Giving and Getting Feedback
Show Notes – Episode #48
Do you establish rules or guidelines for feedback up front with a client? Do you specify who will be giving and receiving feedback on either side?
- Sandy: The decision-maker should ideally be giving feedback. However, when I’m working conferences, I may have a key contact, but numerous presenters with whom I’m working who are also my contacts for their individual presentations. That key contact serves the role of enforcing continuity between presentations (I’m talking about making sure that presentations don’t contradict or repeat information). On the other hand, I’ve also been in the role of being that single point of contact, with the responsibility I just described.
- Troy: Single point of contact for in-studio design projects. For showsite conference projects, like Sandy said – the rules may be different. Our contract clearly lists the project timeline is dependent on client feedback turnaround timing, if greater than 48 hours, project timeline may be impacted.
- Nolan: I always put the single point of contact in my contract. Specified rounds of revisions in a contract help with getting feedback all at once and not in drips and drabs. This week, I had to repeatedly admonish a client’s team member not to send me notes directly.
Is there anything you do at the beginning of the project to set the stage for good feedback down the road?
- Troy: Establish the end use of file (i.e., art may be used in PPT AND print) and all technical specifications. Then. know the goal of the project: template for 1-1 sales meeting presentations or template for 1X large meeting.
- Nolan: Focus conversation and contracts on how the design will be informed (i.e., complement the brand style guide, use a project brief with answered questions that you can then test the design against later). I’m more careful about this when doing a brand identity and certain specific projects so when you present them with a soft blue color palette and they hate it, you can go back to the brief or questionnaire and say, “But you indicated you wanted something calming and evoking the Mediterranean…”
- Sandy: Well, a good solid timeline helps set the stages. Not only do we indicate due dates, we set up meetings in advance to support those due dates (e.g., deliver first draft of the template is supported with an associated meeting). We will reiterate meeting objectives (client and our responsibilities) in the invitation.
Something I hear from clients a lot in giving feedback is, “I don’t know anything about design, but…” Is it important for a client to know about design?
- Nolan: It’s never going to hurt for a client to know something about design or, at the very least, to have some shared vocabulary with a designer (and by the way, if you work with designers regularly as part of your job, it is incumbent on you to know some of this), but you absolutely don’t need to be a designer. You do need to be able to talk in terms of your business goals. You should be able to talk in terms of what you want to accomplish with this particular piece of design – sell more products to audience X, explain new marketing strategy to employees, etc.
- Sandy: How about, “I know you’re the expert, but…” I don’t hesitate to remind them that I am the expert. I recently wrote a response to an email with a list of edits. These edits were from someone who was compelled to decorate his slides for the corporate meeting. In my feedback, I reminded him that I was following graphic standards established by his marketing communications group and that he should not edit the design on any of the slides. I reinforced that I was looking for his feedback on content only. OF COURSE, I had the complete support of the marcomm department going into this, so I knew what I was saying was appropriate. I couldn’t do that with every client.
- Troy: Everyone has an opinion. Design is about creating art that appeals, is professional and works for the human eye. I take in all client input and then craft “client-education” on how we are not going to use that suggestion, but modify it to (this…). I feel designers today do a lot more design and technical education than we did 15 years ago.
Should a client challenge a designer on their work?
- Sandy: Absolutely! I love being stretched creatively. But more in line with what we’re discussing, this also gives me the opportunity to reiterate the rationale for a design decision, e.g., “let’s use a more interesting font,” or “I like orange better” would be answered with “I’m adhering to corporate design standards. Algerian and orange are not in your guidelines.”
- Troy: Yes, it is often through the challenging statements that we learn information we were not given up front – such as they do not like the selected font because they feel it will not look good when embroidered on the team shirts – embroidered team shirts which are no where in the project notes!
- Nolan: You do have to be careful when you get into technical issues. It’s the job of a designer to explain technical issues to a client, if necessary, but as a client I would be very careful in arguing over technical issues. If you genuinely know your designer to be wrong technically, you probably should not be hiring them. I had a client years ago who sent all images as 72dpi and when I asked for higher res versions, he insisted that PowerPoint didn’t need anything better than that even though images were clearly pixelated on the screen, he refused to budge and so we gave him a deck with pixelated imagery.
