How to give feedback (without driving your designer insane!)

Giving good feedback is integral to good design. While I’m sure all designers—myself included–would love to just whip up a gorgeous design without asking anyone else for their opinion, good design can be made better by working within limitations and incorporating the feedback of others. And of course, we generally want to make our clients happy and give them what they want. Accordingly, any designer worth his salt will make sure that the design process includes his client: we make mockups, ask for feedback, then refine, ask for more feedback, refine, ask for more, refine—and so on and so forth, until everyone’s happy.

Sometimes everyone really is happy, and the end result is something that’s beautiful and usable. Other times, though, one of us is going to end up miserable. The design can end up so off-target, messy, or downright ugly that your designer doesn’t even want to have his name attached to it. That’s a bad scene.

I’ve been going through this process for years, with a whole range of different clients, both of the dream and the nightmare variety. Here are a few tips I’ve rounded up to make this feedback process as efficient as possible.

1. Don’t micro-manage…

This is, bar none, the fastest way to quash your designer’s spirit. I’ve gotten to the point where, if I suspect someone’s going to micro-manage me, I’ll walk away from the project. It’s one thing to give your opinions; it’s another thing to tell me exactly what to do. Usually when this happens, I’ll argue for a bit, citing rational reasons why the particular edit isn’t a good idea and backing my objections up with design theory points. The micro-manager client generally knows better, and eventually my spirit dies, and I become an unskilled, untrained monkey who happens to own a copy of Photoshop. “You want that font in 60pt lime green Comic Sans for your investment banking brochure? …fine.” This might be perceived by some as being inflexible, but it isn’t. I encourage feedback, but if I’m not arguing with you, you’re not getting my best design work. Ultimately, you hire a designer because they know stuff you don’t, and if you don’t respect their opinions, you might as well build it yourself.

2. …but don’t macro-manage, either.

The converse of this, of course, is the client who says “just do whatever you feel is right.” In theory, that would be lovely. But I always feel as though I’m cheating these clients out of really getting what they want. You have an opinion; I’d like to hear it. I want you to be happy with my work, and I really can’t read your mind (yet)!

3. Be specific.

Design is highly subjective. You can tell me that you don’t like something, but I oftentimes don’t know how to fix it for you—chances are good that I put it there because I like it, after all! What element don’t you like? Is it the type style, the colour, the juxtaposition of elements, the spacing between those two lines?

Building from a feeling
Snarkiness courtesy of the charming (and sometimes rather gruesome) the Oatmeal.

It’s true, designers do often need to design from a feeling and other vague, hard to define concepts. While it’s true that it’s our job to translate an immaterial concept into a tangible, visible entity, the more specific you are, the easier it’s going to be for us to figure out what you want. Which leads me to my next point:

4. Know what you want.

If you don’t know what you want, there is no way in hell I will ever figure it out. A good designer can help guide you, by asking questions and trying out different styles, but ultimately, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re extremely unlikely to get it.

5. Realize that design is about solving problems.

Not like “world hunger” sort of problems, but visual problems. You’ve got something you want to communicate to your audience, and you need it to be easy to read, to communicate your brand message, to make the audience feel a certain way. You want to be able to lead them into bits of information, guiding them through your information in a very particular manner. While I often trivialize design by saying “I make pretty things” (which is true), I also make stuff that works, and stuff that takes into consideration your goals for the project.

Therefore, when I make suggestions for ways we could make the overall design better, take them into consideration. If I don’t immediately do everything you ask for, this is because I’m keeping your aims and needs in mind, not because I’m obstinate. (I mean, I am, but that’s something altogether different.) To make a design truly great, we need to work together to solve your problems—that means that I need to listen to your feedback, and you need to consider my advice.

6. Never, never, ever use the phrase “you’re the designer.”

In theory, this would mean that you trust my decisions, value my input, and recognize that, since I’m a professional that you’re paying to do this work, I must know what I’m doing. In actuality, it means that you’re going to be the epitome of a Difficult Client: you’ll constantly say the designs I present to you are no good, but you won’t give any concrete explanations of why; you’ll insist that I make every single tiny, micro-managing alteration you request, then complain when the design starts to erode and the whole thing ends up a giant mess; and you’ll ignore all of my advice and opinions.

This makes me crazy.

Freelance Freedom
That dude in the last panel? He might end up being a "you're the designer" client.

Really, it’s not hard to give good feedback. Just be specific, give examples, and respect your designer’s expertise. If you do that, you’ll both end up happy, and you’ll have a design that you love.

And then everyone wins!