How to Give Professional Design Feedback
Constructive, professional design feedback improves the design process and boosts team culture. Discussing design through well-structured critiques clarifies expectations, builds confidence, and helps designers consider different ideas. However, to be perceived as valuable, the way design feedback is given needs to be approached carefully.
Typically, designers and non-designers don’t speak the same language. Different communication styles and domain expertise can complicate the collaborative process, causing potential friction. Designers may not be prepared with specific questions or a clear presentation, while commentary by non-designers may be ineffective, vague, or overly harsh.
Fellow designers, developers, and other team members will, quite naturally, have different concerns. Whether from a developer, product manager, or another designer, the right words of encouragement or critique to help designers find suitable solutions may prove elusive.
For pointers on how to deal with these situations effectively, I’ve consulted four people at different levels of their careers:
- Mina Adame – Product Designer at IBM Watson & Cloud Platform
- Matt Eng – DesignOps Manager at Genesys
- Bhavika Shah – Principal UX Designer at Procore Technologies
- Greg Storey – Former Senior Design Director at InVision
This discussion aims to provide insights into how designers think, enabling more productive feedback sessions and effective working relationships.
Giving Design Feedback
In this first set of questions, Mina Adame, Matt Eng, and Bhavika Shah weigh in on some difficult aspects of the feedback process from the perspective of a designer.
Q: How do you respond to feedback you disagree with?
Mina Adame: I usually note it down and try to understand their perspective. And I get second opinions.
Matt Eng: Early in my career, when I received negative feedback, I felt bad because I thought my designs sucked. As I was learning I tried to figure out ways to avoid feeling this way and began putting things into a mental checklist. If I was consistently getting the same feedback, I figured it was most likely a problem on my end.
Bhavika Shah: I explain why I made the decision. I believe in the saying “good ideas, loosely held.” If someone has a better idea, I’m open to hearing it. The only time I’ll disagree is if I’m backed by research and the person giving the feedback doesn’t have the same context.
Q: How do you handle a situation in which someone is giving harsh or negative criticism?
Mina Adame: It depends on the type of person and our relationship. I try to be a good listener and not take harsh criticism to heart.
Bhavika Shah: I sit quietly and take it. If someone’s being overly negative there’s probably a reason and more than likely [it’s] not about my work. In this case, I don’t argue because it’s not going to go anywhere.
Q: What do you do when the feedback is vague and not actionable?
Matt Eng: I prep for the questions I think they’re going to ask and have the answers ready or shown in the design. I try to clarify their feedback and repeat it back to them, and make sure I get a clear direction. Giving feedback is an important skill, and it should make sense to the person receiving it.
Often people offer solutions when it’s not the appropriate time to do so. People provide a solution without really thinking about the problem. I usually try to help them see that we need to think about it further by reminding them what the problem is and asking them how their proposed solution solves it.
Bhavika Shah: I sit down with them and make a bullet list. I pose a bunch of questions, forcing them to give me a strong direction forward. If that doesn’t work, I take their vague statements, make them specific, and ask them if my suppositions are correct.
Occasionally people who don’t know how to talk about design feel like they need to say something but don’t know how to say it. In these cases, I make an effort to guide them by distilling their thoughts down to specifics.
Q: How do you prefer to receive design feedback?
Mina Adame: I like honest, critical feedback. I want people to be kind, but ultimately I want to improve as a designer.
Bhavika Shah: Constructively and objectively. If I’m getting negative feedback, I want examples and why that issue was a problem. This makes it directed toward how I can learn and do better in the future.
Q: What is a positive experience you’ve had receiving feedback?
Mina Adame: I received feedback from a teacher that taught me to try to do something extra special to make the work stand out, not just solve the problem but go above and beyond. I prefer either getting in-person feedback or silent feedback—having people write it down on sticky notes or in comments.
Q: What is a negative experience you’ve had receiving feedback?
Mina Adame: Most of the negative experiences I’ve had were because I didn’t set up what I was trying to do and didn’t figure out how to ask for feedback on specific things. The person giving feedback didn’t know what to expect. It really helps to prepare what you want feedback on beforehand.
Giving Design Feedback as a Lead
In these next questions, Matt Eng, Bhavika Shah, and Greg Storey talk about giving feedback from a leadership perspective.
Q: What are some general good practices for giving feedback to designers when their work isn’t quite up to par?
Matt Eng: I make sure there’s an understanding of the requirements and problems, and try to push the conversation to an objective standpoint.
