Throughout my career in the creative field I have learned that critiquing creative work is a skill, and can be challenging for clients and internal teams alike.
One of the interesting things about creative work is that you don’t have to be an expert to have an opinion. In a lot of cases visual design is very subjective. People can have vastly different reactions to pieces of art, and judging an artwork’s worthiness is often a controversial subject.
When it comes to web design, a layperson’s opinion is just as valid (if not more valid) as an expert’s, since this perspective will represent the majority of users. This is especially true when it comes to a client’s opinion, due to their relationship to their brand and their users.
Reviewing mockups can be a challenge as clients often don't feel confident, comfortable or able to communicate their opinions effectively. It can sometimes be difficult to put your finger on exactly what you like or dislike about a design mockup.
On the flip side, as a designer it can be frustrating to receive vague feedback like “This is missing a little je ne sais quoi” because that is almost impossible to action.
There are a few things you should consider when critiquing creative work:
Although not everyone needs or should be an expert on design, it can be helpful to have an understanding of the basics before you critique.
Proximity: Groups logical elements together and creates relationships to guide the user.
Alignment: Creates order and organization. Web design often uses a grid, particularly important in responsive design.
Repetition: Creates a consistent look and feel across a site and establishes a taxonomy a user can follow.
Contrast: Used for emphasis and visual interest. This is a key principle used to demonstrate hierarchy.
Space (or white-space): Refers to the clear area around, between or within objects.
Most of us recognize these principles when we look at a design but knowing the correct terminology will allow you to better communicate your feedback.
When reviewing a design don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you are confused or unsure about some aspect of the design ask about it. When creating a mockup designers consider user research, accessibility standards, brand guidelines, technical limitations and a slew of other things so they will likely have an answer. Giving the designer an opportunity to explain their design decisions will inform your future feedback and help you understand their approach. At the very least asking questions opens the dialogue and this is a great way to ensure everyone ends up happy with the final product.
When possible, use specific examples and language to communicate your feedback.
Instead of: “I don’t like the colours.”
Try: “The background colour on the homepage banner is too grey.”
Or even better: “The background colour on the homepage banner is too grey. I don’t feel it represents the vibrant personality of our business.”
Being specific will allow the designer to take action. If you back up your feedback the designer can understand the real problem and come up with a creative solution. In this case, instead of changing the background colour to black, the designer will recognize that the problem is not that the banner is grey but that a bright blue would make more sense. This small piece of feedback can translate into a more vibrant approach to the overall colour scheme of the site.
Take Time to Reflect
Although first impressions do have value it is important to spend some time with the mockups before passing judgement. At Industrial we prefer that our clients take at least a few days before providing feedback or signing off on designs. This is helpful in a number of ways.
Firstly, there is typically an older version of the site that we are redesigning. People will often have a picture in their head of what they are expecting and if the mockups don’t match this it may take some time to absorb the new design.
Secondly, it is best not to sign off on a design too quickly. Take some time to review the designs based on your familiarity with your brand and more importantly based on the hierarchy of your content. What may seem like small changes can affect a page layout significantly and it's always best to address these before you get into development.
Lastly, taking some time will help you understand your initial reaction and enable you to provide constructive, actionable feedback.
Think About the Purpose
When looking at a web design mockup it is always important to consider the goal of the page. Although navigation, calls to action and other interface elements are frequently overlooked in design critiques these are usually the most important elements on the page. Is the navigation obvious? Are the actions clearly presented? It’s easy to get caught up in the graphics and images but if the navigation or calls to action aren’t right you won’t achieve your goals.
Feedback Can Be Positive
Although harsh or vague feedback can be difficult for a designer, when presenting work it can be equally frustrating to receive little or no feedback.
Positive feedback is valuable in demonstrating to the designer that you have invested some time in reviewing the work. This means they can be confident in implementing their design approach across your site. Specific comments about elements you like will guide the designer and inspire future decisions.
Instead of: "That looks nice."
Try: "I like the way the banner looks on this page."
Or even better: "I like the way the banner uses the same colours as our new campaign."
In the end, a successful design critique is all about good communication. Knowing the basics of design is an asset, but being clear, constructive and open with your feedback is more important. Both the designer and the design will benefit.