Tired of hearing things like “Make my logo bigger” or “I don't like that blue color” from your clients? Here's what designers and project managers can do to encourage constructive and useful feedback that will make your designs better.
This is a video recording and transcript of the talk I gave at the Project Management Zagreb Meetup on February 14, 2018. The video contains my 27-minute talk, followed by the 30-minute Q&A panel with the host Steve Tauber and 3 other designers: Dora Šurija, Lucijan Blagonić and Mario Šimić.
In my time as an in-house designer and a freelance designer I’ve experienced all sorts of good and bad design process practices, and here's what I’ve learned about inviting and responding to constructive feedback.
Know your role and your responsibilities
These are the three roles present in a design project:
- Client (Product owner): determines objectives and constraints: who we’re creating this for, what we’re supposed to achieve with it, how much time and money do we have to invest in the project.
- Designer: conducts research of the presented problems and proposes solutions.
- Project manager: makes sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing on time, and tries to minimize any friction, bottlenecks, or waste that can slow down the project. Sometimes this isn’t the official title of the person, in smaller teams often it’s the lead developer or head of marketing that performs this role.
Sometimes the client and the designer will work alone, which is how I mostly work nowadays. But when you have more specialists working together on a project, somebody has to take charge of the management.
Each of these people has their own domain and their own responsibilities. When everyone is in their own “zone of genius”, the project runs well.
Problems can arise when people are stepping over into each others roles, or they’re not taking full responsibility for their own role, so they make other people do their job. This can look like the client attempting to be a designer and micro-managing the creative team, or the designer shrinking and deferring their responsibilities to the PM which often happens with less experienced designers.
An example I’ve experienced in some companies I’ve worked for is the client and project manager conducting a meeting without the designer. This shouldn’t happen, ever. I feel very strongly about this: You can’t have a design conversation without a designer in the room. The same way you can’t have a feature development conversation without a developer in the room. You need a person who has the knowledge and the experience who can tell you right away when an idea just won’t work, and what you can do instead. It saves a lot of time and frustration on all sides.
By design conversation I mean any critical conversation that will affect design decisions, including the kick-off meeting, and any subsequent presentations and feedback sessions. So yeah, bring your designers along to meetings.
Gathering information from clients
Something I emphasize whenever I talk about feedback and revisions is: the more information you have in advance, the lesser the need for feedback. Designers should determine what information they need from the client in order to do their job right. This means they’re either conducting an in-person interview, or compiling a questionnaire that the client will fill out in their own time.
The questions that the designer is asking can change over time because we’re learning through experience how to ask more effective questions, and what will be most useful to us in our creative process. We improve through iteration. We can’t outsource that to someone who is not a designer. They can’t think for us.
If you’re a project manager working with a less experienced designer, they may not know they’re supposed to do that, so encourage them to ask more questions. In a meeting, ask them “Do you have everything you need? Is there anything else we should talk about?” Check in with them when they’re working, “Is everything going OK? Are you missing some information, should we ask the client for more specifics?” Help them feel like it’s OK to ask questions. Support your designers so they can develop that confidence.
Presenting the first proposal
Let’s say you have all the information you need to start working and you went through the research phase, the idea generation phase, the design concept phase, and you have your proposal ready.
Showing your first proposal to the client is perhaps the most important moment that will affect the course of the project. First impressions matter a lot, so do your best to present your solutions in a proper context.
The person who created the design proposal should be the one presenting it and responding to any questions, so get prepared.
Every proposal should be followed by explanation of your thought process, and how your research has affected it. When I propose logo designs I note inspiration and associations that have led me to some symbol, color or typography choice. It’s often this explanation that “sells” the solution to the client. It helps them get it.
Poposal presentation for the MATDAT logo and visual brand identity
You’d be surprised by how often the client doesn’t even notice something until you point it out. For example this letter M: non-designers are not trained to focus on negative space so it takes them longer to notice it.
Whether you present in person, over a video chat or through written communication, that’s up to you. In person presentation makes the best impact, but it also puts clients on the spot. If they look at the proposal on their own time and have a few days to think about it, they may notice things they didn’t notice at first and give better feedback. I always tell my clients to sleep over it, because they will have to live with this project long after the first impression has settled.
Allow clients to give their feedback immediately if they wish, but also give them the opportunity to think about it for a while and get back to you with their thoughts.
How should the clients give you the feedback? How do they know what is useful feedback? They don’t. It’s not their job to know. You need to teach your clients how to give useful feedback.
One way is to ask very specific questions in a feedback session, like:
“How well does this graphic represent your company’s core values?”
“How well do you think this visual identity connects with your target audience?”
Another way is to give them guidelines on giving feedback beforehand. This is what I do in my “Welcome Guide”—I have several pages outlining what kind of feedback is helpful and what is not, and give examples for each. This is a screenshot of one page with examples.
Here is the short version of some of my feedback guidelines:
1. Any person who can shoot down the project needs to be included in every feedback session.
No exceptions. I’ve heard so many stories when the CEO ignored the project until the very end, and then they tore it apart and completely changed the requirements. You can’t let that happen. If the head of marketing doesn’t have complete freedom, then they’re not in charge.
2. Be honest.
If I missed the mark completely, I want to know about it right away so we don’t waste any more time.
3. Be specific.
Clients need to articulate why they feel the way they feel about the proposal, and the reason they give is more important than what preceded it. Clients use words that have specific meaning to us as designers, and this can lead to a misunderstanding. If I had a euro for every time a client requested the design to be “simple”, and then later told me it’s “too simple”... You can’t be satisfied with vague words.
4. Put yourself in your target customer’s shoes. (Or better, ask your ideal customers.)
Instead of asking “How do I like this design?” the clients should ask themselves how their target audience would feel about it.
5. Focus on your business goals.
Avoid adding unnecessary elements because they’re trendy. Clients should have a good business reason to request additional design features.
6. Let me do my job.
Let’s each stay inside our zone of genius and not attempt to do another person’s job. This means that the client or the project manager should not dictate what something is supposed to look like. They should point out problems in the proposal, and let the designer find a better solution—because that’s what we do.
By showing the clients examples of helpful and unhelpful feedback, the clients learn what is appropriate for them to say, and what is not.
When you’re receiving feedback, keep this in mind:
- Listen carefully and pay attention to what they may not be saying.
- Ask follow-up questions.
- Don’t argue, don’t get defensive, and don’t make it about you.
- Use data and specific examples to prove your point.
- Explain design terms in plain language.
- Teach others, so you can have an informed conversation.
When feedback is given orally, write a feedback summary and get the client to confirm in writing. People often forget what they said, and it’s frustrating when you can’t prove it.
Let's recap—in order to get better feedback from your clients:
- Collect as much information in advance as possible
- Improve your proposal presentations
- Teach clients how to give useful feedback
I hope this presentation has been helpful. If you want to learn more, read these related articles: