A design critique can be a minefield for anyone involved in a creative project. When they’re done well, they foster understanding and warm, collaborative —and most importantly, they improve the work. When done poorly, carelessly, or without clarity, they can tank morale or even convince creatives to jump ship.
Delivering a design critique is its own valuable skill—one worth honing. It’s about more than just “having a conversation” or delivering feedback, especially if you are a senior member of staff or ever hope to be.
Ideally, a design critique should move the work forward, motivate the creative team, and give them a cherished perspective. Most designers work in a vacuum and the good ones welcome an outside POV. Less welcome, is one that willfully derails a good idea. Ultimately, a critique should stretch the creative muscles and elevate the communication skills of everyone involved—with the end goal of delivering the best possible work the team is capable of. Here, we offer a few things to consider if you want to give feedback like a true creative leader.
Set Clear Expectations Long Before There’s Any Work to Critique
The most common, most lethal mistake any creative leader makes happens long before any work is delivered—it’s a failure to set a clear mission for the assignment. Set expectations early and often. As soon as you start on a project, provide clear, detailed, accurate directions to your creative team. Provide examples, discuss goals, and priorities. Highlight examples of work that you like and don’t and discuss what you envision for this project.
As the project kicks off, regular informal check-ins (not meddling micro management) will help steer the creative and keep it on track. By the time you have an initial critique, your team should have an idea of what you want. Actively conveying expectations from start to finish will influence the creative work which can make critiques smoother and more successful.
Lead with Empathy
Empathy reflects who you are and what you think of the other person. Yes, you can put yourself in their shoes mentally, but it’s better to demonstrate it verbally. But you can’t just say that you see their perspective; you have to actually try to see their point of view. By doing so, you create a fundamental human bond that will make the team feel supported and at ease. That bond is especially useful because it can motivate you to deliver better advice overall and reassure the other person that when conflicts do flare up, they aren’t coming from a place of malice.
Liking all of your colleagues isn’t always easy; but if you let compassion, respect, and good humor influence your tone and posture, your critiques will likely be different. You are also likely to cull the best work from creatives when you treat them in this way. People tend to remember when they are treated poorly for years, if not decades.
Frame Conversations with an Eye to the Future
Pay attention to how you critique people. Do you pinpoint everything little issue and dwell on it? Do you boldly ask them what they were thinking? Does your language always go back in time versus forward? Framing a critique in the past will likely lend your critique an accusatory air.
In every design critique, you will have to peek into the creative’s mind. You could start with incisive, pointed questions, or start with relaxed, open-ended commands and questions like “Take me through your thought process here…” or “How did your concepts evolve?” or “What kinds of concepts did you have initially and how did you arrive at this one?”
Once you do get into the nitty-gritty details of creative choices, you will discover what ideas were already considered, what you think is working, what isn’t, and what needs to be done next. The crux of your design critique should always move the work forward, rather than nailing a person to a cross. What’s important is to have an open conversation going back-and-forth manner, even if you are ultimately driving it.
Be Direct when Necessary
There’s an old managerial tactic when it comes to delivering criticism known as “the shit sandwich.” The idea is to warm up the other person with a compliment, then get to the actual issue you want to discuss, and then end it on a positive note.
This tactic might still achieve some success when delivering bad news, especially with new hires, but it’s not really ideal for a critique. Experienced creatives tend to recognize it as an outdated, old-school managerial manipulation. They’d rather you be more direct.
When you have to say something that’s negative or comment on something that’s flat out wrong, state it in plain, direct terms. You might need to preface that statement, so you don’t convey the wrong meaning and by all means, you should; however, directness combined with these other tips can promote a no-bullshit atmosphere.
Make Clear Distinctions Between What’s Wrong and What You Prefer
There are times when every creative director, CMO, or client likes things done their way. In the course of a design critique, you will likely express your utter preference for punchy headlines, sans-serif font, intense colors, or whatever. When you do, you will want to openly say that’s on you and not something wrong with the creative’s decision. It only shifts to the creative to follow once you’ve conveyed this information.
Find a Professional, Relaxed Tone-of-Voice and Persona
Everything you can do outside of what you say in a design critique can make it more successful. By its very nature, a critique requires you to examine someone’s work rigorously. The room you choose, your tone of voice, and even your persona as a leader all make a difference. You want to put the other person at ease enough so that they can discuss their ideas and creative decisions while still remembering what you say. Excessive stress or even a looming air of accusations can inhibit forward progress.
Above All, Thank the Person for Their Time and Work
We work, we get paid for our work, but we don’t all get thanked for it. Yes, there are plenty of gruff, pragmatic, money-minded people who could care less about gratitude; however, many other people do care. It’s a sign of what you personally think and how you like to treat people.
Being a leader—particularly one working in a creative field—takes courage. Hopefully, with these tips, you can feel more confident stepping into that role during moments of feedback, owning your opinion more, and producing incredible work that your team never thought possible.