Picture this: You’ve spent hours designing an ad. You’ve been thoughtful and measured in your pre-design planning. You examined the customer’s problem from all angles. You brainstormed, thought outside the box, self-revised, peer-reviewed, and even let the final draft sit for a whole day, just so you could look at it again with fresh eyes before it left your office. 

You’re confident. Optimistic. Maybe even a little proud of what you made. 

And then, surprise! Your client — or maybe your boss — absolutely hates it.

Let’s be honest – it’s not easy to hear negative feedback about creative work. It can feel a little bit like someone calling your baby ugly! But as difficult as it is to accept negative feedback, it can be even harder to give it. 

The problem with giving design feedback is, you’re critiquing something someone created. It’s not just a logo, or an ad, or an infographic: It’s the blood, sweat and tears of the creative process, potentially hours of hand-drawn doodles, and you-don’t-want-to-know-how-many InDesign layers. And sometimes it’s hard not to interpret revisions as rejection, and take them personally.

The truth is, missing the mark from time to time is inevitable — as is the negative feedback that accompanies these creative missteps. 

That said, there are a few things you can do to better communicate your design feedback — and bring you to your desired end product quicker. Here are five tips to help:

Tip 1: Present the problem — but don’t try to solve it.

It’s hard to resist bringing your own bright ideas to the table when it’s clear something isn’t working — and in most situations, collaboration is great. But in this case, it’s better to simply present the problem without trying to solve it. 

Tell your design team clearly and concisely what is not working and why. Is something really important not properly highlighted? Is something confusing — for example, is the organization of the content hard to follow or understand? 

Here’s an example: A couple of years ago, Willow created a program book for a client conference. The client wanted the booklet laid out in a way different from how we originally designed the piece. Instead of directly stating, “I would like section A to be pages 1-15” they gave us instructions to increase the size of an image and other elements in the guide. After three very frustrating rounds of revisions (for us and the client alike) they finally told us what they were trying to achieve. Once we were all on the same page, we were able to quickly revise the layout to achieve their goal, while preserving the integrity of the design.

Along these same lines, if there is something that you don’t understand about the design work being presented, ask questions. And open dialogue will ensure everyone understands the direction and vision for the creative work, so you can move on with confidence.

Tip 2: Share the “why” behind your changes – and be specific.

If you can share the rationale behind your changes, design feedback is less likely to be interpreted as emotional and more likely to be perceived as informative. Tell your designer the motivation behind your changes. Is there a past history with a specific image or icon that might be interpreted as negative? Is there concern among stakeholders about the positioning of the brand’s mission in the ad messaging? If we understand what the issue is, we can look at ways to solve the problem holistically within the design, and avoid making the same mistake in the future. Feedback not only helps us fix the creative in front of us, but it also helps us gain a deeper understanding of how to represent your brand.

Also, please be specific and don’t use vague statements like, “It doesn’t pop,” or “It’s not bold enough.” Instead, consider saying something like, “This feels like a safe and expected direction because we have done something like this in the past, and I’m concerned our audience may not notice the importance of this content and have an emotional connection to the imagery.” 

Tip 3: Don’t let personal taste get in the way of reaching your objectives or audience.

When you’re sharing design feedback, it’s important to remove your personal preferences from the equation, as hard as that can be. (Even if you’re part of the target audience – for these purposes, you’re a little too close to the work.)

For instance, one former client was red-green color blind, and didn’t like it when the agency used these colors in layouts because it made it hard for him to “see” the entire layout/design. Unfortunately, the client was in the food industry — and not being able to use those hues was an issue when trying to sell fresh fruits and vegetables that are largely red and green.

Try to look at design with a neutral and objective eye, and think about how someone with no knowledge, understanding, or bias for your product or service might respond before you share overtly personal thoughts and feelings about the creative work. The work should accomplish your organizational goals — it doesn’t have to be designed to your specific taste.

Tip 4: Consolidate feedback.

We understand that some projects have many stakeholders — and there are often a number of voices in the room wanting to share their thoughts. The best approach is to assign one point person to gather and distill the feedback so it is easy to understand and common themes can be highlighted.

This serves a practical purpose: When feedback is clear and concise, it’s much more likely that all changes will be captured, avoiding the risk of losing an important comment or change among four versions of tracked changes from multiple invested individuals. This also avoids the quandary of conflicting feedback and change requests. There’s nothing that eats up time or budget more than having one piece of feedback requesting something be changed, and another client stakeholder sharing how much they love it in its current state.

There’s a psychological advantage to this tactic, too: One set of feedback is much easier to mentally digest than receiving file after file filled with questions and changes from numerous people who thought the work needed improvement.

Tip 5: Please don’t forget to tell us what you DID like!

In any feedback scenario — creative, or otherwise — don’t just focus on what’s wrong, or what you don’t like. If you like something, tell us! Point out what worked, what you responded to, and what surprised and delighted you about the design. This positive reinforcement helps balance negative feedback, and let’s your designer know their work was valued. It’s also valuable data for our team to know what works well for the future, and in what contexts.

And it should go without saying — but don’t insult the designer when relaying your feedback. It can be easy to forget that there’s a real person on the other side of every piece of creative. Respect the designer and the work that they have done, and politely state the problem and why the design is not accomplishing the goals of the project. There’s no place for personal attacks in the design process. 

Have you been in a situation where you had to share difficult design feedback? Do you have tried and true tips on how to work through changes with your team? Share your favorite stories in the comments!

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Written by Erin Witt

"She believed she could, so she did."