When I was in design school I learned some simple, sage advice about design – it either works or it doesn’t. That was the easy part. When we were asked to look at one another’s designs and communicate whether we felt the design worked or didn’t work the task was intuitively simple. The real challenge became implementing our own visual language to communicate WHY the design did not work. This process can become very arbitrary based on opinion, vocabulary, design hierarchy and the designer’s personal intent.
Most often designers are creating solutions for paying clients and the aim is to solve for the client’s needs. When presented with a creative deliverable clients are not always trained with the same visual language used by a designer or technical person to communicate the issues they might feel just don’t work. This is especially true when the deliverable lacks background information from the creative team or is an initial rough draft, wireframe, campaign concept or presentation of a website prototype. Clients are used to seeing final products and sometimes forget the laborious, behind-the-scenes process. A skilled agency or account manager should equip their clients with tools for success by leading an inspired, constructive conversation that naturally discovers more.
“Do you think this design solution works or doesn’t work?”
Even this simple statement is a good place to start when soliciting feedback because it moves the conversation in the right direction. The team slowly learns if their solution met the client’s expectations in a very general pass / fail overall read. If the client is still unresponsive or giving little feedback there’s a number of techniques an account manager or designer can walk through to open up the conversation. For instance, a best practice might be to start with, “in the discovery meeting we heard you say that you wanted to convey trust, empathy and personal connection with your brand – we visually represented these qualities in the concept with these design elements.” This helps the client understand the rationale behind design choices and also feel heard.
This process of clear communication around design in the create + refine stage avoids costly rounds of iterations later. Designers and account managers with strong communication skills seamlessly activate discussions that close the gap between feedback like, “Can you make it pop more?” to design instructions that communicate concrete action such as, “the client would like to see some options with more emotional, impactful imagery that conveys success and make the type a bolder heavier font with a few copy changes using more active language. Based on Case Study X, the client shared how customers actually ignored this feature on the old website so can you prioritize the placement in a more highly visible area? This might compete with the element X and the client was comfortable de-prioritizing this element.” Curiosity and a willingness to press beyond awkward silences to learn breakthrough customer insights saves time, frustration and money for everyone.
Many projects go awry in this sweet spot of communication for a few reasons but the main reason for conflict is usually that the designer has an idea of what “make it pop” means but needs concrete, experienced, aesthetic direction on what, “make it pop” actually means to the client. The viral dress color challenge easily proves how many people have valid visual disagreements. If an account manager does not create these candid discussions with the client the results usually end with a team of designers receiving generic feedback such as, “make it pop.” Now the onus drops completely on the designers who will become frustrated by the multitude of solutions they could deliver in one night knowing their best solution might not resonate with the client’s unspoken preferences. They’ll waste time on rounds of useless iterations and the client will grow frustrated with escalating time on the job or worse decide the designers aren’t talented enough to execute the vision. When this happens a client might even go straight to the designers and begin micromanaging over the designer’s shoulder like an art director. This is typically a breakdown of communication and everyone involved has lost respect for the process.
Honoring the process means we’re honoring the strengths of each role in the delivery of a product.
When a client, account manager or designer ignore crucial discussion opportunities or lose control of the process completely chaos will ensue. Why not work together to give inspired feedback instead of allowing frustrations, budgets and miscommunications to increase?
Here’s a few ways clients can participate in the co-creation process so everyone high-fives as a team celebrating a well-done deliverable.
A Few Tips on How to Give Inspired Feedback to Creatives
STAY CURIOUS! Curiosity is the cornerstone of theCuriosity+Lab and applying a childlike approach and innocence to any presentation that involves creation shows a team compassion, respect, vulnerability and an opportunity to be heard. If you don’t know why something looks odd, simply say, “I don’t think it works, but I don’t know why.” A client’s curious approach to understanding creative work really sets a team at ease while also allowing them to shine when it’s time to describe their exploration of concepts. Expect to hear decisions made based on what the team heard from you in your discovery session. The team should be constantly building this knowledge bank of client preferences.