I set them up to pitch and ask them to share what they are doing and what they are trying to solve. This way, it refers to the problem rather than whether they are talented or good enough.
Bhavika Shah: I start with what they’re doing well, the critique sandwich of good-bad-good. I sit down with them and make sure they know where my expectations lie and how they should proceed.
If something hasn’t risen to my expectations, I’ll start by asking questions about the design, where it came from, and how they decided on this particular direction. I’ll ask if they explored alternatives and if I can see those. If they didn’t, I’d ask them to go back and work on more iterations.
If they went completely off track, I work out the flow with them. It’s a lot of one-on-one mentorships. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for the work they did. I want them to realize where they should and could be.
Greg Storey: I generally begin with what people are doing well. It’s too deflating for them if you start by immediately identifying all the things that are wrong. There’s a tipping point when any more negative feedback could shatter their confidence. If it’s really bad work, I ask them to stop and have a different kind of discussion. There are times where you may need just to say, “Stop, we need to reset.”
A sense of trust or connection needs to be established that enables you, the feedback provider, to indicate to the designer, “I trust that you can get this done but there need to be some changes.”
I quickly try to assess how many things need changing. If that number is high, I look for themes rather than nitpicking every little thing, pixel to pixel. Identify the big issues. Generally, I try not to get into “Here’s the 48 things I see wrong.”
I try to provide the type of feedback that enables the designer to see from my point of view. If I can get them to see what I see, then I know it’s going to get taken care of. That usually means they need to step away from the work and take a break.
I want to support the designer. I don’t want to dictate my changes because then the designer is turned into a robot. If that happens, I would consider myself a failure as a leader.
Q: How do you balance giving constructive criticism and pushing designers to come up with a good solution while maintaining a positive relationship?
Bhavika Shah: I try not to be a dictator. I tell them it’s coming from a place of objectivity, and I’m giving feedback about the work, not about them as a person. I make an effort to clarify that if I get too personal, they should let me know.
I have a relatively open relationship with my designers. I tell them from the beginning not to take their designs to heart because at some point, everything could change. It’s helpful to be aware of their emotions and the amount of work they’ve put into a design. If a meeting becomes tense, it’s about knowing how to diffuse the situation. I’ll make a joke or stop the discussion and tell them we’ll return to it later. I like to set up one-on-one sessions to talk to them more personally.
Greg Storey: Depending on the situation and your existing relationship, I never come in just yelling at somebody. I’ve been on those reviews.
Once you’ve established a competitive, contentious relationship, like it’s me, the feedback supplier, to you, the feedback receiver, or me versus you, then it’s over. At that point, you’re likely dictating details, and that’s not feedback.
Establishing some ground rules helps. Just as you would when creating a design, you have to timebox it. Take five minutes to say hello and check in. Establish some empathy both ways.
Feedback is about the work, not about the designer. As designers, we’re little sensitive snowflakes, so sensitivity is always an issue. It’s important to remind everyone, this isn’t about the designer’s skill set. It’s about the work in front of us.
Remind everyone what the objective is, what the problem is, what we’re trying to do with this work. Then all the feedback should be centered on is “Does the work accomplish the objective?”
Also, if someone doesn’t know how to talk about design, try to frame some particulars on what people can give feedback.
Q: Imagine you were on a tight deadline and the designer wasn’t getting to the solution you need. What do you do?
Matt Eng: If we’re in a crunch, I try to preface my feedback by telling them the constraints and giving them three things to focus on. I never say “you” or “what you did,” I say “we,” because I have to help this person.
Greg Storey: There are times when it’s design fatigue. If they’re not getting it, we need to get to the objective one way or another. As much as I can, I try to get the designer to understand what they need to do to improve. Sometimes I’ll ask if I can riff with them, not just like “Move!” I sit at their desk but in a way that implies, “Why don’t you give me some time to play with a few things so you can see what I’m thinking.”
I use that word riff because I’ve had designers take my direct involvement to mean I don’t think they can actually do it. It’s more a way of working together. If it’s still not working, we find another way to do it. Sometimes that means staying up all night and just getting the job done.
Q: What do you do when someone wants to argue and not receive feedback?
Matt Eng: It happened more when I was newer to design. For the longest time, I kept asking myself, “Why are they arguing?” Now I think it’s something, not in their words but deeper, about why they need to say certain things. It’s usually imposter syndrome or their insecurities—so that’s the real problem.
