Design is not an individual sport

An introduction to handling creative feedback with your team.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to talk about creative feedback at Shopify’s MTL Design Club. I touched on how important it is to have design critiques in an organization to keep a quality line throughout the entire design thinking process and also to nurture a design culture. Noticing how sensitive and challenging this subject was for the design crowd in front of me that night, I thought about continuing the discussion through an article, going over some of what my talk covered — and a little bit more.

Why “design critiques” are so challenging

A design critique plays a crucial role in design thinking and is not easy. By definition, a design critique is a group conversation with the ultimate goal of improving a design. We forget how it does not mean judging a design. The word critique is like a recipe for disaster — we immediately start biased and see it as a destructive task (ugh, a critique…) when it is in fact a creative one. This is why I argue that creative feedback makes more sense.

Not only are we biased by the vocabulary we have for naming it, but there is also the vocabulary used when sharing creative feedback. Each individual that is part of the conversation has a different background, a different mindset — meaning different vocabularies. They will most likely be sharing their opinion in their own words, and sometimes not using the same words or not understanding each other can feel like we are spinning in circles.

There’s also the uneasy part of sharing unfinished work that is naturally uncomfortable, especially for people in creative domains— we tend to be such perfectionists, wanting our work to be flawless from the very beginning.

With all these challenges, it can be tricky to align everyone on giving and asking effective feedback on creative work, so how can we make the most out of a design critique?

The mindset switch

Let’s forget about the word design critique for a moment and focus on the goal : Feedback.

It’s important to approach feedback from a mindset of helping and coaching, rather than criticizing. With that mindset, even negative feedback should be taken as positive and not as a critique.

Actually, negative feedback is the best feedback you will ever receive. Changing your mindset can start by seeing negative feedback as constructive feedback.

Negative feedback is the key of building great products and, more importantly, great designers. Transforming negative feedback as constructive feedback will make you unlock the full potential of a product. Also, it will improve how you receive someone’s feedback and following-up with them will be much more constructive as well.

It is our responsibility as designers to seek constant improvement by increasing our understanding with every single feedback we get. We have to make sure feedback is welcomed on a piece of work, otherwise how are we supposed to grow and evolve if no one will tell us what we are doing wrong?

“A designer requires honest feedback and real criticism, and that’s not going to happen in a realm where colleagues or clients are worried about crushing the spirit of a magical being.” — Mike Monteiro, Design is a job

Feedback in a design culture

Frank, candid and rigorous feedback is essential to a design culture to keep a quality line and a positive culture. As designers, we have a duty to encourage feedback in a workplace, especially if feedback generates friction.

Because friction means arguing. And arguing means that people care. If friction is palpable, then it will undoubtedly set the table for level-headed discussion about the work.

We can care enough to have strong opinions about a design, but it is also our responsibility to make sure this battle of opinions is negotiated in the right mindset:

1.👂 Receiving Feedback

When you’re getting prepared to receive feedback on a design, which you most probably did yourself, remember to start by setting the scope of the feedback. You want to make sure people understand what you want feedback on — this will save time for everyone.

Always explain the rationale behind the choice, articulate why you designed this work and explain the logic if someone has difficulty seeing it as clearly as you do.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Albert Einstein

Remember you are not your work. Listen, and stay open-minded.

As designers, but also as humans, we struggle every day to detach ourselves from what we create. When it comes to feedback, we take it personally. When someone is arguing about the work you are presenting, remember it’s all about bringing the product to its best potential. It is not about you.

Being open to feedback will also help you broaden your communication skills as a designer and let you keep your designs in check by making you aware of things you may not have thought about — the “unknown unknowns” .

2. 🗣 Communicating Feedback

When sharing an opinion, focus on the work and the goal of the piece. Ask Socratic questions — Socratic questioning is based on the idea of maximizing a reflection by asking open questions, rather than by telling people the solution right away.

You don’t want to deflate a design and you want to excite someone receiving feedback, so when in doubt ask why — but make sure to come up with options opening the discussion if you do not agree with the reasoning. A feedback that only goes halfway and points out problems without any ideas for improvement is usually not effective.

  • Bad feedback ⚠️ I like this color, but I think that button is not right.
  • Reformulation 👍 If the goal is to have the user check-out quickly (reminder of the goal) , I’m concerned we are placing emphasis on the wrong elements and hiding the primary task by making the button hard to find — (and then possible solution)Would you consider placing it somewhere more accessible, like higher up in the page?

Defining quality standards and externalizing them outside of the design organization can also help on communication if non-designer are participating in the discussion so subjectivity is taken out as much as possible when reviewing creative work. A great example is Automattic Design — John Maeda worked for about a half a year with his team on design principles that could represent their vision (and shared them).

Another source I found helpful when it comes to creative feedback is Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. Radical Candor really just means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to.

Design is teamwork. Feedback is too.

Great design doesn’t come from putting a designer in the corner and hoping they come up with the right solution. Holding a great quality line of a product is everyone’s job, not just the design organization.

And it all start by giving effective feedback 🌟.

Hey! You made it through the article, thanks for reading! Hope this helps ✌.
If you’d like to continue the conversation in the comments or anywhere else, please do. Clap! and Cheers!

Product Designer. Traveler. Professional dog watcher.