A Designer’s Guide to Receiving Criticism and Managing Feedback

Alex Lefler
Dec 15, 2020 · 7 min read

You’ve probably heard a lot of conversations end poorly lately. Me too. Maybe you’ve even participated in these unproductive discussions with friends, family, co-workers… it can be a real challenge, and the social fabric of the world hasn’t exactly been helpful toward connecting with others.

These often-unpleasant interactions usually go like this:

Someone offers a viewpoint to someone else. That person hears it and has a locked-and-loaded reaction escaping their face before the first person can even finish a sentence. Oof.

Sound familiar? It can make learning difficult, let alone solving problems or being productive in work settings. So what can we do about this? And what in the world does this have to do with a designer’s skills?

On being right

As designers, we are tasked with solving problems. It’s common to be presented with something complex, and be expected to create an elegant, simple solution. And so we go about our process, beginning the work of asking questions, discovering new ways of thinking, and compiling our first pass at an idea. Somewhere along the way, we often bond with the result. It feels good to feel “right.”

Bonding with one’s work is normal, but it does come with some sneaky traps.

As humans, we are built to be efficient. We are biologically wired to seek solutions and rely on our own ingenuity to survive, and quickly. When it comes to basic needs like food, shelter, and sleep, it’s not really wise to iterate over and over on them; we need these things when we need them. When we fail to meet these basic needs, it often means danger and real harm, kicking the brain into a fight-or-flight response in milliseconds. Being “right” means getting to live another day.

But here’s the thing: solving through design is not so simple, and usually doesn’t mean life or death. But our brains are weird and sometimes they can’t tell the difference.

The skill to master

When a designer receives criticism of their work, it can trigger a flurry of emotions and reactions. It’s really important to remember what’s happening here. When we bond to anything, we ascribe it to our sense of self. A part of our identity becomes enmeshed with it. And in a way, our “solution” taps into the ego and we begin to treat it the same way we would treat our basic survival needs.

Take for example any of the following cliché triggers:

“This looks great, but maybe add a few more colors to make it POP.”

“We had our designer take a stab at it. Take a look… could you make it look more like that?”

“Can you make the logo bigger?”

I’m sure your designer heart just wept, but notice how the mind had an instinctive reaction to these statements. Perhaps a scoff… maybe a bit of judgment? I won’t lie, it triggers me too. That’s the survival talking.

Despite our assurance that sometimes a client just doesn’t know what they’re talking about, it’s crucial to remember that they are simply humans attempting to communicate concern (albeit, sometimes poorly). But I think this leads us to the point, which is the skill that we can harness and utilize: the ability to effectively receive criticism and feedback.

Decades of studies have proven over and over again that a major skill that drives success across leaders in nearly every field is the capacity to address emotionally-driven and often-risky issues. It’s easy to understand in concept, but often quite difficult in practice. Let’s break it down.

But how do I actually do it?

Instead of droning endlessly about theory, here is a strategy that is simple and will help you receive criticism in a powerful way.

When hearing a client give feedback on a design, first take a few seconds to notice your bodily reaction. Are you angry? Are you confused? Are you both? Are you simply… processing? Once you can identify the reaction, take a breath and follow this pattern in this order:

1) Acknowledge the statements you heard them express. Be specific.

2) Empathize by aligning with them. Ask questions about what feelings are driving their statements.

3) Assure them that you care about the solution, and how you can move forward.

This is a truly beautiful formula because it doesn’t feel formulaic to do. It feels very human. These are by no means brand new ideas, but when it comes to specifically receiving feedback on design work, it can feel especially tricky. Power dynamics between clients and designers can become muddy and subjective, and it can get really challenging to maintain clarity and composure when the stakes feel high. So to make this practical, here’s a common example of how to put this pattern into practice.

Real-world application

Imagine you are presenting the first round of a design for a website. You prepare the screens and get things ready to show the client. You feel pretty great about it, and you jump on a video call with a few co-workers along with several people on the client’s side. After presenting a few screens, the client jumps in:

Client: “These look great, but I don’t really like the slide-out menu. Can we make it so that every link to the other pages is visible?”

In a bid to acknowledge, empathize, and assure, you reply.

You: “Ah, it sounds like you’d like to show more of the navigation, and you’re not very fond of the collapsed menu in this design.” (Acknowledge)

Client: “Exactly, that’s correct!”

You: “I can imagine there might be some concern about hiding pages. Can you explain your thoughts there? I want to make sure I understand your concern.” (Empathize. Ask clarifying questions. It’s important to really listen, and imagine what it might be like to see what they’re seeing and feeling their concern.)

Client: “Yes, I’m worried about users not being able to find the other pages, especially the contact page. I’m afraid it will negatively impact sales if we hide navigation like that.”

You: “I see, I can totally understand that concern. Users should definitely be able to navigate the site, so I definitely agree it’s something to consider! It sounds like we can take this feedback and see if there are other options, although I do believe this approach may still work. If it’s still unclear, this would be a great opportunity to test with real users. I really do want us to get this right, so thanks for clarifying!” (Assure them you care deeply about finding a good solution.)

So… I don’t always have to roll over?

Correct! The step of assuring the client after feedback is often the most delicate part of the conversation for this reason. It doesn’t always follow the template above perfectly, but there are almost always gentle ways to assure them that you respect the viewpoint. It’s tempting to either begrudgingly do what they ask, or to push back a bit too hard. This formula creates a dignified third option, allowing you to learn something you may not have known, educate the client on your thought process, encourage testing, or all of the above. Most importantly, it releases tension and leads the tone for client interactions.

Another distinct benefit of this pattern is that it levels out the dynamic while allowing the designer to remain the design expert. It incorporates feedback where necessary, all while making sure the client feels heard and respected. Granted, all this is easy to describe, but it requires practice.

What if I’m a slower thinker?

If you tend to feel like a deer in the headlights when a client offers critique, fear not! There are ways to handle this, too.

After hearing feedback, you can actually just state your need to think for a few seconds. We all need to regroup our thoughts and process other people’s statements sometimes. Something like “Ah, thanks for bringing that up. Let me think about that for a few seconds, I want to make sure I process that right.”

It may feel odd and counterintuitive, but you’ll likely find that people respect the honesty. Once you feel comfortable (hopefully after 5–10 seconds or so), start the formula.

Quick criticism team exercise

Everyone gather a real design they’ve completed and prepare it to be shown or presented.

  1. Break into groups of 2.
  2. Take turns pretending to present your design to the other. If you’re not presenting, pretend to be the client who is providing criticism on the design.
  3. When presenting, practice acknowledging, empathizing, and assuring.

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