For our purposes, it’s worth noting the difference between a critique (which happens between peers or from more senior professionals, such as art directors), and feedback (which comes from clients). In other words, feedback comes from people paying a designer to solve business problems—people who may not be suitably impressed that you implemented a 16 column grid across a golden mean. (I’ll be impressed FOR them.)
Let’s assume the presentation went well. The design team put in a solid performance, cleaned up after themselves, and shook your hand with the appropriate amount of pressure on the way out. Hopefully someone took notes and offered to make them available to you. Those will be helpful. You should have also reached an agreement with someone in a project manager capacity about when your feedback is due.
Some design studios will also offer guidelines for giving feedback, and if they don’t they should. It’s a good client services tool.
In the aftermath, you are alone, alone with a stack of work that will affect the health of your organization, and your design team is returning to their office, with a stop at the nearest Fluevog store.
Whether or not you’ve received detailed guidelines, make sure you’re clear on which elements you’re supposed to be evaluating. Are we looking at the overall brand, the page structure, or typography? Are they comping with actual content, including photo assets, or did they take the easy way out and fill the comp with ersatz Latin and Flickr photos? (Guilty: I sometimes comp with ersatz Latin.)
First rule of design feedback: what you’re looking at is not art. It’s not even close. It’s a business tool in the making and should be looked at objectively like any other business tool you work with. The right question is not, “Do I like it?” but “Does this meet our goals?” If it’s blue, don’t ask yourself whether you like blue. Ask yourself if blue is going to help you sell sprockets. Better yet: ask your design team. You just wrote your first feedback question.
Who cares? Your customers probably don’t know anything about design either, and the project’s ultimate success rides on how they respond to it.
Let the design team be the design experts. Your job is to be the business expert. Ask them how their design solutions meet your business goals. If you trust your design team, and they can explain how their recommendations map to those goals, you’re fine. If you neither trust them, nor can they defend their choices it’s time to get a new design team.
I’ve had several wonderful clients who raved about the work for the duration of the project only to get to a point far along into implementation and decide the design was all wrong. God bless them. They were trying to spare my feelings. Sadly, they ended up tanking their budget and having to redo a lot of work, which meant missing their deadline as well.
Good feedback is not synonymous with positive feedback. If something isn’t working for you, tell the design team as early as possible. Will they be hurt? Not if they are professionals. A good designer will argue for their solution, and then will know when to let go. (NB: The time to let go is when it becomes clear that the solution isn’t sufficiently effective, not as soon a client expresses a negative personal opinion about it.)
By all means, be respectful, but don’t hold back in order to spare an individual’s feelings. Taking criticism is part of the job description. The sooner they know, the sooner they can explore other paths.
Run like hell from anyone calling themselves a “creative.” Design is a profession and a craft with standards and practices. It’s not a mystical undertaking, and designers are not magical beings.
There’s only one way to take “This work sucks.” There are many ways to take “I’m not sure this is doing it for me.” And while the former may not be good feedback, per se, it certainly leaves no question that there’s a problem that needs addressing. Perhaps you can find a less blunt way to get your displeasure across, but leave it nice and clear. Personally, I’d rather have the clarity and I can deal with the bluntness, but I’ve been told I’m an asshole.
Start with your summary evaluation. “Overall, this is going in the right direction.” “Overall this sucks.” etc. Explain why, and then go into detail. The “why” is the most important piece of all.
Good feedback relates back to goals and user needs. Bad feedback is subjective and prescriptive.
For example “There’s way too much going on here and the “Add to Cart” button gets lost.” That’s excellent feedback. Relates to the goal of the page, which is to apparently sell something, and communicates a problem to be solved, which is to get rid of all the junk on the page.
Avoid personal preferences: “I hate green.” There is absolutely nothing I can do with that statement other than feel sorry for you because there are some very nice green things in the world. Like money—which you’re now wasting by giving me bad feedback.
Prescriptive feedback comes along the lines of “Move the buttons over here.” And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “Make the logo bigger!” These may, in fact, be excellent ideas, but if we talked about the problems you’re trying to solve with these prescriptive solutions we might come up with better solutions or possibly uncover a bigger problem in the overall design system.
It’s like walking into your doctors office and demanding a prescription for penicillin. Could be that’s actually what you need, but there’s no way you’re walking out of that office without the pants coming down.
And of course the worst kind of feedback…
There is nothing less helpful than getting feedback in the form of a comp (whether committed in Photoshop, Powerpoint, or Word). Nothing. I mean it. We’ve been in business at Mule for almost 10 years now and this is the only thing we’ve ever fired a client over. (It happened once. The client refused to stop after being told on numerous occasions that it was counter-productive, not to mention a contract violation.)
If something isn’t working for you, point it out and go into as much detail as possible as to why it’s not working. Tie it to the goals we agreed to earlier in the project. Understanding your reasoning is critical to solving the problem. Being told to just do something a certain way, or worse, getting a comp of it done that way only means we have to reverse-engineer the whole thing and find out what you were trying to solve. Lost time. Lost budget.
Not sure about something? Ask. Don’t wait until the feedback is due. Pick up the phone and ask your design team for further clarification to write your feedback.
“John in marketing wants to be able to log in directly on the home page, but Tim in Engineering would prefer it on its own page. Can we compromise?”
No. We cannot compromise.
If you tell your barber that you like it short, but your significant other likes it long, you’re gonna get a mullet.
Listen to your team’s feedback, weigh the plusses and minuses, and then compile a clearly written feedback document full of strong decisions. There is no way to design a solution to an internal debate. Nor should that debate be passed along for your customers to suffer through. If members of your team have varying ideas on something, iron it out. Invite your design team to join in the debate. They should be eager to as it informs their work. But reconciling feedback is important to moving the process along successfully. Again; having to sort through 10 pages of internal disagreement means lost time and lost budget.
Just as we don’t believe good design sells itself, we also don’t believe good feedback necessarily explains itself. Set up a time to go over your feedback with your design team, in person or on the phone. Walk through it together. Use the time to go over any sticking points, get clarity, and go over any issues that anyone on your team disagrees on. Bring that person on the call as well. The goal of this meeting is to make decisions and move forward.
Solid decisions, well-communicated and well-executed are the path to success. And of course we can all agree on one thing: the logo, she is always too small.