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How Designers Make the Most of Negative Feedback

October 23, 2018

Any designer, in-house or freelance, has received negative feedback at least once in their career. Maybe a client wasn’t specific enough about what they wanted in the first place or maybe the marketing department “just doesn’t like it.” Regardless of the reasoning behind this negative feedback, any designer in this situation has to find a way to address it head-on, move forward, and learn what not to do in the future.

Here at Proto.io, we discussed negative feedback with designers from all walks of life to understand how feedback can go wrong and what they do to get their projects back on schedule. In particular, we asked designers to answer the following questions:

  • What’s the worst feedback you’ve ever received?
  • How were you able to resolve the situation?
  • What did you learn from the experience?

We heard back from some designers and below we shed light on the responses that we felt were most helpful for designers who want to get better feedback and help their team or client improve alignment.

Good Design Doesn’t Just Rely on Intuition

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking teaches readers to trust their gut feeling, but also to realize when a hunch just won’t cut it. We were reminded of the cautions outlined in this book when we spoke with Erik Pitzer, a Graphic Designer at Illumine8. He explained that design hunches are something that he and his team try to avoid.

Pitzer told us: “It’s a running joke in the office that the worst design feedback any client can give is ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’

A woman pointing at a design idea on a computer screen.
Could this be the design idea you’ve been looking for? Waiting for “‘I’ll know it when I see it” won’t cut it.

Pitzer continued, “If that comment ever arises in a conversation, I confront it head-on by explaining that the expectation of ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ will almost certainly lead down a rabbit hole of revisions upon revisions that will be a waste of time and resources for both parties involved.”

Neither designers nor stakeholders in the design process want to be stuck in revision purgatory—where the design isn’t meeting project goals, and the revision process is more cumbersome than it needs to be. The solution Pitzer came up with is to fight indecision with comprehensive planning.

He explained, “To resolve that mindset, I come to the table with as many relevant examples as possible. Non-designers often need tangible visuals in front of them; conceptualizing a finished product through conversations or outlines can be a near-impossible task for certain people. Additionally, I encourage those same people to provide their own examples.”

Here Pitzer astutely notes that different stakeholders may have various interests, learning styles, and aesthetics that need to be addressed before design work begins. In fact, he continues: “Without some degree of explicit understanding and agreement, starting a design project after hearing ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ is destined for failure.” Alignment must come first if designers are expected to produce work that will meet a client’s needs.

To avoid back and forth revisions that are going nowhere, consider setting up specific questions that a client must answer to get critical feedback instead of vague feedback that will cloud the real issues with the first draft. Since all designers don’t happen to also be mind readers, being able to really dive into expectations from the beginning will also help keep negative feedback at bay.

A person filling out a report and someone with their hands folded on a table with a computer and glass of water.
When you set a plan from the beginning, it’s much easier to progress towards that goal.

All designers need pointed feedback, and our next designer explains what to do when vague feedback is stalling the project.

What to Do with Vague Feedback

Samantha Salvaggio is a designer based in San Francisco and the worst feedback she’s ever received was unhelpful, created a major roadblock, but ultimately taught her some important lessons.

She elaborated, “The worst feedback I ever received was as a young designer when a client told me feedback for initial logo options I had created. He told me that his team had discussed the options and that they 1. hated all of them and ‘laughed in their Slack channel about how bad they were,’ and 2. were ‘just curious what they would look like with more “zazz.”

All designers can think of a time when a client or stakeholder said they weren’t into the design they proposed, yet didn’t offer more information on what they would like to see instead. Moving beyond negative design feedback centers around setting the right design goals and keeping channels of communication open to discuss them as they change over time. But in this case, a shared vocabulary would also be useful. “Zazz” certainly isn’t a universal term and keeping feedback focused on the goals it aims to solve can help avoid such confusing statements.

Salvaggio wasn’t able to fix the situation with this particular client. She told us, “I had a meeting with the client to discuss the feedback, but unfortunately the situation never resolved. I wasn’t able to pull out any more feedback besides that they didn’t like them. When I made suggestions or offered examples, they said ‘just try something different.’ The client later went on to refuse my calls, emails, and even to pay my invoice!”

A woman holding her head in the hands, slouched over her laptop, notebooks, and glasses.
Negative feedback from clients can be beyond frustrating.

While this was a negative professional experience for Salvaggio, she was able to come away from the situation with some lessons. She explained, “It was a valuable learning experience as a young designer to 1. always require a down payment for clients, 2. to present my work with more context and reasoning, and 3. that it’s okay to fire bad clients.”

All three of these lessons are key for designers, both new and experienced. Your time and expertise are worth more than you might know. Clients need to pay accordingly and for those that don’t, letting them go will save you from more headaches. Also, if it becomes clear that communication is nearly impossible with a client, deciding not to work with them could be the best decision. There’s no need to continue with a client if red flags pop up at the very beginning of the project.

If you do decide to sign on with a client, providing clear reasoning for every design decision and linking it directly to the design goals that you have already agreed upon will make it harder for them to provide negative feedback. But how do we even get to the point of receiving this type of feedback?

Stopping Negative Feedback Before it Begins

To wrap up, we turn to a designer that explores where negative feedback comes from in the first place to help root it out before it becomes a problem. Ben Guttmann, partner, and creative director at Digital Natives Group takes a no-nonsense approach:

“Frankly, most ‘negative client feedback’ is usually a symptom of not properly educating the client, doing your homework, and collaboratively presenting the work. That being said, sometimes there are a few gems out there. My favorite being the client who asked me to make a certain orange color ‘more blue’ – something that if you look at a color wheel is actually impossible, as they are complementary colors.”

Many colors of the rainbow lined up.
There are many aspects of design that you understand much better than your clients do.

As a designer, your job is to fully understand the scope of the project and present solutions that perfectly match the outcome your client or team is seeking. When everyone is aligned on what must be accomplished, designers can bring creative solutions to the table. But there’s always the potential for design feedback that simply doesn’t make sense. In that case, explaining as respectfully as possible why that piece of feedback can’t be implemented is the best way to go.

The most effective way to address negative feedback is to keep it from happening in the first place. This requires clear goals from the beginning of the project, a full understanding of expectations, and consistent check-ins to determine how the project is progressing. Negative design feedback can be a thing of the past for those that take the right preliminary steps.

How do you keep negative feedback at bay? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

Proto.io lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of Proto.io today and get started on your next mobile app design.

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