Ask for More Background on the Deliverable: Even if the presentation is in draft mode try to gather as much information about where the team would like you to focus your input or direct your feedback. Your goal is to give feedback that informs the next round to closely match your expectations. The team chose to have you review the project at this point for a reason – usually they don’t want to waste your time, their time or your budget on a market-ready concepts that don’t meet your goals or preferred brand tastes. If this is a draft 1 or a concept try to learn what the team needs from your feedback and be mindful about those areas where they focus your direction. Wireframes typically look like drafts but they communicate key usability features that most often begin from a well-known set of best practices, research and informed feedback. Clients initially see boring outlines that have no color or cool graphics and sometimes become concerned they hired the wrong team. This usually isn’t the case in round 1 or 2 concepts – the creatives are trying to check in with you before wasting time. Questions are always welcome – but be cognisant of your tone. Stay curious versus antagonizing. Assume the intent is always to solve your problems with a purposely chosen method. If you’re not sure, just ask!
Give Rationale for Your Feedback: Even if this rationale is personal to you or your business a creative team really respects and appreciates the ability to gather more information on you, your company and your customers. If you have experience, case studies or user stories share those with the team. If a team ignores heaps of market research or data you shared previously, don’t hesitate to ask why those materials were not considered. You could possibly identify problems before you go too far with a team who doesn’t align with your standards.
Expect to Receive Rationale or Assertive Pushback: Certain usability features, designs, copy choices and elements on the deliverable have an exceptional amount of known research applied to them for the best user experiences. Since the world of creativity can feel a bit playful and decisions made from one’s gut – don’t assume the deliverable or design did not go through hours of debated decisions, visual hierarchy conundrums and possibly many rounds of revisions you personally never saw or considered. The team most likely DID consider, test or research these solutions to be the best available for a set of circumstances defined in the discovery. But, you can and should always ask even the obvious questions! Mistakes often happen and simple features are easily forgotten which is why feedback and discourse are critical to bettering a product outcome.
Lead with Praise: Even if you hate the entire presentation or concept, praise the effort that was put forth towards your project. The first round is always extremely hard because there’s so many parts of a team dynamic, client relationship and company culture that weigh into marketing concepts and many unspoken expectations or new thoughts that were never revealed in previous discovery plans. That’s expected as the team tries to create+refine your style and preferences. The project pace should quicken with familiarity of your preferences after a few trials – and if not, perhaps have some candid conversations or try a new team / agency.
Give Honest Feedback on the First Draft: The more information you can convey to the team on this round the more money and issues you are resolving at later, more expensive phases of the project – especially with digital marketing technology. Be very thoughtful about what you tell the team and how they can use that information to move forward. If you don’t know the visual or technical language to describe your vision definitely draw upon a reference example that demonstrates the concept you’d like to see incorporated. All design builds upon previous iterations and popular branding – it doesn’t mean you’re expecting the team to copy this style exactly or are not an original thinker. Sharing a few visual examples or case studies you like helps your creative team select key elements that should be included in your concepts.
Trust Your Team and the Process: Have patience and give your team creative liberty to explore options in the first few rounds. Trust you hired experts for a reason and if they did not impress you in the first few rounds they’re most likely still gathering information. If they’ve shown a track record of proven results and success then allow yourself to follow their recommended process instead of enforce your own comfort zone. You don’t want to exit a project at 40% if there’s evidence it is heading in the right direction but still feels unpolished. If late delivery or unpredictable setbacks become the pattern then you might actually be working with an amatuer team. You shouldn’t always blindly trust your creative team. If you suspect you’re working with a group of individuals who do not have your best interest, can’t hit deadlines, always have excuses, or tend to ignore your feedback completely you should candidly address your concerns or consult for a second opinion on your project if there’s time.
This relationship should always just feel right. If you contribute to your half of the relationship giving thoughtful, concrete feedback on designs, marketing and creative deliverables you will begin to enjoy the harmony, chemistry and collaboration that organically unfolds between the client and the creatives. If you allow your creatives to lead you into a world that doesn’t quite feel comfortable you might find that you also have co-created a really beautiful brand experience online without feeling like you’ve been swindled or made a bad decision on creatives who “just don’t seem to get it.” Active listening and learning are catalysts to great work when both parties can share and communicate openly.
Learn more about how long a discovery session might take for large projects by reading one of our case studies on THE DISCOVERY PROCESS.