Tips for Offering Constructive Design Criticism

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Design is subjective. There’s no right or wrong and everyone comes to the table shaped through their own personal experiences.

While it’s unlikely that everyone will agree on color or font choice, the goal of design feedback is to improve the project and push the design to be the best and most appropriate that it can be.

Good criticism serves one purpose: to give more perspective and help make the next set of design choices. Whether you’re an editor deciding between magazine cover options, a designer giving a colleague advice or a decision-maker marking up edits to a postcard, here are ten tips for offering constructive feedback.

1. Have good intentions. Before you speak, know the goals. What problem is the work trying to solve? What is the goal?  

2. Be candid. It doesn’t help anyone to stay quiet during a feedback conversation. Encourage feedback from everyone, whatever their title or role. If your feedback has already been voiced, find a way to dig deeper—add an additional comment or a new perspective on the same comment.

3. Understand the criteria. Make sure you understand what the designer is looking for in terms of feedback from you. Consider the bigger picture:

  • Tone and style of the magazine/publication
  • Context of the story
  • Likes/dislikes of decision-makers
  • Audience
  • Functionality (especially for digital)
  • Resources (budget/time)
  • Composition

4. Don’t get emotional or personal. Separate your own personal preferences when offering criticism. Understand how strongly you feel about something and know how far you’re willing to argue it, but don’t cause an argument over something you don’t even feel strongly about.

“To offer good criticism must be an act of respect: an act of communication with the intention of helping the other person do better work, or understand their work better. It is entirely possible to offer criticism, commentary and advice without any negative energy attached.” - Scott Berkun

5. Focus on the work, not the person. Be specific, clear and defined. Use language about the project and work, not the individual.

6. Offer solutions, not only opinions. Ask questions that surface “blind spots” that the designer might not see and remind them of design principles they may be overlooking. Ask questions about the elements that aren’t working and brainstorm alternative ways of doing things. Strive to turn ambiguous comments into directions and not opinions. For example, comments like “I don’t like that blue” aren’t helpful, but explanatory statements like “I don’t like that blue because it feels too childish” are.

“Good and bad is not the same as what you like or don’t like.” - Scott Berkun

7. Make actionable suggestions. Constructive criticism should enable immediate action. Everyone should come away with a clearer idea of how to improve the concept and the path to follow. Just remember, make suggestions, not mandates.

8. Remain objective. The most useful feedback is unbiased. It gives you a unique perspective without an ulterior motive. Criticism should always be even-tempered and appropriate.

9. Focus on what works. Talk as much about what is working as what isn’t. Spend time pointing out what’s working well and why. This will help the designer evaluate their next step after feedback. An effective critique doesn’t just point out errors in a design, it also explains why the errors are errors. For example, don’t say “I don’t like that button.” Instead say, “I think that button doesn’t have enough emphasis on it if it’s supposed to be the primary action. What if you changed the color to add more emphasis to it?”

10. Use your people skills. Read the person you are giving feedback to—facial expressions, tone, emotions—and adjust accordingly. Try using a “PNP sandwich” (positive negative positive) approach if you feel yourself becoming overly critical.

Our design team practices each of these tips with every design piece we create. Our weekly internal feedback sessions allow designers to hear other perspectives and then be able to capitalize on critiques in order to put our best foot forward in our client work. Give us a call to learn more about the ways our design team works collaboratively on behalf of our clients.

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