind the sense of relief and satisfaction to get you through it.
What should I include in my crit?
The content of your crit often depends on which stage you are at in the academic year. Usually, the first crit of the year comes at a point where you're probably still exploring the programme and site and just starting to think about massing and form. So the quantity of work isn't an issue but if you do want to set healthy habits that work for your future self, it's really important that you complete your work as best you can.
Let me give you an example. Let's say you've started a sun path diagram around your site but got sidetracked with other classes and modules, or you just plain forgot to finish it. The typical thing most students end up doing (because of trying to catch up week after week) is that they leave it unfinished and move on to the next thing.
This is where you need to re-evaluate what kind of quality you want your work to be at. If you take out an hour or so to complete that page or diagram or section of your essay, it sets you up for the future. As the pages in your portfolio pile up week after week, you should ideally end up with mostly finished content that may just need tweaking or finishing touches by the time you start to prepare for your crit.
This is such an important thing that many students don't realise they should be doing. Unfinished work will just lead to it piling up and since you may not be tracking the status of each page or each aspect, it can be even more strenuous when you try and pull everything together for your crit. At this point, it can be a good idea to keep some kind of archive, list or digital hub of your portfolio. This will help you to keep an eye on the completion level, make sure that you don't forget or miss anything and builds a system.
The narrative of your crit should be a compact version of the narrative of your project. This can be framed as drivers, a solution to a problem or the kind of story you want to be showing through your design. Whichever it is, keeping a simple narrative in mind will help you to logically frame the flow of your presentation as well.
Let's say you're having a crit in the middle of the year and you've got some initial drafts of plans and sections but there are aspects where you're falling behind in such as the materiality or the circulation isn't quite as it should be because your project is about the experience through space. Here, you would start by framing the narrative in just a couple of sentences and explaining why you want the visitor or resident to experience a feeling in the space you're designing. In this case, you don't need to show your 1:10 details or your early site diagrams (unless they ask for it) because you want to direct your tutors towards where the project is currently at.
Another thing I've seen that students often do is that they try to explain the project from the very beginning by simply explaining 'what they did.' 😕
'At the start of the year, I did a 1:100 site model. Then, I did diagrams to show the opportunities and constraints around the site. After that, I did some research into the surroundings and demographic'.
The issue here is that all you're really telling your tutors and guest critics is what kind of work or diagrams or drawings you did. But they're not interested in that. Instead, if you explain the reasoning behind those pages, it benefits them much more because they can start to see a glimpse into your viewpoint of the project. It also helps to cut out the extra time taken if they ask you the exact questions you haven't already told them about. Remember, you only have a limited amount of time to present so you don't want to be focusing on things you've done months ago and is already set in stone.
How to pare back what you present
There's a common saying when it comes to styling clothing.
Before you leave the house, take one thing off.
I find myself guilty of this exact action regularly. I try and put it a bit too much effort and it ends up becoming a mish-mash of things that isn't great at all. Minimalism is great for a reason. The same idea can be applied when you feel as if you have too many pages and you need to cut it down so that you can stick to the matter at hand. First of all, think about whether the pages relate to the ones before and after it. This is something that is really important when it comes to putting together your portfolio. For a crit, you don't necessarily need every single page if you can articulate it in a clear way.
If you've got 3 different iterations of drawings, each with slight changes and amendments, you really don't need to show all three. As long as you are able to back up the changes in your design and explain the drawing itself, it saves a lot more time.
Another way to cut down on pages - or slides if you're presenting online - is to limit yourself to a certain number. I would so, however, keep a couple of pages you're unsure about on hand anyway in case you need to elaborate on a certain part. You could also pin up your pages in your room or in the studio and try to think about what you could say. Thinking about the narrative, you might find that you don't even need to talk about a certain page. It takes a bit of trial and error but is really worth it in the end.
Planning your Crit
Preparation is key. Not just so that you know what you're doing but also because it can help you balance your time between planning your crit and other areas of your life. I don't think anyone wants to be working on their portfolio and what they are going to say until 2am every night for a week. Having a schedule or a plan set in place will allow you to focus on other things too and not make it into a stressful exercise.
Incremental work can help you to manage your time and get things accomplished without stressing last-minute. If you set yourself 1-2 hour blocks of time of your own choosing each day and only work on the thing you've said you will, then chances are that over the course of a week, you will have completed tasks in a logical way. But to set this up, you need to be able to plan accordingly and in order to do that, you need to know what it is you should be working on.
To help you do this, I've created the 1 Hour Crit Planning Workbook. It explains some of the concepts we've discussed in this blog post but more importantly, it has key actionable steps and exercises that will help you to get through this workflow in a timely manner.
The workbook is essentially is a one-time investment because once you try implementing the concepts and ideas, you will understand how you work best and then can adjust the steps accordingly. Planning is such a crucial part of any kind of project and you have it completely laid out in this workbook. The next time you have a crit, you'll be able to go through those same steps and build out your narrative, pages and script with ease.
Having a passion for your project and the kind of space you're designing is important, period. Regardless of crits or submissions, it's so vital that you're interested in the way your project is shaping up. If you don't have that spark or interest, you'll undoubtedly find yourself procrastinating or stuck and at a dead-end by the end of the year. Similarly, although the general idea of your design is influenced by the initial brief, don't let it be your tutors' project. They are there to guide you and help you through the process but if you find yourself questioning whether the suggestions are the route you want to take, it may be a good idea to communicate this with them.
Building confidence in your project will show through when you are explaining it to someone who hasn't ever seen it. It shows that you care and that you're open to suggestions because you can clearly evaluate how the design is going.
Having confidence in yourself is just as important. As a first or second year, you might feel a sense of being out of your depth which is fine because there is no way you can learn about every single thing to do with design. It's completely fine to make mistakes and ask things you might think are silly - because they're really not and chances are that someone else also wanted to ask the same thing but was too afraid. The way you present yourself is a big part of giving any kind of presentation - something that we don't really get taught as architecture students.
Keep in mind that although there are general time guidelines, rushing through your presentation won't help you or the listener. Take your time and take pauses every now and then, it's totally fine! Having notes to fall back on is also good but don't turn into a robot and read directly from them as this immediately puts people off. Making sure that you're articulating what you're saying as clearly and simply is something you can practice with a family member or friend who has no idea about anything to do with architecture.
Unfortunately, there is an ugly side to crits which I'm sure many of you have witnessed. Sometimes, tutors can be quite harsh but you don't need to take it personally. The fact of the matter is that you don't really know the context of someone else's day or what they are thinking and feeling so it's just better to give them the benefit of the doubt. As long are you are acting in a professional and respectful way, you've done nothing wrong.
Something that is important to re-iterate is that your tutor's word is not the be all end all. Dealing with design tutors can be difficult at times but it's something that you will need to figure out as you observe their way of working and thought process. If, after doing all these things, you end up with a 'bad crit' then it's okay. We've all had at least one of those and it's honestly not the end of the world! How you conduct yourself and take the negatives and transform them into positives is what you should focus on.
- Planning ahead can give you the proper tools to execute a successful crit
- Believe in your work!
- Have confidence in yourself when presenting
I hope that gives you some things to think about the next time you're faced with an upcoming crit. I know they may not be the easiest thing but if you implement these habits and systems, you can also apply them to other aspects of your time in architecture school. If you are feeling isolated then why not join our Discord server, a community where you can get help on projects from your peers!