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Common Critique Mistakes (And How Not To Do Them)

Photo taken by Gabe Austin, Common Critique Mistakes (And How Not To Do Them)

Image credit: Gabe Austin, 2011

When it comes time for design review during a project, it can go two ways: it can be a conversation that is fruitful, engaging, and help push the design in positive ways or it can be tense, stressful, and leave both parties feeling frustrated and defensive. It ultimately comes down to how you give feedback as a client/stakeholder and how you take that feedback as the designer.

Communication is key to any healthy relationship and I’m hoping that the advice below can help the critiquing process go more smoothly for both clients and designers, whichever side of the project you may be on.

So here we go, here are some common critique mistakes and how to handle them:


“Make that bigger/brighter/bolder.”


Client

This is a big no-no when critiquing your designer’s work for a couple reasons:

  1. You’re offering a solution without communicating the problem.
  2. A lot of time the “obvious” is not the right solution. Designers are paid for their experience and their ability to solve problems with visual (and sometimes functional) solutions.

By all means voice any and all concerns you have throughout the design process. Instead of the above, try saying something like, “I want A to get attention, because X, Y, Z”. The “because” is important, as design is not art–it’s a solution supported by rationale. From there, a good designer can take the information you’ve presented and come up with an elegant solution, often without having to make anything bigger or bolder.

Designer

If you run into this kind of criticism, it can be frustrating. It’s important, however, to realize that your client might be used to managing past designers in this way and think this is an expected part of the process. Don’t fault your client, fault those past designers for creating that expectation. Your client is really communicating that they are concerned about something. Ask questions to get to the heart of what your client’s concerns are and address them with the proper design solution. Do not play into the “pixel pusher” role by accepting this type of criticism without question and not examining the real problem.


“It’s just a simple change/swap/tweak.” or “It shouldn’t take too long.”


Client

Sometimes what looks like a simple change may not be so simple. A good design is often carefully constructed of multiple parts that interact and depend on each other to create a harmonious composition, whether it be a logo, website, or banner. It’s not to say changes can’t be made, but realize that a seemingly small change may be a bigger effort than it looks to be on the surface.

An analogy I like to use is that design can be like a slide-puzzle, in order to move a piece from A to B the other pieces have to find a new place around it.

So instead of the above, try asking your designer how big of an effort a change might take and weigh whether or not the change is really improving the design enough to make it worth that effort.

Designer

When presented with a change, try to ask the right questions to find out what is attempting to be to be accomplished. Be open to your client’s suggestions and seek to understand where their concerns are. As designers we can learn a lot from our clients, as they tend to know their industries and customers better than we do. Those considerations can affect what we put into a final design.


I prefer this color/font/image, etc.”


Client

While we all have our own preferences for how things should look, our individual preferences are irrelevant to design. Design is about meeting the needs of your target user or customer group, and it’s likely the case that you or I are not that target group. It’s important to define who you’re trying to target, without using generalizations (e.g. Women like pink), and gauge your decisions against that.

Designer

When presenting an idea and you’re met with a stakeholder or client voicing their personal preference as how something should look, you had better be ready with your reasoning to support your design choices. It’s a mistake both new designers and clients make, often unintentionally. Be flexible enough to try a variation on that color blue, be open to exploring a slightly different take on the secondary colors, maybe a similar san-serif font can nail it, but stand your ground if your design will lose it’s impact.


“This isn’t it. But I’ll know it when I see it.”


Client

Actually, you won’t.

If there is one sure way to get mediocre work from your designer–this is the phrase to use. A well-executed design has information backing it. It has strategy defined before the actual design work even begins. It has an idea of what needs to be accomplished and why, who it needs to reach, and where it is going to be viewed. Spend a few minutes writing out what you hope to achieve with your designer. If needed, get help from a professional strategist! You designer might even know someone that can help from his past experience, don’t be afraid to ask.

This is why a permanent, and non-negotiable, part of my process is research. I want everyone involved on the project to know where the bus needs to go. This always, always, always produces a better result, happy designers, and happy clients.

Designer

Just say no. Do your best to explain to your clients and stakeholders why you need some time to research, ask them questions, and get as much information as possible about what they’re hoping to achieve. This will save you hours and hours of revisions, tweaks, and redos. It will save you hours of sleep, frustration, resentment, and hating your job. I’d say that’s worth defending and causing a little conflict.


Some general ideas to consider

There is a common theme across issues clients and designers find themselves regularly having. Keeping in mind a few simple rules for communicating to each other will save a lot of headaches and misunderstandings:

  1. Have empathy.
  2. Ask questions over making statements.
  3. Drop assumptions. Listen instead.
  4. Don’t be a jerk.
  5. Understand the other person wants the same thing you do–a great result.

Thanks for reading! Non-designers, what problems have you encountered with designers in the past? Designers, what things do you wish clients would stop saying or doing during a project? Let me know your thoughts. Thanks again.

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