No more woolly words: How to provide effective, objective feedback on design

No more woolly words: How to provide effective, objective feedback on design
Written by Sam Castledine, Studio Assistant
Posted on Monday, 29 January, 2024

Let’s deal with the harsh reality of feedback on design from the off:

No matter how hard you try, you’re going to be making a subjective judgement about what you see. It’s impossible not to be influenced by how design makes you feel. And actually, that’s a good thing. If design doesn’t make you feel something, then you should probably check your pulse. 

Whether those feelings and emotions are positive or negative is a different matter. And herein lies the challenge. Detaching your emotions from a decision about a new logo or a website wireframe can be incredibly hard. Our inner chimp fights tooth and nail to influence our decisions and actions. 

The good news is, that there are ways you can try to take a more objective stance on what you are seeing by thinking about how it will work for you and your business

The last part of that sentence bears repeating, because it’s easy to get lost in the journey of making something about why it’s being created in the first place. Being clear about what the design is trying to do needs to be kept front and centre when evaluating what you’re seeing.

You should be led on the journey, not expected to wander on your own

As the late, great Roy Castle didn’t once say: collaboration; that’s what you need. 

Design is a collaborative process and the feedback element of it is especially important. A design approach should be explained to you to help you understand the decisions that a professional designer has made for you, founded on years of experience.

It’s no great surprise that when you’re left on your own to understand a design, the chimp brain will take over and your response is likely to be subjective. At best, you’ll get frustrated and at worst you’ll end up trying to design something yourself.

We often take the approach of either taking you through a design in person or via a video walkthrough. You shouldn’t be expected to interpret what’s been provided to you without some context at least.

It doesn’t matter what you (the client) and I (the designer) think about it

When you appoint a professional to design something for you, it’s typically being designed to represent you but ultimately it’s for your customers or clients. You have to feel comfortable that what’s been designed for you presents you and your company in a way that you can be proud of. But what ultimately matters is what your customers think about your brand (and by brand, we mean much more than just how you’re visually represented).

Is your customer really going to change their minds about buying from you if you choose Futura PT font over Didact Gothic? Probably not. 

Is increasing the size of your logo on your letterhead going to make more people pick up the phone and call you? Unlikely. 

Is the amount of whitespace on your website going to make people call up Google and demand your site be removed from their index? Of course not. 

I’m labouring the point here but the fact remains that when it comes to design decisions, we need to keep the intended audience in mind at all times rather than just how we feel about it.

On a similar note, as Tim explains in his blog post, it’s vitally important that you bring your toothache rather than the drill - AKA - share your problems rather than your solutions; that’s what you’re paying a professional for.

Only five people need to test your design

Design by committee? No need. In the case of testing something like a website design or experience, it can be a straightforward, low-effort task to obtain the majority of useful feedback from just a quintet of folks. 

Why five? Studies show that you’re going to start observing the same issues and not learn much more that’s new when more than five people are involved.

Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that you should only test once, with just five people, and leave it at that. It’s important to continue testing other iterations of the design until everyone’s happy with the end product. As you make changes there’s a chance that by fixing one issue, you inadvertently create another; think of this as a game of design whack-a-mole if you will. 

Similarly, when people outside of your inner circle become exposed to graphic design, they aren’t necessarily going to understand the context involved in the decisions you have made.

A shared understanding of language 

A decent designer should be able to elicit, through effective questioning, what you truly want from this work. This starts with doing away with woolly words and agreeing on ones which are clear for all to interpret and understand. Woolly words, you wonder? 

Read the following pair of bullet-pointed lists and ask yourself which are easier to interpret:

  • Modern
  • Energetic
  • Clean
  • Slick
  • Jazzy
  • Fresh
  • 🤷🏻‍♂️
  • Thick, bold text
  • Pastel shades of colour
  • Fonts that look like handwriting
  • Plenty of spacing between sections
  • Hand-drawn Illustrations instead of photos
  • Shapes with curves rather than sharp corners

Note that single words aren’t particularly helpful in this content either. In fact: more is less, here. Again though - commenting on just the look of the overall design or individual elements isn’t as useful or as powerful as commenting on how those elements serve the intended purpose of the design itself.. That’s next-level, transformative design feedback that demonstrates you’re fully focused on what the design is trying to achieve, rather than just how things appear. More on this from Tim in a future article.

In conclusion, providing effective and objective feedback on design requires acknowledging the inherent subjectivity in visual judgments. Emotions are inevitable so the challenge lies in detaching personal feelings when evaluating design choices. 

Effective design involves a balance between subjective input and objective considerations, with the client, designer, and audience all playing integral roles in the process. And if we can leave woolly words at the door, we’ll all benefit!

Finally, I’ll leave you with a parting gift from Paul Boag, a User Experience consultant: “If you try to design for everybody, you will simply end up designing for nobody.” If you keep your intended audience in mind with your design feedback, you’re not going to go far wrong once you reach the end of the process.

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