As an experienced design professional, part of my routine each day consists of giving and receiving design feedback. It’s such a regular part of my job, in fact, that it has become second nature to me. But that wasn’t always the case. As a young college student facing the prospect of hearing opinions about my work, I used to take critiques really personally. It wasn’t something I was used to, and honestly negative feedback would sometimes cut deep.
During my high school years, I developed a strong art, drawing, and painting background, but I had not been exposed much to the design world. My art teachers throughout my whole life mainly praised my work, I won awards, and I loved drawing. Receiving any sort of negative commentary was a rarity, never going much farther than suggestions for how to slightly improve a brush stroke or expand my color palette.
When I reached the college level, I experienced a bit of a reality check when I was suddenly asked to pin my work up on the board and present it to the teacher and all of my classmates, who would question the decisions I made (spoiler alert: “because I like the way it looks” was never an acceptable answer). I froze. I wasn’t good at public speaking, let alone explaining to a group my decision process while worrying that I may say something wrong.
Somehow I found my way through the first few attempts, listening and taking notes on the group’s likes and dislikes and what could be improved upon. Without fail, though, I took it hard when I didn’t present something that the teacher was madly in love with. I felt defeated and not sure why they didn’t see it the way I did. I didn’t know how to properly be put on the spot to defend my discussions. I would think to myself, why does this teacher hate me?
The reality, of course, was that I just didn’t fully grasp how much more work I could do to improve my designs. The more I began listening to what they were suggesting, the closer I started to look at what I had presented. I could begin to see they didn’t dislike me — or my designs — they just saw the potential in the pieces and were offering ways to improve on them, as well as to hone the skills that I would carry forward with me in my career.
Fast forward to today, and I realize those awkward college moments actually taught me a lot. My approach to giving and receiving feedback can be attributed directly to what I learned in those classes, and now I play both roles: some days I am making presentations to the internal Eastern Standard team or to a client, and others I am offering critiques to my fellow designers. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned sitting on both sides of the table:
Keep the Endgame in Mind
Whether presenting or critiquing, always focus on the fact that priority one is the client’s goals for the project. Clearly articulate your thoughts or decision-making throughout the process as you walk through the designs — always asking how the proposed solution aligns with the client’s desired outcome.
See Through the Eyes of Your Audience
Although it is not always the case, it can get tricky presenting to a client who is less familiar with the different behaviors of web design than you are. You need to remember that you are the expert in your field and that sometimes the client might not understand the full intentions of a design, particularly when it comes to effects or actions that will display on a website when showing a static design. In that case, you’ll want to go the extra mile to share your insights. A little understanding goes a long way.
Be As Specific As Possible
When critiquing a peer’s work, explain exactly what you think is working, as well as what you think can be improved on. Encourage the designer to express their design goals, and ask clarifying questions to help them to see problems in the execution of the design that they may not have seen on their own. Some examples: Can we add more color to help bring life to a rather dull web page or design? What types of images would best serve the information being presented, and how can you crop those images to be more impactful? Are the font choices being made appropriate for that organization (e.g., would a serif font be more appropriate for a more traditional look and feel, or would a sans serif font provide a fresher, cleaner look)?
Keep Feelings Out of the Equation (or At Least Try)
Whether feedback is positive or negative, keep the focus off of you and squarely on the goal of moving the project forward toward completion. Take note of any action items and walk away knowing that the input will only lead to a better client outcome. As designers, we are problem solvers first and foremost, and solving unforeseen challenges along the way or even predicting them before they come up is the key to being a good designer.
While there are no clear-cut “right” and “wrong” answers, knowing that critiques are a vital part of the development process will hopefully leave you feeling revitalized and excited going forward. When done effectively, these valuable team check-ins will help you identify the best solutions, make your work the best that it can be, and help you grow as a designer.