Ask a Designer #17: How do I communicate design decisions?
Designer, speaker, and writer Charli Marie is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in design. This week, Charli helps someone to walk the fine line between being open to change, standing up for your decisions, and not taking things personally.
How do I improve my communication skills? I feel like I need to defend my designs to my clients and even teammates sometimes. When I get feedback I often agree with people and then afterwards I wish I'd been more honest and explained the reasons behind my choices.
Hi Undefensive Designer,
I’m glad you asked about this. Communication and feedback are vital parts of the design process because our work always involves other people; whether they’re stakeholders, clients, or other designers on the team.
Feeling like you wish you handled something differently after a feedback session is completely natural, as is wanting to defend your work. Though in my experience, the latter usually means one of two things:
The critique you’re getting is feeling a little too personal, like your skills as a designer are being called into question rather than the project itself.
Or you’re entering critiques looking for approval rather than feedback.
Getting past this often takes a shift of mindset, so let’s talk more about that first and then I’ll share some advice for communicating with your team and clients about your projects.
The right mindset for a feedback session
It’s easy to say that as designers we shouldn’t take critique personally, but you and I know that when we love our work and take great pride in what we do; it can be hard not to. Whenever feedback sessions feel a little painful to you, the important thing is to always realize that it might be our pride talking, accept this, and move on. It’ll get easier with time, I promise. (And if you ever feel like critique from your team sways into being commentary or insults on your design skills rather than the work itself, please speak to your manager about it. That’s not professional or productive, and it needs to be stopped.)
The purpose of a feedback session is to see how someone else responds to the thing you’ve designed. It’s a time to uncover blind spots, ask questions and get help in reaching the best design solution to the problem.
Getting a stamp of approval should not be the goal of a critique with your team. If you do get sign-off — that’s great! But if you go in expecting that — especially if it’s the first time you’re sharing a project — you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s rare to have everything right on the first try (or even the second or third!) so coming out of a session with a to-do list of things to change is expected.
Feedback sessions are a great chance to learn from the expertise of your design team, or from the added context your client has about the project (though we will get into how you can do a little more ‘selling’ to your clients…). So, as much as you can, try to enter a session with a mindset of being genuinely curious to know if what you’ve created will fulfill the brief.
Now let’s dive into a process you could follow to get the most out of a critique from both your team and clients.
Running a critique session with your team
First, present the problem
It’s likely that no one else on your team has as much context on a project as you, and context is vital for getting valuable feedback on your designs from your team. So, before you dive into the visuals, share a little about the problem you’re trying to solve with the design.
In big complex UX projects you can use slides for this, but even a simple sentence explaining what you were tasked with, who will use it and where it will be seen can put your team in the right mindset to give feedback.
Then, present the designs
Only share your screen once you’ve given that context upfront, and as you share the designs or walk your team through the flow try to avoid explaining the design decisions you made. Simply take your team through what they’re seeing and add more context around the content where needed (especially if you’ve used placeholders).
Listen carefully to feedback
If your team is a quiet bunch, you could tee them up with some questions to get things flowing. Think about any specific parts of the design you struggled with or that you’d like their input on and ask them about it to direct the conversation once you’ve finished sharing the designs.
Once things flow though, take notes of what they’re saying (even if it’s something you already considered and disregarded) and if anything comes up that surprises or confuses you, ask clarifying questions to get to the bottom of where those thoughts are coming from. Think of this phase as you trying to see things from their perspective and understand why they’re giving this feedback. You don’t have to decide in the moment if you agree with them or not, you’re simply gathering the information so you can reflect on it later and decide what to act on.
Only after you’ve given the team time to share their thoughts should you think about explaining your decisions.
Take them through your thinking behind any points of contention that came up in the feedback or anything you know straight away that you disagreed with or had a different vision for. Your goal here is not to convince them that you’re right, but to get input on your line of thinking. Maybe there’s something you’re missing? Or maybe there’s context your team is missing? Or perhaps this is just something you simply disagree on, and that’s okay.
Your team is your support system, and they want to help you reach the right solution. While you may have different ideas of how to get there; you all have the same goal. Of course, you also share a goal with your clients, but the path to getting there through a feedback session looks a little different.
Getting valuable feedback from your clients
Recap the problem you’re solving for them
With your clients, you should still start by recapping what the problem is as you’ve defined it. Not only does this remind the client what they asked you for but when you repeat their needs back to them, they’ll feel heard.
Present (and sell!) your design
Unlike when you’re presenting internally to a team, when you’re sharing a design with a client your goal is to demonstrate why the work you’ve done meets their needs. So when you’re walking them through what they’re seeing, you can do some selling to explain why certain design decisions you made are in service of their goals.
This is selling — not defending — your designs because, first of all, you’re doing it up front before you even get feedback, and because your focus is on showing your client how the design solves their problem; not on explaining why you are right.
Respond with lots of questions
Designers are well-versed in giving clear feedback on visuals, but clients may not be. So your goal in responding to their feedback is to uncover what the real issue is that they see.
If they throw out the classic “Can you make the logo bigger?” for example, they might be feeling like their brand gets buried in the other information on the page, or that the design doesn’t feel unique enough to represent their company without the logo. Now those are problems you can design solutions for (or spend a little more time explaining to your client why the current design actually does solve it).
Everything your client says will be valid feedback that stems from an underlying concern they have. So the more questions you ask to understand what they mean, the better you’ll be able to address those concerns.
Acting on feedback (or not)
The feedback-session-regret that you described (of wishing you hadn’t agreed with the others on the spot) is something I know all-too-well and it sounds like you’re a solo processor like I am. I know that I need quiet time with my own thoughts to digest information and decide where I stand on it. And that’s totally okay.
As much as possible I try to avoid making decisions about what I’ll change while I’m in a critique session with either my team or a client. They’re information-gathering sessions, not decision-making sessions. As we wrap up I’ll make sure we’re aligned on the main areas that they’re unsure about. Afterwards, I’ll read through my notes and reflect on them to decide what I agree with and what I don’t (though honestly, I’ll try most things that my team suggests just to see!).
Not every piece of feedback needs a design change to be made. If you reflect and decide that what you have really is the best solution, your challenge is then to try a different approach to explaining why. And if you’re having regrets about agreeing with a piece of feedback during a critique; you’re allowed to change your mind and come to your team with an “Actually, on further reflection, I think…”.
My hope for you is that you can go into critique sessions with an open mind and that following this process will give you the space you need to reflect on feedback and feel more sure of your decisions. Ask lots of questions and embrace the feedback; it’s how we grow as designers after all!
New Zealand born Charli is a designer, speaker, and writer based in Valencia, Spain. She's passionate about side projects and helps creatives improve their craft and process. By day Charli works as the Creative Director at ConvertKit, and on the side she creates weekly content on her YouTube channel, sharing insights into life as a professional designer alongside tutorials and advice on design tools and concepts.