Beyond “I hate green”: Managing Productive Visual Design Reviews

By Kim Cullen

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been a part of a design review that included any of the following comments:

  • I hate green.
  • Can you make it “pop?”
  • Just tweak it around a bit and we’ll have another review.
  • Make the logo bigger.
  • Can you just make it look like Apple?

It’s a common challenge in visual design: creating a feedback structure that respects the subjective nature of visual design, yet also generates actionable items for moving forward. In reviews, clients or partners need to know that their opinions are heard and the design team needs to walk away confident that they have clear next steps. This can be especially challenging when reviewing visual design comps, often considered more subjective than the no-nonsense wireframe.

I like to think of the visual design as the emotional bridge between the user and interface. However, emotional responses are very personal and hard to quantify.

If a wireframe is like the blueprint for a house then the visual comp is the rendering where you actually get a sense of what it might be like to live there (paint color, texture, front lawn and all). I like to think of the visual design as the emotional bridge between the user and interface. However, emotional responses are very personal and hard to quantify. When you are dealing with differing preferences over color, the best solution is not always so obvious. So what do you do when you are faced with a client that simply HATES the color green that you’ve chosen but cannot explain why?

Below are a few of the tips and tricks that the visual designers at Adaptive Path use to manage effective reviews. When talking to clients or partners about the more subjective aspects of visual design, we’ve found these techniques help frame the conversation and lead to more productive feedback.

Before the meeting

Identify visual design stakeholders. In some cases these may be different from strategy stakeholders. Most often visual design stakeholders are the people who manage the brand (a marketing director or creative director). Before investing time and energy in a visual design presentation make sure you will have the right people in the room.

Establish a firm recommendation. You may be presenting several visual design options but before the client meeting establish your recommendation and the rationale to back this up. Make sure the entire team understands these decisions and why.

During the review

Frame discussion from the point of view of existing brand attributes. Show how your visual design aligns with existing marketing collateral, packaging, and design principles. You will gain client confidence and credibility if you show that you have made design decisions based on your understanding of existing brand expression.

Segregate conversation appropriately. Be explicit about what the team WILL and WON’T discuss in the review. Write this on board for reference. For example, if you want to focus on overall look and feel versus specific functionality, be clear that you set these expectations from the beginning.

Avoid: “I like this.” Instead: “This works because…” Discourage people from simply stating that they like or dislike something. Ask them to explain the reason why in the context of the design principles or brand strategy. For example, “This typeface works because it feels friendly and we want our website to be approachable.”

Reveal information in a logical order. Faced for the first time with a visual comp, the people reviewing it sometimes don’t even know where to begin. Structure the discussion to focus on one aspect of the design at a time: color palette, typography, layout, hierarchy, continually linking these back to the design principles and interaction model.

Activities and Workshops

In some cases, activities can help make abstract visual concepts more concrete. Below are just a few activities that we found to be helpful.

The metaphor activity: The metaphor activity is especially helpful at the beginning of a project when you are gathering information and trying to get a sense of the client’s visual preferences. Present a series of incomplete statements and ask them to fill in the blanks as they feel is appropriate for the brand.

For example: If Company X was a car it would be a Volvo because it’s reliable, practical, well-made, etc. Based on this statement you can probably skip the vibrant yellow and quirky typeface and stick with navy blue and a solid sans-serif. In contrast, if a client chooses to compare him or herself to a Porsche then you might think about something more polished and dramatic.

Other metaphor statements might include:

If Company X was a furniture brand it would be (IKEA, Design Within Reach, a vintage garage sale find, etc).

If Company X was a city it would be (Paris, New York, Portland, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, etc).

Timed reveal: When first presenting visual directions, it’s common for clients to fixate on specific features when you are just looking for feedback on the overall look and feel. One strategy for this is the “timed reveal.” Present each design direction for 30 seconds and then cover them up. Ask people to give their immediate gut response.

After the review

Rearticulate feedback and capture it in writing: As soon as you write something down it becomes more concrete and actionable. Both client and team can refer back to these notes for reference. And if the conversation starts to go off track at the next review you can always point to these notes to justify the decisions you made.

These are just a few tips and tricks from our experience. I’d love to hear about other strategies that designers have used to manage visual design reviews.


This article was originally published in 2010 on AdaptivePath.com.

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