Control Feedback, Establish Respect

by John Forrest, Jr.
In design school, many of us have negative initial reactions to critique. Eventually, we grow into the realization that constructive criticism is an important component to creating a successful solution. While going through this process we gain respect for our colleagues and learn to value their insights. As we move into the professional world we’re introduced to a number of new contributors in this process, like “The Client”—often perceived as our most frequent adversary to creativity. We must remind ourselves why we ask for feedback.

The obvious answer is to create a strong solution, but do not overlook the opportunity to establish mutual respect. By actively seeking a dialogue with your client you are making them an integral part of the team. And “integral” beats “adversary” every time. Here’s how:

Use Familiar Tools to Establish Boundaries
Most individuals are enamored with the final product. If you are working with a client, and have established clear milestones throughout the process, it is important to relate the discussion of the work shown to the goals for that milestone. Establishing an agenda introduces a familiar business protocol to the review of work. You can take this structure and outline a series of questions and topics that relate to previously established parameters in the creative brief. This will help maintain focus during the presentation of work, and give you the opportunity to pull the discussion back from any sudden brainstorming the client might generate if it’s not pertinent to the current stage of the project.

Ask Targeted and Purposeful Questions
Remember why we seek feedback. We are looking for answers to questions that will help us create a stronger solution. Open ended questions invite rambling discussion and myriad opportunities for personal preferences to be injected into the dialogue. Consider a discussion surrounding a color. Instead of asking how they feel about the color, present your client with a targeted question, such as “Does this color selection fit into your current brand strategy while reaching the specified audience?” This forces specific parameters on the client’s response. You are asking them to consider items that the collective team established as important at the outset of the project—and this allows you to move beyond personal preference. Even if you are revealing a nearly finished product it’s still a good idea to break down the conversation into manageable and logical divisions. In these divisions remember to establish questions that answer what you need to finish the project. That will help deflect potential wholesale revisions shortly before final production.

Seek an Appropriate Environment
Arrange for an environment that will be conducive to an easy flow of dialogue and capturing of ideas. Try to free the meeting from distraction and interruption. Don’t be afraid to close the door and create a let’s-get-down-to-work atmosphere. Crafting a collaborative environment will help create the feeling that you’re working together towards the end goal, instead of an Us vs. Them mentality.

Establish a Common Vocabulary
Engage the client with language that is appropriate to the discussion and avoid professional design jargon. If a situation requires it make sure to offer an explanation of technical or design-specific terms in a fashion that establishes your respect for their professionalism—and commands their respect for yours.

tables on two sides of a rectangular table are more divisive than those around a round table

Crafting a collaborative environment will help create the feeling that you’re working together towards the end goal, instead of an Us vs. Them mentality.

Quick Tips
1. Remember that everyone has something to gain from the experience

2. Define the purpose for each meeting, or review work with structures that are familiar to the client

3. Asking targeted questions that seek answers will help move the project forward

4. Seek a working space that is free of distraction and promotes a team mentality

5. Use common language and make sure to define what is technical or industry specific

Dig Deeper!
For more analysis of “The Critique” read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by James Elkins, and The Critique Handbook by Kendall Buster and Paula Crawford