Mastering the Design Approval Process

Being a designer means channeling your soul into bringing something new into the world… only to have a group of strangers tear it — and your self worth — apart. Critiques are an unwavering part of any designer’s life and are easily the worst part of the job. Formally educated designers leave the womb of university thinking it will be easier once they’re out in the “real world,” only to find out it’s actually more difficult. In school, at least feedback is given with a firm understanding of design principles and the project at hand.

Now you have to present your designs to clients, bosses, and colleagues. You might have the odd project where you’re working with someone as knowledgeable on design as you, but I wouldn’t count on it. Instead, you can expect the life to be sucked out of you while you try and persuade your critics to abandon their preconceived notions of “good design.”

There’s good news: it doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, design critiques will never be easy… but they don’t have to be a bloodbath.

After fifteen years of making mistakes during the critique process I’ve come across three common reasons things don’t go as planned; I’ve even discovered ways to prevent it. What are those reasons you ask?

  1. The design gets evaluated by personal preferences
  2. Failing to establish yourself as the expert
  3. You’ve actually missed the mark

The harsh reality is it’s likely your fault when things go wrong.

Enough preamble. Let’s talk about how you can save your soul.

Design is evaluated by personal preferences

“I don’t like the color purple.” Awesome… actually, neither do I… but your customers love it. The all too prevalent “personal preference” derails many design critiques sending them spiraling out of control into a fiery crash in the ditch. Nothing strikes more fear into my heart than hearing someone say “I can’t design myself, but I know what looks good.” Everyone has their own taste in music, fashion, colors, and style, but none of those tastes are relevant to the design at hand. You know something is wrong when you hear the phrase “I like.”

“I like” precedes a personal preference—not what could be most effective to the audience. I forbid my students from using it in the classroom because what you like, what I like, and what your audience likes is not the same. We’re not talking about what you’d hang on your wall. We’re talking about what will improve your business.

The “right design” is the concept that performs best, which isn’t always the one you like the most. There are hundreds of instances where less attractive designs actually perform better. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.

The question is, how do you get your critics out of their own head? The answer: by reframing the discussion.

Reframe the Discussion

The words you use and questions you ask have a profound effect on the responses you get. “What do you think?” elicits a different response than “Does this align our objectives?” But let me take a step back. Before you even ask for feedback set some boundaries. Make your audience respond from the perspective of the target audience. Tell them that instead of starting with “I think” to start with “John Smith would / wouldn’t…” (Presumably John Smith would be one of your personas—more on this later.)

Once you’ve established the rules ask questions such as:

  • How does this align with our objectives?
  • Does this accommodate our users and their needs?
  • Does this accurately represent the brand voice?

Education might be the first step, but it’s rarely effective on it’s own. Evaluating design from the perspective of others takes practice. Lots of it. You’ve had years of experience, your critics likely have none. So what’s a designer to do? Present your reasoning.

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Document and Present  Your Design Research

The best design is informed by research. Through research the designer acquires a vivid picture of who this is intended for, the desired outcome and surrounding landscape.  It’s much easier to justify color schemes when you have data to back up your decisions. While there are dozens of valid research techniques, we’ve found personas to be particularly effective in this situation.

For those unfamiliar, personas are fictional representations of your intended audience. You bring them to life by giving them a name, head shot, and enough demographic and psychographic details so it feels as though you could have a conversation with them. Now instead of talking about the all-too-nebulous “target audience” you can have a fruitful conversation about good ol’ Martha Melancamp and how this website fits into her retired life filled with family time, reading, and frequent travel.

With personas in hand you can politely say, “Yes, I agree purple is the worst color to grace this planet…but what does Martha think?”

With these two techniques you should cut down on the amount of irrelevant feedback. The next common issue is deals with establishing expertise.

Failing to Establish Yourself as the Expert

You and I both know that design is a rigorous, system-driven process backed by principles, theory, convention, and research. Many don’t… and guess what, it’s your job to know that, not theirs. Your critics have no idea you’ve thought through every detail, weighed pros and cons, and ultimately landed at hundreds if not thousands of informed decisions.

