Constructive Criticism & Feedback in Design

This chapter includes information about:

  • The goal of feedback in design projects
  • How to give useful feedback
  • How to get and use feedback productively

A feedback phase is essential in all design projects. There are thousands of small decisions a designer makes in creating a draft, and the feedback phase is when the designer gets to step back for a moment and consider whether all those small decisions are adding up in the intended way. Feedback from others is also essential to get a fresh perspective and new ideas.

In an article for “A List Apart,” a design publication, Cassie McDaniel writes:

“Critiquing an unfinished design mitigates the risk of completely missing a project’s ultimate goals. Acting as a wedge in the creative process, good feedback can readjust the design message and help us figure out what we’re really trying to say.”

Professionals often get feedback from:

  • Supervisors and mentors
  • Peers and other designers
  • Project managers and clients
  • Focus groups or representatives of the intended audience

Each one of these groups may have a different perspective on a design, based on different priorities and areas of expertise.

Giving Feedback

Include both strengths and weaknesses.

Feedback that only mentions positives is not helpful for improving the project. However, feedback that only mentions negatives can seem hostile and off-putting. One way to find a balance is the “love sandwich” — start with strengths of the project, then go into weaknesses and ways to fix them, and then end on a positive note about how the project is coming along overall.

Be constructive by offering suggestions for improvement.

The key to constructive criticism is being an active part of the solution. If you identify something that could be improved, follow it with an idea or example of what might improve it.

Use clear and objective vocabulary.

Use specific design concepts instead of vague, emotional words. If something “just doesn’t feel right,” try to analyze and explain exactly what it is that makes you feel that way.

Respect the designer’s stated intentions and goals.

If a designer creates a project for children, it is unhelpful to suggest that the colors seem too childish. Try to imagine the design from the perspective of an intended user, and consider whether your personal preferences align with the target audience. Acknowledge what the designer is trying to accomplish and the designer’s assessment of their own work.

Getting Feedback

Listen with an open mind.

Go into the feedback process with the mindset of welcoming all ideas. It can be natural to take critiques personally, especially if you are sharing an unfinished draft that you know still has weaknesses. Make sure to think of people giving you feedback as members of your team — everyone shares your goal of improving the final product.

Summarize points of agreement and points of contention.

In your own words, repeat the strengths and weaknesses you heard from others. Note areas where there is a consensus and where there are differences of opinion. For example, everyone may agree that the main photo used on a brochure cover represents the organization well, but disagree about whether making it black-and-white supports or distracts from the message.

Consider why you may disagree with particular feedback.

If you get feedback from a broad variety of perspectives, you’ll likely disagree with some of the critiques and suggestions. Instead of ignoring those perspectives, try to analyze why you disagree and whether that leads to any useful information for improving your project. For example, if someone suggests changing the color scheme when you’ve selected the colors to match a particular organization, make sure you’ve explained that choice clearly in your design process.

Recommended Reading

How to give and receive a good design critique (AIGA)
Design Criticism and the Creative Process (A List Apart)
The Art of the Design Critique (Team Treehouse)