How to review design and give critical feedback.

Steps for anyone to make design feedback more productive.

It’s important to be able to both give and receive criticism, knowing a bit can help a lot in your next design review.

Despite the benefit to the design process, the review or critique is all to often avoided because of the uncomfortable environment it can create. This tension can be felt by critics and designers alike. Because of their involvement in the design process, designers can feel that the review process quickly moves from a criticism of their work to a spotlight on personal shortcomings. Critics can mis-interpret their role in the process by giving too personal or untimely criticism.

Conducted properly, the design review or critique involves both positive and negative feedback in a way which create a better final product. Here are some quick tips on how to give–and receive–good design feedback during a critique.

Conduct an effective design review

The critique has earned itself a bad name, critics; clients, employers, professors and designers alike fear the day of the design critique. But, they don’t have to. Critiques can be extremely beneficial – nay essential – to the design process.

 "Two old priests showing the application of torture under the supervision of the Inquisition"

 

Benefits of a good design review

  • Keep projects in scope; time, cost, quality.
  • Keep creative in-line with the brief.
  • Test creative and communication.
  • Revise ineffective communications.
  • Improve weak areas of design.
  • Communicate progress against deliverables.
  • Drive discussion for all project areas.
  • Build consensus among divergent views of stakeholders.

How to give an effective review.

Like anything else in this world, there is no one-way to do it right. Providing is an effective critique is an art and how it plays out depends on many factors. However, there are some things that you can do to increase the likelihood of conducting a successful critique.

Start early
Providing feedback from early in the process will help communicate the strategy with your designers. Creative cycles which take place closer to the start of any project tend to drift further from your creative goals. Clearly defining the scope, focus and vision will reel in your designers creative potential to a vision closer to that of the design brief.

  • Start early and provide regular review cycles.
  • Providing regular reviews will help hone creative.

Schedule review meetings
It shouldn’t come as as surprise that the surprise review doesn’t help anyone. Schedule reviews so that everyone has an opportunity to prepare. Setting regular recurring reviews at project landmarks or regular intervals throughout the project will help build momentum and refine creative.

  • Schedule design review meetings.
  • Give everyone a chance to prepare for the meetings.

Make it a discussion
The design review could be a nerve-racking experience for all parties. The designer is put on the spot and can feel as if they have to justify their work. The critic could feel uncomfortable about providing critical feedback which may do more harm than good. Discussing other topics tangentially throughout the review can help cut tension and spur productive creative discussions.

  • Casual conversational tangents help break tension.
  • Parallel discussions can help spur productive creative discussions.

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Know where you are
Knowing where you are in the project cycle can mean the difference between providing useful, relevant and timely advice or rambling and pondering. The difference relates to knowing what the most important goal at that point in time is. It isn’t uncommon for critics to want to talk about strategy in a final design review or use of photography in a wire framing / workflow review.

After reviewing the wireframes outline user navigability through the toolset the client determined he didn’t like the look of the lines and would prefer something a little more “bubbly”.

  • Know what’s most important for the current project phase.
  • Only provide feedback that’s relevant and helpful for the current project phase.

Don’t assume anything
Question, when can you start assuming things? Answer, never. That’s right, never assume anything when you’re in a critique. Begin each review by listing all the things that you do know and don’t know about the project, the important topics from the creative brief, the strategy, the project goal and the purpose of this review in particular. You’ll be surprised the number of clarifications that need to be made before conducting the review.

“So, you’re working on Project Gotham for Wayne Enterprises. They have asked for a car that looks like a bat, it should be painted in matt black and be jet propelled. Right now we’re looking at your design of the instrument panel of the interior of the car, we’re trying to figure out placement of the technology clusters for usability.”

  • Start by saying what you know or don’t know about the project.
  • Resolve cognitive mis-alignments before proceeding.

 

Types of feedback that aren’t effective in a review:

  • Lacking clarity: “I don’t like it.” or “I love it!”
  • Overly personal: “I don’t like purple things.”
  • Apathetic: “Yeah, it looks fine. Let’s just do this one.”
  • Contradictory: “Could you make the copy pop out more. But I want the image stronger too.”
  • Indecisive: “I just can’t decide, I think I like all of them. Could we have something in-between.”
  • Resistant: “Oh, I don’t think that would ever work.”
  • Negative: “This part is totally wrong, have you been doing this long?”

Make a sandwich
A very popular technique for providing feedback is the sandwich method, it works and everyone likes sandwiches. This technique goes by different names either compliment sandwich, or hamburger method. The technique of the sandwich is to surround any critical feedback with complimentary feedback.

“The positioning of the page elements work nicely to create negative space, drawing the eye to the key communication which is our primary goal of the piece. However, your choice of Hollywood Hulk Hogan as a photographic element is totally inappropriate given that our market is composed of women aged 36 to 49 years of age. That change of photography may affect the positioning of the body copy, which looks good by the way, try to retain this overall page structure.”

  • Provide critical feedback between complementary feedback.

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Don’t beat around the bush
If you have something to say, say it; it’s important to not to beat around the bush in a review. In addition to wasting everyones time, not being honest and providing feedback is counter-intuitive to the purpose of the review. Problems, if there are any will never magically become resolved if left unspoken. So, don’t hold back but be honest, considerate and constructive with whatever it is you have to say.

  • Talk about what is and isn’t working.
  • Then discuss what could be better.
  • Be honest and constructive.

Keep feedback goal oriented
Ever hear the saying, “everyone’s a critic”? It’s true! However good critics, those that make things better through their critical feedback, are few and far between. One thing to keep in mind while picking things apart is to keep critical feedback goal oriented. Keeping everything oriented to project goals not only makes critical feedback easier to swallow it makes it more productive and actionable while ensuring that the project targets get met.

  • Make critical feedback easier to swallow by orienting it around project goals.

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