Any unjustified suggestion to move, resize, or delete an element is a pretty good sign you’re not being viewed as an expert. You want clients to ask questions when something feels off—not start giving orders. “Why did you place this here?” is good. “Move the sidebar to the other side” is bad.

How do you solve this? Education, explanation, and asking the right questions.

Don’t just talk, educate

The best designers do as much educating as they do designing. Teaching “design think” quashes misinformed feedback and empowers others to solve their own complex problems. Lofty thinking I know, but there are real-world benefits that will make your life much easier. Educating the review team conveys your expertise and communicates everything is backed by research and established conventions.

This is not a one-and-done process, you’ll demonstrate your knowledge throughout the process. That said, much of the groundwork is laid at the beginning during the design discovery process. If for no other reason than it’s much easier to internalize design theory when you don’t have a concept staring you in the face.

When you start the initial design conversations, pretend as if you’re teaching a design course. Talk about best practices, hierarchy, typography, and visual language. Share examples of decisions you make and typical thought process. We go so far as producing a design strategy where we outline all the considerations we’ve identified, goals and their priorities, buyer personas, branding considerations, and key elements. We find the document gets initial buy-in and serves as a reference point to revisit discussions if necessary.

The obvious benefit of this effort is equipping your audience with an informed decision, but there is another hidden benefit. You develop a teacher / student relationship—one where you’re the authority and they’re the pupil.

The next critical step after you’ve crafted your initial concept is to explain the reasons behind your design decisions.

Explain your reasoning

You know, a great way to prevent people from assuming design decisions were arbitrary? Tell them. If your design process involves emailing a concept with the message “let me know what you think?” you’re just asking for trouble. How is someone supposed to know what you were thinking if you don’t tell them? If you’re like me you have an internal dialog during the design process. “This element has too much emphasis; I’m going to make it smaller,” “This color is too strong; I’ll find a more subdued shade,” or “These two pieces of content are related; I’ll group them together.”

You’ve seen every combination that didn’t work. If you don’t capture and communicate your reasoning then it feels arbitrary. The reviewer has no choice but to consider their gut reaction, where does it feel like this should go? I design with a notepad open. Every time I attempt something that doesn’t work I make a note. Every time I land on a solution I make a note. When it’s time to explain the concept I can articulate my intentions.

The most well articulated reasoning won’t help if you’ve simply missed the mark.

Your Design Misses the Mark

Yes, designers are fallible. We misunderstand stakeholders, rush through design research, and let personal biases cloud our thought processes. When it happens don’t let your ego get the best of you. Learn the lesson and move on. So how do you prevent this? Let’s look at the two most common reasons for missing the mark and how to avoid them.

Designing for the Wrong Audience

Other designers are not the target audience (an overwhelming majority of the time.) “Sexy design” is a temptress that will frequently call your name, especially if you’re working on a mundane topic. The delight of praise from your peers won’t feel as sweet when the concept under performs and the client hires a different agency next time around. Admiration is great, but food and shelter is much, much better.

Many of my best performing designs were the ones I personally liked the least.

Designing for yourself isn’t the only audience temptress, you can also be tempted to design for your client. Some clients will show up with a collection of websites they like. You could seek quick approval by imitating their examples, but this will only hurt you both in the long run. When the design under performs the client’s business will suffer and it will be your fault.

Inadequate Design Research

Your solutions are only as strong as your understanding of the situation. Talking to client stakeholders is a good start, but there are many ways to layer on additional insights that will guide your end result. Talk to the target audience, consume the media they consume, watch their behavior online, dig into the analytics and see what they’re doing on the site now.

When in doubt use tools to validate your current direction like the Five Second Test or UserZoom. Testing design concepts eliminates speculation and opinion, giving you data to inform the next design iteration.

Wrapping it Up

Allows critics to better understand what feedback they should be providing by laying the groundwork early. Digging deep into the problem at hand will inform your approach so you don’t miss the mark and creates an opportunity to document critical elements like objectives, KPI’s, personas, etc… You’ll also be able to explain your reasoning using the documentation as justification. Finally, when it’s time to get feedback the right questions will illicit the best responses from both parties.

There’s no guarantee you’ll never have difficulty during the visual design phase, but these steps will make your life and your client’s experience more satisfying and productive.

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