As a designer, the things you choose NOT to include in your designs is also design — after all, our work is about all prioritization and reduction. Similarly, as a leader, the feedback you choose NOT to give is an extremely important part of your design feedback.
Lately, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to a different aspect of design that is not directly related to the craft: creating a safe collaborative environment where designers can perform at their best.
I have seen and heard many stories of talented designers who feel frustrated by external factors that, ultimately, prevent them from operating at 100% of their capacity. Those external factors can include many different things: managers who don’t give designers enough room to grow, colleagues that don’t give them credit for their ideas, an excessively competitive energy in the room, fear of receiving feedback in public, impostor syndrome, lack of clarity on what the next steps should be.
What do all these stories have in common?
Designers who have had their self-confidence undermined by an external agent.
If you’ve been in this industry for some time, you know designers who are not confident of their own skills will certainly produce suboptimal work.
The elephant in the room
Design review meetings are a crucial moment for any designer out there. It’s the moment of truth: they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position, presenting the output of their work, sharing their thought process, and being judged for both their hard skills (visuals and craft) and soft skills (presentation and thinking).
For those reasons, being a design director, creative director, stakeholder, or in any other leadership position where you are giving people feedback on their work, is a place that requires a lot of empathy towards the designer.
On one hand, designers have to feel comfortable enough to receive negative feedback, have harsh discussions about the work, and understand that in no way those discussions should be taken personally or become about the designer’s talent. Mature designers know not to take design feedback as insult.
On the other hand, your leadership position doesn’t give you the rights to be an a**hole whatsoever. You don’t need to be the person carrying an elephant to every room you join.
Here are a few basic principles I follow to give proper feedback to designers, without hurting the team morale and without undermining their creative confidence in the process.
#1 You don’t need to prove other people wrong to make a point
A common negotiation technique when you are trying to convince people about your own ideas, is to attack anything that looks different than the vision you have in mind.
Vilifying a design to be able to defeat it is childish and will only show your immaturity to the rest of the team. Even the concept that you have to ~defeat~ one idea first to be able to sell another is a sign you have created an excessively competitive environment for your team. Toxic environments make people want to leave.
You can achieve the exact same result by focusing on how great your preferred idea is, while not attacking any other idea/anyone else in the room. Sounds obvious, but not everyone has enough self-awareness and maturity to be able to do that.
#2 You don’t need to use your feedback to prove to other people how much you know
We have all seen that happen: someone suddenly uses their turn to give feedback in a design review meeting as an opportunity to make a lecture about something. The person will use their time to talk about their numerous years of experience in the industry, their advanced knowledge in accessibility, their vast expertise in designing for mobile, etc.
Leaders/directors who do that are usually on the insecure side of the spectrum, or are still trying to prove their worth to that group of people in the room. The problem is: shifting the spotlight to yourself instead of your feedback will make the team lose a few precious minutes that could have been used to discuss ways to make the design stronger. Also, by glorifying your strengths you might be making people feel insecure around you.
In the end of the day, every discussion in a design review should be about how to make the designs stronger. Not about your brilliant past.
#3 You need to be able to separate conceptual feedback from detailed design feedback
First meeting. The team is still presenting high-level concepts for the product. The design review is more about setting a framework for the product than discussing specific design executions.
Until someone throws that one comment.
“I don’t know… I would use an underline on the links, so it’s more clear that the user can click on them.”
“I don’t know… I think we should hide the phone status bar when the user is watching a video in full screen.”
“I don’t know… I’m not sure the color contrast here would pass triple A accessibility guidelines.”
Did you really think the first week of the project was the right moment to give that type of feedback?
After years working in this industry, directors and leaders should know the difference between conceptual design reviews, and detailed design reviews. The former is about exploring ideas, encouraging possibilities, and expanding the thinking as much as possible. The latter is about refining, making decisions, fixing usability issues and getting the design as tight as possible.
When you give your team tactical design feedback at the conceptual phase, you are not only showing a foundational lack of understanding of the design process, but you are also undermining your team’s confidence in the work they are presenting. Great leaders know to push their team forward as opposed to holding them back.
#4 You can achieve the same results by focusing on what’s working, instead of what’s not working
This is pretty straightforward. Great leaders know how look at the positives, highlight the things that are working well, celebrate the designer’s achievements, and shine a light on the things they would like to see more of — as opposed to calling out every single issue that is not helping the design.
There are exceptions, of course. The second/third time the designer tries a certain idea and it is clearly not working, then your feedback should be more specific.
#5 Negative feedback is contagious and affects the team morale
We’ve all seen those design review meetings where, after having received so much feedback on the work, designers feel completely lost at the end. You can almost see the dark cloud sitting in the room after design reviews that get out of control.
The first negative comment opens up space for subsequent negative feedback — but the problem is that it is contagious. The last thing you want as a leader is an unmotivated team that is unable to push the work forward.
#6 Certain comments work better in private than in public
Not everything has to be said out loud during the design review meeting, in front of 12 other people. Some feedback is so tactical that makes more sense to be given through other channels.
Do the math: a typo, or a minor usability issue is so easy to be fixed that it’s not worth spending not even a minute to address — especially when you are talking about 1 minute of 12 people together.
Also, you don’t want the designer to feel embarrassed in front of a large group because of a simple typo or design inconsistency.
A quick follow-up Slack message, for example, saying “btw, I caught a few typos on the homepage you were showing earlier”, can be much more effective.
#7 Ultimately, it’s all about bringing out the best in other people
In the end of the day, we are all humans. We love the work we do, but we also want to make sure we like and respect the people we work with. We are spending several hours of our day with one another — sometimes more time than we’re spending with our family and friends. Building an environment where people feel comfortable, and a workspace people look forward to every morning will not only improve your team productivity, but the quality of the time you all spend together.
The feedback you choose not to give is as important as the one you do.
This article is part of Journey: lessons from the amazing journey of being a designer.
This article was originally published on Fabricio’s Medium page.