How Tim Gunn improved my Design Critique

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Project Runway, a reality show where fashion designers compete through a series of design challenges to win incredible prizes, might not be at the top of your Must Watch list, but for me, it comes firmly under the ‘Guilty Pleasures’ list.

Aside from its entertainment factor, another reason to tune in is to watch Tim Gunn as the masterful mentor for the beleaguered designers.

Tim Gunn seems to be one of those people who make mentorship look effortless and natural, when the rest of us know it is anything but.

He seems to be able to draw incredible things out of the designers with a few well-chosen questions, able to deliver honest critiques at the same time as being genuine, warm, and caring.

Tim has been mentoring and teaching designers for much of his career and although his specialty is fashion design, I think there are lots of things us digital designers could learn from his mentorship style.

One thing I like to do whilst watching Tim mentor the designers during their design critiques is to note down some of the phrases and prompts that he uses to apply to my own design critiques.

Here are some of my favourites that have proven themselves to be incredibly useful in the critiques that I’ve run already:

I’m eager to hear why …
Can I make an observation about…
What are your concerns…
Where do you see the flaws in…
Would this be much more impactful if…
Why did you choose…
I have a very positive response to…
This is a Make It Work moment!

Picking up a selection of these phrases and thoughtfully applying them to my design critiques has been a really interesting experiment. At first it felt funny to me to be using somebody’s else’s phrases and I wondered if they seemed unnatural coming from my mouth.

But, as I began to use them more and more, that sensation went away and what started to come out was how useful these prompts were to help me not launch straight into a critique with my own thoughts but rather draw things out from the designers themselves first.

The real power of mentoring, as Tim skilfully demonstrates, is not providing answers or opinions, but to tease that out of the designers themselves. The right prompts and questions can really help with this and over time, become a natural part of your design vocabulary.

Thanks Tim Gunn!

Design lead, watermelon addict, Leuchtterm notebook obsessive. I just enjoy designing great experiences for people that just work, writing about my craft and connecting with designers everywhere. Find me on Instagram, Twitter and Google+.


  1. This is a very interesting point.
    He can indeed be a good and reliable source of observation: he was associate dean and then Fashion Design Department chair on Parsons (not mentioning that he has such an engaging character).

    Also, funnily enough, the Shark Tank show at one point did actually help me deal with clients improving communication when struggling on negotiation phases.

    • yaellevey Reply

      He is *so* engaging! 🙂

      I’ve never seen the Shark Tank show but I’ll definitely check that out! Sounds really interesting. Do you have a list of phrases/similar that you tend to use when negotiating with clients? Would love to get some insight into what works for you..

      • Unfortunately at the time I didn’t think of annotating any phrases. I was very “green” as a designer – and still am, but I see it can be such an interesting and useful approach. The examples you show make excellent communication/learning points.

        Trying to make a long story short: a few years ago I found myself watching the show as it was pushing my brain to think in a way I wasn’t naturally inclined to – the business side – as it was expanding my discussion and negotiation skills.

        I was struggling with my first jobs as a freelancer in Portugal when the country was (or still is) financially sinking and as a consequence it was challenging to grab meaningful work and still get paid. On one occasion, because I was “inspired” by the show, I managed to push a negotiation on an important job on my benefit when the client was trying to make me finish the project without a fair payment.
        We eventually learn from experience, but I remember at the time feeling somewhat driven by taking in the discussions of the show. It also thought me that although negotiation is a risk, sometimes the odds of benefiting can be higher than you think, if you do take a risk (maybe because I managed to “make it work” for myself).

        Another example, a few weeks ago I read an interview of Alexander Wang for 92nd Street Y, where he admits that he learns or is inspired by business-minded shows like Shark Tank and The Profit (I never watched that one). I though it was interesting, as he, an extremely accomplished 32 year old, not only artistically but now as a CEO of his own company, is sharing the fact that he takes in useful knowledge from TV shows.

        • yaellevey Reply

          “I found myself watching the show as it was pushing my brain to think in a way I wasn’t naturally inclined to – the business side – as it was expanding my discussion and negotiation skills.” – I love this. I’m all about getting inspiration and learning from anywhere and this is such a good example. And great that you actually took action from this and ended up making a negotiation work for you!

          Thats also a really interesting anecdote on Alexander Wang – I think more people should be open about learning from random sources rather than acting like we somehow know everything already or that we need the right connections/mentors or that we got the right education. Sometimes, its as simple as ‘I got some interesting insights from that TV show’!

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