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Design Thinking – How To Give A Critique / Feedback

Hi guys,

I want to open a dialogue around giving and receiving feedback on design projects.

In my experience, receiving solid, constructive criticism has improved my process and outcomes tenfold. These days, I see a lot of “that’s amazing”, “that’s nice”, “I love this, I love that…”, which is great, but ego polishing generally isn’t that productive. It also works the other way, with more negative comments such as “I don’t really like that”, “I’m not too keen on this”… etc.

I used to actively participate in several different communities, notably Forrrst (which was taken over by Zurb and melted down into a puddle of strange smelling goo) and Hunie, which never quite got the traction it needed to become sustainable. Hunie was founded by Damien Madray, you can find some of his writings here:

Personally, I’m coming more to the realisation that the best design doesn’t come from a place of ego - and that ego can be (but isn’t always) destructive to the design process. Obviously we all have our own tastes, opinions and preferences. But design, at it’s core, is about making things work. Whether it’s a car, electric razor or a website.

When we can become humble, looking beyond our own ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong, we can discover true innovation.

Good design isn’t obvious, because it works that well, we don’t have to think about it.

Some simple guidelines / principles that I use when giving a critique:

Open your mind to possibilities, non-judgement

It’s very easy to become defensive when receiving feedback, as it is to be overly opinionated in giving feedback. It’s not about brushing egos. It’s about expanding understanding, educating and learning together.

Sometimes you get people giving “feedback”, when really they’re just trying to re-affirm or justify their own thinking or ego. They’re not that interested in helping. Thank them for it, move on and don’t take it personally. Or feed the fire… You choose.

The mind and it’s opinions are changing constantly and it’s easy to be influenced by the opinions of others to the point where our moods / emotions are affected. Developing your own sense of self and identity is key. Many times I have allowed someone else’s thoughts to put me off from something that I originally enjoyed - and I think a general theme I’ve noticed through design communities is that creative people are quite sensitive.

Use positivity to transform negativity

As humans, we have imperfections (well, apart from me), so it would go to say that the things we create also have imperfections. Sometimes it’s those imperfections that make the work great. But, there is always room for improvement, no matter how good you get.

Rather than focusing entirely on the negative, make positive suggestions as to how something can be improved. Offer ideas and solutions - which ultimately benefits you when it comes to solving your own problems.

For example, if you think a contact form is in the wrong place (i.e. at the top of a portfolio page), then explain where you would expect to see it, and why. Not just a “you should put it here”.

Get what you give

If you’re going to dish out quite a blunt piece of feedback, ask yourself - how would you feel about receiving that on something you’ve put a great deal of effort into? Be prepared to receive back whatever it is that you’re giving. Sometimes feedback needs to be blunt - but challenge yourself on how useful / practical it is, keep it objective.

Context, context, context

Possibly one of the most lacking, from what I’ve observed, and perhaps one of the more difficult to master, is setting or understanding the context. From both directions.

  1. The perspective of the individual giving the critique - what’s their role, how much experience do they have, are they an end-user of your product, or a designer of similar products? What kind of education have they had?

  2. What it is the purpose of what you (or they) have created? Who’s the target audience? Explain your thinking behind your decisions. Why have you chosen certain colours, placed things in a certain way, used certain imagery or icons?

Take everything into consideration, but again, keep the mind open and free of judgement. You never know what somebody might have to offer, the best ideas can come from the most unexpected places.

Consider cultural perspectives (tying in with context)

We all come from different places, with different backgrounds, upbringings and cultural norms. We understand things in unique ways from our individual perspectives. For example, a certain colour could be highly significant to an individual on a cultural level, and if you’re there telling them how “you don’t like it”, you’re not exactly stimulating growth and may even be causing offence.

Every perspective is valid and has something to offer - whether directly or indirectly.

I hope some of that helps and I would be interested to hear your thoughts.



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