Does there have to be a justification for every bit of feedback?
- Nolan: I always make a point to tell clients to tell me anything I need to know even if there isn’t a reason for it. For example, I tell them to let me know if the boss hates yellow even if it’s just because it was his ex-wife’s favorite color. That’s okay to me – better we get that out in the open in the beginning rather than at the end.
- Sandy: But in a way, that still is a reason with a justification. If in the design phase, you hear, “I just don’t like yellow,” that’s not very helpful in choosing another color. You would prefer to hear, “It’s feeling too vibrant and fun, when it should be more conservative and professional…” or better yet, “Here’s an example of what I do like.”
- Troy: I have made client communication one of our company differentiators. It is how we have operated forever, but it evolved into a marketing thing for TLC Creative. I do not send a PDF with 3 potential template concepts. We send a PDF with 3 potential template concepts and an overview description of each concept, what they visually convey, special notes about the layout – colors – etc.
- There are a some projects where this level of communication is the only way anything would be approved. For example, we were asked to develop an event template for a very large medical device corporation (Medtronic). They have an amazing brand style guide, we had multiple designers go through the corporate 2 hour brand guideline training. For our template concepts, literally every design decision was annotated to ensure and show it was within brand standards. The first proof was 3 template layout concepts, delivered in a 15 page detail of template styling.
- And yes, we received feedback even with that level of design communication. We were also the only company that has ever received a personal thank you from the head of brand standards for detailed and wonderful work that made their job so much easier.
What are some helpful words to hear in feedback and what are some unhelpful ones?
- Sandy: Unhelpful feedback: “I don’t like (or I like),” “Make it more readable,” “Make it pop,” ” Make it pretty,” “It needs to convey technical.” Helpful feedback relates specifically to our objectives.
- Troy: “I prefer…” is amazingly helpful. For projects, at the initial design stages, we provide multiple options for elements or entire slides to empower the client to be a decision maker and approve things. We are giving options that we know work, and the client is feeling in control because they are saying yes and no, to options. “I prefer” statements are educating us, and often the client, about their likes and dislikes.
- Nolan: Be careful with the word “like.” It’s sometimes nice to hear non-conventional analogies. The novelist Jay McInerney, who wrote Bright Lights Big City, also writes on wine and is famous for describing wines with terms like “an early Rolling Stones album.” Sometimes getting out of the standard phraseology is fun.
We’ve talked mostly about clients giving feedback, but what about a designer receiving content? What should a designer know and how should they act?
- Nolan: I would say first that it is partly the job of the designer to teach and guide a client in how to give proper feedback. If a client says, “make it jazzier,” it’s your job to help them give you better feedback. We all love sharing “Clients from Hell” memes and sharing stories of crazy feedback, but in many cases, the clients are not to blame. They’re hiring you in many cases because all they are capable of saying is, “I want it to be cool.” It’s your job to help them understand what kind of design is best for them.
- Cole Knafflic who runs Storytelling with Data has a new podcast and her first episode was all on feedback. She first related a #1 on a list of things that differentiate a good designer from a great designer being that a great designer takes a critique simply as that and not a personal attack. But then she also had a really good discussion on being sensitive to the creators when critiquing data visualizations without fully understanding the context and constraints. In any design, but especially in data viz, you are making a compromise by not showing a certain data point or not having that data point and that’s not always understood by audiences. So, this is for both sides in presentation design: don’t get defensive as a designer and try to be kind and understanding as the client.
- Sandy: It’s all in that upfront interview process. Also, part of our job is to ask, and ask, and ask, and repeat it back to the client to make sure we are in agreement. “So when you say I don’t like it, tell me what you don’t like about it.” Then, dig deeper. Instead of laddering up, you’re laddering down.
- Troy: It is not you being criticized, don’t take negative feedback too personally. I have a saying, “People know what they don’t like when they see it, but cannot explain what they do like.”
- Remember, we are getting paid whether we like the design or not. You get to choose what is in your portfolio, and the project you were criticized on is probably going to go in a design direction that you feel is not the most professional – so don’t include that one in the portfolio – but invoice it all.
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