How to Give Design Feedback

Once in a while I like to think back to the caves of Lascaux and imagine how people reacted to those first paintings. What did those first artists hear from others about their efforts? I imagine wonder and awe, quickly followed by disdain and maybe even outrage.

Since the dawn of aesthetic representation we’ve been learning to process, understand, and critique. Some of us are great communicators. We can critique an idea without destroying. This is a special skill that others lack. Let’s talk about the subtle art of giving feedback.

What is Feedback?

It amuses me that feedback has two definitions.

One is centered around communication: offering reactions to [ insert virtually anything here ] so that the [ insert anything again here ] can be improved.

The second refers to the screeching, howling, or buzzing that comes from a guitar amp or loud speaker when something goes wrong with the sound system.

We all know both kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, in the arena of aesthetic representation, those giving feedback are often emboldened to sound like the second definition when performing the first.

There are a lot of articles about what makes up good feedback. Usually, it centers around simple concepts such as: be timely and relevant, stay positive, stick to specifics, be descriptive, etc.

Examples of Terrible Feedback

No blog post would be complete without examples of bad feedback. Like the previous quotes, these are are extracted from real life conversations (and are difficult to translate into remedies):

“I don’t know. It just feels basic.”

“This isn’t what I was expecting.”

“This feels very B team to me.”

“This is awesome. Why did it take three versions to get here?”

“I’m paying a premium here. I expect something better than what my teenager could do.”

Design is not magic

Design is a process. We ask questions, study your business, look at competitors and what they are doing, research what is working and not working, and then form a hypothesis.

You, as the client, are an active participant in this process. If you don’t have time to talk, listen to questions, and share ideas, you are actively sabotaging your own project.

“I won’t know it until I see it” is a show stopper.

Be a part of the process and help us help you.

Feedback is more than talking

Before you can give feedback, you should listen. What is the team telling you about the design, the intentions, the rationale behind layout decisions?

Equally important: the team should be listening to you. You have ideas and we want to hear them, even when we may or may not agree with them.

Be authentic

Don’t say, “I don’t know, you guys are the experts…” and then go on a tangent where you espouse unfounded theories based on assumptions and emotions.

Be kind

Put yourself in the shoes of the designer. How would you feel if someone said to you, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t see this”? I’ve witnessed before and dealt with the issues it created for the junior designer who was on the receiving end. No matter how successful or clever you may be, there is no excuse for this kind of behavior.

Ask questions

When a designer works hard to create a unique approach, they feel invested in the work. Instead of saying “I don’t like this font,” consider asking “are there some other fonts we could look at?” Feel uncomfortable talking about color? A lot of people feel that way. Try this, “Can we explore some other color combinations?”

Not everything has to be a question

It’s okay to say “I’m not a huge fan of neon yellow.” It’s also completely okay to say, “I don’t think magenta is in our brand guidelines.”

Read the room. (Or the Zoom)

Facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice are keys to understanding your impact on the team. Does the team seem defensive? Does someone on the Brady Bunch Zoom Grid look pissed off? Take note, you may be out of line.

It’s okay to take your time

We know everyone is busy and wants to work efficiently. However, if you are unsure, disappointed, or confused about how to react go ahead and say, “I’d like to share this with my team and come back with some consolidated feedback.” You don’t need to lie, you don’t need to act like you’re excited when you’re not, but at the same time you don’t need to be rude.

Do share the work with other people on your team. They may have a different view. Or, they may confirm your concerns about the design.

Don’t call the sales person and complain about the work. Sales is not in charge of Creative.

Instead, communicate with the Creative Director or the Designer working with you.

This is not a competition. This is about collaboration.

Plenty of firms talk about being partners. In the past, we have used this word, but frankly we find that this word gets abused. Partnership is not about having free rein to say whatever floats into your mind at the time.

This year, I am going to recommend replacing partnership with collaboration. Collaboration is about sharing ideas, being real and honest (but respectful), and weighing pros and cons or different solutions.

Collaboration is not about competition.

It is not about being right.

Collaboration is about working together to find solutions that work for both parties.

Originally published at on January 31, 2021.



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