How to Give Creative Feedback—and Live to Tell About It.

I’ll admit it. Most creatives don’t have very thick skin when it comes to critiquing their work. And that includes me. Over the years I’ve sat on both the client side and the creative side of projects. There is an art to giving and receiving design criticism, and most clients are ignorant of how their feedback impacts a creative professional. Here are some tips on working with your designer to provide constructive feedback.

Start by acknowledging their work. It doesn’t matter how “small” or “simple” a design project may appear, each design problem requires thought, creativity, hard work, and expertise to solve. Starting the conversation off with something like “I appreciate the thought/time/passion you put into this” can go a long way. And mean what you say. Insincere positive comments to set up a harsh critique will be counterproductive.

Identify the root of the issue. Instead of saying, “make that text bold,” emphasize why the text is important to the communication, and ask how it can be made clearer. Many times something is designed the way it is because of how you communicated the initial brief, putting emphasis on one area/goal over another. The designer followed your lead. Try, “I’m sorry, I didn’t draw enough attention to this area of the communication originally. Can you help me address this in the next revision?”

Don’t suggest design solutions. Statements to your designer like “maybe we could move this around”, “let’s try this font”, etc. are insulting to a professional. Ask your designer to come up with other solutions and resist the urge to prescribe. Oh, and no matter how bad the design concept is, NEVER come up with your own alternate design concept to show them—EVER. It will kill the creative relationship. (I’ve done it.)

Don’t assume. This can take many forms in feedback. Statements like “this is just a minor change” or “this shouldn’t take long to adjust” or “that won’t be hard, will it?” are ignorant. Every change in the design impacts other elements of the design that must be taken into consideration. When you get into web design, small changes can be especially complex and time-consuming to make (remember browsers, mobile devices, accessibility, readability!). And just because there may be a one-minute solution, a designer is bringing years of experience to the table to solve it efficiently and effectively. Expect to be billed according to their experience, not their time.

Be honest and straightforward. After reading 1-4, you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells when providing design feedback. However, the last thing a designer ever wants to hear after a project is that their client was ultimately unhappy with the design but never communicated their dissatisfaction during the design process. Designers (generally) want to make you happy but can’t do that if you don’t speak up early and often.

Take a timeout. Sometimes during a design review, no matter what you say, things just go south. You get mad. They get mad. Feelings are hurt. Things are said that shouldn’t be. Take a step back—both of you. Let the dust settle. It may take a day or two or ten for you both to see the other’s perspective without the emotion. I’ve yelled at clients and to their credit, they have eventually (a year later!) come back to work with me again.

Have realistic expectations. Every design isn’t award-winning. Every designer isn’t as good as the ones at Nike or Apple or [insert your darling design company here]. Every project doesn’t have an unlimited schedule or budget. Adjust your expectations relative to who you are, your designer’s experience, your timeline, and your budget.

During your next design review, may you give effective feedback and live to tell about it.

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