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5 Rules for Great Design Feedback

You’ve been here before: artwork has been set in front of you and you’ve been asked to respond. You struggle with the wide-open question, “What do you think?” But you don’t have to struggle to give great feedback if you keep in mind these five simple ideas:

1 – Stay in touch with your emotions

Graphic design seeks an emotional response, so share how you feel about a design. If a design leaves you cold, then tell your designer, “it leaves me cold.” If you feel warm and fuzzy gazing at a logo, say “the logo makes me feel warm and fuzzy.” Don’t try to figure out how to ‘fix’ the design. Don’t talk about specific changes you want made. Modification is the province of your designer. But by all means, share how you feel — or how you’d like to feel.

2 – Use adjectives, not nouns

Adjectives give designers direction so fill your feedback with them. Terms like “warmer,” “softer,” “simpler,” “chilly,” “informal,” “light-hearted,” “serious,” “sharper,” help much more than nouns and verbs. Words like “puppy,” “compass,” “race car,” “flower,” etc., are overly specific. Nouns start dictating objects to designers, when the role of design is to elicit emotion not portray objects (that’s a job for an illustrator, not a designer). Nouns are the meat and potatoes of clip art. Design, in contrast, uses symbolism and abstraction to elicit emotion in a viewer.

3 – Keep business goals front and center

There’s always one person on a review committee who sees a logo using the color brown and says, “I don’t like it. I hate brown. Red is my favorite color. I think you should use red.” But what matters are the goals of the business, not an individual’s taste. If this is design for a brownie bakery or a cardboard box maker, then there is a case to be made for the color brown. Or, if six major competitors already use red for their color, then no matter that a person loves red, red is a bad color choice for this project. Everyone has personal tastes but great feedback always aligns your commentary with business goals and project goals — not just your personal esthetic.

4 – Play to your strengths: Words

Some people are skilled with numbers (accountants). Some people are wonderful with crowds (politicians). Some people are nimble with imagery (designers). But just about everyone is good with language. So use words, not drawings, to respond to a designer. Resist your temptation to grab a pencil and draw something for your designer. Just as you wouldn’t take the wrench out of your plumber’s hands or specify which court motion to file by your lawyer, likewise you shouldn’t start drawing for your designer. If you’re certain you yourself are skilled with visual design, then you should have hired yourself as the designer. Otherwise, stick to using words to communicate and leave aside the pen and paper.

5 – Ask, don’t tell

If you don’t understand something about a design, ask your designer “Why did you do that?” And then weigh the answers you hear against your project goals. Avoid asking leading questions such as “Can we make it bigger?” or “Can we fill this space here with text?” Replacing one arbitrary design move with another is counterproductive; it weakens the design and lessens its impact. Both you and your designer need to have good reasons for every design decision. Use “Why?” questions whenever you’re unsure about something in a design.

3 replies
  1. David Canaan says:

    Patrick:

    Great counsel!

    As a designer, how many times have I needed to clarify these points with teams?

    As Senior Managing Partner at SBG Partners (which became SBG Enterprise which became EnterpriseIG which is now part of Brand Union — WPP has a way of stirring everything up), one of my partners was Nic Sidjakov — perhaps the greatest design mind I’ve ever met. He had a comment that summarizes your five points in a profound way that was our mantra for feedback from the account people to the design people:

    “Give us symptoms, not solutions.”

    You’re welcome to use it.

    • Patrick Santana says:

      That’s a great mantra indeed, David. I may just steal it from you and Nic. And you rightly point out why we wrote this post: the people who most need to absorb these ideas about functional design feedback are an agency’s staff, not the clients. We on the account/firm side often struggle to recognize our clients’ off-target feedback and correct their approach as soon as we see them veering off into “solutions” rather than symptoms. We wrote this post as much as a reminder to ourselves as to clients.

  2. Robin says:

    Sometimes, us rather plain jane types, not great with color matching skills, THINK we want something, then find we do not. I thought I wanted a warm kitchen, a happy place. I choose peach. I put it on 3 walls, then just stopped. I do not have money for this, as it is, but I had to go back to the store and tell them I thought I wanted warm, but I think in reality, I want cold and heartless. :-)

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