Also, everyone is perfectly welcome to link to this post, for their lims or whatever else I can't think of right now. ;)
Giving concrit (= constructive criticism) requires a mental process, a series of steps. First off, you have to look at the icon and recognize the icon as piece of separate elements meant to create a greater whole. Most often, the key to giving concrit is to focus on these elements and determine which one (or ones) is astray, and why. Both which and why are equally as important, and the hardest part of giving concrit is determining these. When you’re having difficulty expressing what you mean when you’re commenting on an icon, it’s a failure of one of the steps of the process - which element and why.
Some common elements to look for:
- Cropping (ie, the focus of the icon, whether playing with asymmetry and symmetry).
- Contrast (how dark are the shadows, how light the highlights? – typically either lacking contrast = muted tones, more gray than black or white, or over-contrast = losing important details in the highlights and shadows of the icon)
- Color (how bright, over-saturated (carrot-colored skin), too dull (too muted), etc)
- Text (fitting, doesn’t overwhelm the image, where it’s placed within the icon, readable, pixelized or not).
Let’s take an icon and split it up into elements. The icon below was made by me, sometime in 2004.
- Image quality
Each element is a matter of skill and technique. The element is achieved with various degrees of success. Each element is also part of the whole, and a less successful element can easily make the entire icon less successful. That is why determining which element is at fault is hard to do – at the end of the day, you’re still talking about one icon, and you tend to see the whole rather than the separate parts. Talking about elements one at a time is part of getting specific.
So, we’re going to take a look at the elements I listed above, and go through the process (after determining which element is the problem, explain why):
- Cropping – it cuts out a little too much of his eye, and having features that close to the edge of an icon draws the eye to the edge instead of the subject. Also, this is more subjective, but centered subjects tend to have less visual interest.
- Text - clearly intended to be readable, but it's really not. The font has a lot of small details which make the letters less clear, which is a problem against a busy background, which this one definitely has. I can see that I attempted to make the text visible against the black of his clothing, but that doesn't really work either – you can't really tell that's a 'y'. (It spells 'destiny', by the way.)
- The coloring is very orange – human skin is never quite that bright of an orange, and some parts are almost red. This also looks odd because the background is a muted blue-ish color (mixed with pixelized orange), and the mixing of super-bright and muted rarely ever works.
- Image quality – so much pixelization that his skin color bleeds into the background and his facial features are almost completely obscured.
Often you may not even think about elements as separate parts, but are simply observing naturally. Ie, noticing small things that are a problem, such as, “It’s too dark – I can’t make out the text at all.” Concrit really isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds!
Things which seem like concrit, but aren’t:
“It’s bland” “It’s plain” “It lacks anything to catch your interest” “needs something more, like a texture or something” “Lacks creativity”
Why are these things not concrit? They may or may not be true, but either way these kinds of comments are essentially meaningless for the iconmaker (they are criticism, but not constructive). No doubt they make perfect sense to you, but they won’t to the iconmaker. Why? Because they lack specifics. From the iconmaker’s perspective, you are essentially saying you didn’t like it. What about the icon lacks creativity? This statement is too vague for the iconmaker to understand your point of view.
The important thing to remember regarding any concrit is that the most common problem is the failure to take things a step further. It’s bland – why? Coloring is dull and muted? It doesn’t catch your interest – why? Do the characters fade into the background? While the above remarks are not concrit by themselves, taking it one step further will often take your comment into good concrit territory. If you don’t like something, if something is not to your personal taste, even if you can’t articulate why, there is a reason behind it, the problem is recognizing it.
Sometimes, in order to recognize what you think is wrong, you have to contort yourself trying to explain, for example: “There’s something about the icon that doesn’t work, like the way the characters are placed, I don’t look at them.” It sounds like bad concrit, but it’s really not, the person is just having a bit of difficulty explaining – the comment actually does offer specifics in a roundabout way. The comment can be translated as: “The icon lacks focus as the attention is not brought to the characters, but to the background.” Practice does, in the case of expressing your opinion, make perfect.
Things to Avoid:
Avoid making it personal, either to them or for yourself. Give the comment without making a vague value judgment, ie, “I don’t like it. It’s boring. The iconmaker didn’t do enough.” Not only is that not helpful to the iconmaker in improving the icon, it will not make them more inclined to listen to what you have to say.
Quality is Subjective:
It’s very hard to explain in detail what’s wrong about anything, and even then its subjective. For example, I was reviewing a story, my sister was reading over my shoulder, and I insisted that a capitalization error was far more egregious than the fragment she noticed. Subjectivity cannot be eliminated entirely, that is just not possible, but detail and specific critique make up for that. Even if others disagree, they will see your perspective and be able to appreciate it as a valid point.
One person might say a character’s skin is carrot-toned, and it looks ridiculous. Another may say, Art deco! I love it! This problem will not go away, but neither is it necessarily a bad thing. If you explain thoroughly your critiques, even if they don’t agree, the iconmaker will understand your point of view. This is most important in lims, and what makes up for the system, which by its nature is not perfect and never will be.
Taking it a Step Further:
If you like, adding to your concrit what you liked about the icon, what you thought they did well, is always welcome. The contrast, in fact, can be especially elucidating for the iconmaker – they will understand better when techniques are successful, but they will also know what parts of the icon are less successful. In fact, the guidelines presented here also make for better positive votes, because good positive votes point out the specific reasons the icon is good.
Advice is also welcome – it’s helpful and makes it especially clear that you are not attacking the iconmaker, but in fact want them to *get better*. Advice can be such things like using png instead of jpg (for most icons, png is better – it will always still be under 40kb when dealing with a 100x100 still image but has a better quality than jpg).
Why Go to the Trouble?
The most important thing to remember: good concrit is like gold. It’s an important part of lims and, in my opinion, iconmaking in general. Who doesn’t want to get better, after all? A good constructive comment is, to me, worth more than a vague positive one, because at that point, you’re discussing elements and techniques, and chatting about such things is fun – like guys talking about an engine, talking about an art piece you may like and your friend doesn’t, what storytelling elements of a movie worked best and why it made you enjoy it all the more (or less). In lims this process is formalized to make it easier for voters to give their opinions freely and unbiased, but the concept is the same.
I also sincerely hope that voters will come out and talk in alternates threads, which are the place for more free-form discussion of icons and iconmaking. :)