Keeping It Constructive

Reading Time
4 mins
Process, Collaboration

I remember design critiques in art school: they were often brutal, sometimes enlightening, and always constructive. We were being taught to not only produce great design but to also articulate what we were doing in our work. Giving and receiving feedback during these critiques helped us all become better designers.

As I transitioned from academia to the professional world, I quickly realized that the sacred critique was not as ubiquitous. Feedback on work often came in the form of meetings in which many of those present had never taken part in the classic critique, and thus lacked the knowledge of the process or how to provide feedback that cultivated growth in the designer. It was during a recent meeting of this variety that I realized the feedback being provided was not only laced with personal bias and clumsily delivered, but just downright non-constructive.

Constructive Principles

The following are a few principles which had they been followed, would have that meeting much more constructive:

Avoid Personal Bias

Feedback should be directly in relation to the work and how effectively it delivers against the brief, not a laundry list of your personal taste or feelings. If you find yourself starting off a sentence during a critique with “I feel like”, please stop and rethink what it is your are trying to say in the context of the brief.

Always Provide Insight

It is never acceptable to simply say “I don’t think this works” without following up on why you don’t think it works. Feedback should be constructive and provide the designer with insight into why some aspect of the design in ineffective, not leave them guessing at why you had a hard time with a specific component.

Follow Up with Actionable Suggestions

After providing insight into why you don’t think a specific component of the design is working, follow up with some suggestions on how it might be improved. These suggestions are meant to get the designer thinking about creative solves, not guide them down a specific path, so feel free to suggest a few. It’s all about fluid problem solving.

Don’t Play Art Director

If you are not an art director or designer, please refrain from design-related suggestions unless your suggestion is in direct relation to the brief. The best design feedback that a designer will receive is from another designer.

Think About Delivery

Have you ever heard “it’s not what you say, but how you say it”? If the goal is to give feedback that will both develop the designer and improve the work, then deliver your feedback in a way that will be fully retained and efficient. Harsh criticism has it’s place, but it is not nearly effective—besides, no one likes an asshole.

The Hamburger Method

An effective way of providing feedback is to begin with a component of the design that is working, then point out what isn’t working and how it could be improved, and then conclude with another effective component of the design. This will not only put into context your feedback for the designer, but also provide a scale in which they can measure the components of the design moving forward. It also signifies that you are there to help the designer improve their work, not just to attack it.

More Copy Isn’t a Solution

More copy is rarely the solution, and suggesting the addition of copy probably will not help the design. If the work isn’t communicating what it needs to, try refining the copy that is there to be more succinct.

When In Doubt, Take It Out

A trusted colleague of mine gave a great piece of advice recently: “take out your best elements, and see if the design still works”. The key is reduction: an effective design doesn’t need flourishes. Suggesting that a designer distill their design down to the essentials is always good feedback— even if that means removing the aspect of the design you are most tied to.

Avoid the Culture of Fear

Most importantly, critiques should foster a sense of community and help those whom participate to grow. If a culture of fear is being developed around critiques, the work is no longer motivated for the right reasons. Everyone involved in a critique should be fully informed into what the project is about, specifics of the brief, and enter into the critique ready to provide constructive feedback that cultivates improvement within the team as a whole.