It’s unsustainable for a team to constantly have interactions where they don’t want to receive feedback.
I try to put it objectively and say, “This is what we need to solve, show me how you solved it.” And then I try to put it in another sense, “You’ve solved it; can we make it more effective?” I avoid subjective words like “better.”
If that doesn’t work, schedule some one-on-one time with the person in question and figure out what’s going on in the relationship.
Bhavika Shah: I ask what their reasoning is and why they feel so strongly about it. You never know what’s going on in someone’s head. The problem could be personal or emotional. If it’s personal, I stop the session and hash it out individually in a non-critique session.
If we get caught up in something that we can’t agree on, it helps us take a step back and think about the importance of the decision. If it’s important, then we figure out a plan to either get another opinion or do more user testing. It’s crucial to stop an argument before it gets personal.
Greg Storey: I’d point back to what we’re trying to do today. There’s the project’s overall objective, but then there’s also what you’re trying to get done in the review.
If someone’s argumentative, I ask them how their argument fits within the objective for the day. If there’s still miscommunication, I’ll stop the meeting and talk one-on-one with them to find out what the hell is going on. Anger can get misdirected. Frustration gets misdirected.
I’ve been in situations where people don’t know or feel uncomfortable providing their perspective on design work because they are not designers. That is very uncomfortable; they don’t feel like they have the words, the vocabulary, or the background. Sometimes frustration comes from not being able to have that dialogue and actively participating in a discussion at a level where they feel comfortable or smart.
Q: How do you help someone without a design background feel comfortable talking about design?
Greg Storey: For starters, I establish some sort of relationship with them, more than just the five-minute relationship. There should be something that everyone in the room can feel comfortable talking about.
Instead of just talking about designs, get people to stand up and write on the whiteboard or provide feedback with remote collaboration tools. Give them different means to provide feedback.
I had a client who learned English as a second language in high school and was extremely intelligent. He could talk at length about any of his million products or cars or appliances, but he froze when giving design feedback because he didn’t speak design language.
After a series of failed meetings, we finally figured out that he didn’t feel comfortable. We printed out all the work; we talked about our intentions and called attention to details. We told him “Here are things in our work that we’re not confident about.” Doing this exposed some of our own vulnerabilities so that he didn’t feel that he was the only one feeling uneasy at times.
Q: Any other thoughts on giving or receiving feedback?
Greg Storey: Receiving feedback is always tricky. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and even now, it’s hard. No matter how long you’ve been in the business, people like to respond to visual things. Even if you’ve got decades of experience, you can’t take it personally. The feedback is about the work, not about your ability to do the job. Take it for what it is. It’s people responding to your work, not people responding to you as a human or as a designer. Sometimes that’s hard to differentiate.
Design feedback sessions are an indispensable exercise that, if used effectively, can help teams improve their products. However, conducting productive design critiques can be challenging—not everyone may understand the finer points of the design process or adhere to feedback protocols.
Without adequate planning, the design review may wander hopelessly off topic, frustrating participants and creating a sense that it’s not moving the design process forward.
On the other hand, well-constructed design critiques encourage team collaboration and provide a positive environment for improving design ideas. During these sessions, the feedback helps designers consider different ideas, often leading to more effective, innovative choices in their design process.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
Why is feedback important in design?
The facilitation of quality design feedback is essential for collaborative, iterative design. The process streamlines product design and elevates its quality in multiple ways. Design critiques ask designers to consider various perspectives, look at edge cases, and reflect on a diverse range of design solutions.
What is the role of feedback in the design process?
The role of design feedback is to provide thoughtful critiques that will help designers consider different ideas, consider a variety of perspectives, and, as a result, arrive at optimal design solutions. Without design critiques, designers risk working in silos—detrimental to achieving excellent product quality.
How do you give feedback in design?
It helps to be aware that good designers have a reason behind every design decision. Giving quality design feedback can be intimidating at first but posing thoughts as questions allow designers to express their rationale instead of getting defensive.
How do you comment on a design?
When giving design feedback, it’s best to be specific and direct. Being vague or overly sensitive doesn’t help. Discuss concerns around the design, ask questions, and offer suggestions. For example, how does the design meet customer goals? Trust the designer to explore different solutions.
Located in Singapore, Singapore
Member since December 14, 2016
About the author
With experience working in UI/UX for IBM and various design studios, John is an expert at solving problems for enterprise and consumer apps.