Be Curious, Be Specific: A Guide to Giving Meaningful Design Feedback

You’ve just been presented new web design work for consideration. The designer walked you through the reasoning behind each decision. You were reminded about the audiences and project objectives. It’s abundantly clear that the conceptual underpinnings provide a strong foundation for the interactivity, narrative, and tone of the entire piece.

You have a lot of feelings.

I’m a graduate of art school and the creative director at a design studio. Yet giving constructive criticism is still hard for me. I can only imagine how daunting it must be for a client. You have so much of yourself invested in the project, you have a lot to say, and you want to help by giving meaningful feedback. How do you do that?

Here are a few things to think about when providing a designer with feedback.

Make your points, but don’t be mean.

Let’s start with that as a baseline: everyone involved is human, and everyone cares about the project. You don’t need to hold back on expressing negative opinions, nor do I encourage empty back-patting. But let’s just remember that there’s passion and investment on both sides of the relationship, so it’s really important to be as clear and considerate as possible.

“I like it” and “I don’t like it” are equally useless.

Each element in a design is multi-faceted: the way it looks, what it communicates, why it’s included, and it’s location in the hierarchy are all important aspects. When you find yourself starting to react with a thumbs up or down, pause for a moment and dig deeper to articulate more specifically what it is you’re reacting to. “This idea is really compelling, but it looks wrong,” or “that part is exciting, but I don’t understand the point,” or “this isn’t working, it feels out of place, and I don’t think it’s saying anything important” are all more specific and actionable critiques. Compliments and criticism aren’t helpful if they’re vague.

Be curious.

As a part of the creative team, your most important role is to ask questions. When you’re framing your questions, try to bring them back to project objectives. “How does a big photograph of kids playing frisbee represent our campus culture?”, “Does a clickable floor plan of our museum help promote a sense of place?”, or “Why is that the biggest thing on the page?” Design isn’t magic — there should be practical reasons behind each decision. If the answer to one of your questions seems like a stretch, or an invalid justification, that element of the design should be revised.

Memorable design is effective design.

Your initial visceral reaction is valuable: share it. But after you do, wait a day and then revisit the design in your memory. Without looking back at the work, write down what you can clearly picture. Knowing which ideas resonate a day later when the design is no longer in front of you is important.

Stop before you get to “how.”

Resist the temptation to suggest solutions. It’s not your responsibility to solve the problems you’ve identified. A good designer will appreciate the creative freedom to iterate and improve their work based on your questions or concerns. The results might be surprisingly delightful.

A successful project comes from a healthy collaboration between designer and client. I can’t do my best work without you. By sharing your thoroughly considered criticism and praise, you’ve revealed the aspects of the design that need the most work.

I’ve learned a lot.

You’ve given your best to the project, now it’s time for me to give you mine.

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