If you’re like most leaders, you aspire to build a more collaborative team. Because when people work together, they not only reach their goals faster but also produce better ideas and products.

When your team includes diverse people with different roles, skills, and specialties, they can provide input that explores different approaches to the problem. Such diversity is a strength.

But when it comes to critique, that diversity can turn into a team’s biggest weakness. Non-designers may feel like they’ve got a green light to tear the solution apart, offering “feedback” that ranges from moderately helpful to downright mean.

So how can you help your team provide input that’s actually helpful?

Read on for our top tips to creating better designs through collaborative critique.

The Goal of Critique: Improving the Design

Here at Historic, we’ve adapted a feedback framework based on Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry’s book, Discussing Design: Improving Communication & Collaboration Through Critique.

First and foremost, the goal of critique isn’t to change a design… but to improve and strengthen it.

For the person giving feedback, that means they need to dig deep to analyze the solution. And the person receiving critique needs to take the information, filter and process it, then act upon it.

Sounds simple enough. 

But even with these understandings in place, unhelpful critique is still rampant.

What does bad input look like? Let’s break it down.

What’s So Bad About Bad Critique

Unhelpful feedback often feels personal. Why? Because it often is personal. On one hand, it’s personal for designers because of how inherently difficult it can be to separate themselves from their work. 

But where “personal” becomes problematic is when the one giving the critique makes their feedback about their individual preferences or the designer’s abilities—instead of staying objective and focusing on the design as a solution.

Be on the lookout for these classic characteristics of bad critique on your team.

Preferential

Instead of considering whether the design objectives are being met, people sometimes get caught up with what doesn’t line up with their personal likes and dislikes.

For most people, preferential feedback is unconscious. They know what they like, but they may not be able to say whether their preferences actually strengthen the design objects—or weaken them.

Negative preferential feedback is not only unhelpful but also least likely to reflect the strategic thinking that leads to stronger solutions.

Selfish

Selfish feedback isn’t malicious. For most people, it comes from wanting to show others how smart they are—instead of helping improve a design.

Perhaps a team member has their own ideas about what they think the solution should be but didn’t have a chance to articulate them. Sharing ideas and proposing alternatives are good things, but the middle of a critique is the wrong time to offer them. A project’s critique phase isn’t the place for exploring new ideas.

How can you fix this? Make sure your design process includes an opportunity early on for other team members to share their ideas and suggestions.

Unsolicited

People aren’t always looking for feedback on their work. Sometimes they’re sharing their work simply because they’re excited about it. If they don’t ask for input, don’t offer it.

For someone to listen, process, and make use of input, they need to have the right mindset. Otherwise, uninvited observations lead to defensiveness and communication breakdowns. 

Incomplete

Many people offer reactive commentary without backing it up with explanations.

Critique needs to be actionable. That means providing the “why” behind the feedback.

Instead of leaving it at “That won’t work,” provide a more thorough explanation: “That won’t work because the headline is getting buried in the design.”

5 Tips for Giving Good Critique

Here are the top 5 skills every collaborative team member needs to give good critique that produces better designs.

#1. Lead With Questions

Great teams ask questions. By leading with questions, your people gather as much context as possible about the goals of the design and the decisions made to reach those goals. 

Ask preemptive questions to find out where the designer is in their process and what sort of feedback they’re looking for.

Then solicit more information by asking them about:

  • Their objectives for different parts of the design
  • Other options they may have considered
  • Their reasoning for choosing a certain approach
  • Any constraints that impacted their design choices

Questions like these not only help the designer talk more comfortably about their thought process but also help team members understand the constraints and thinking that influenced their choices.

#2. Filter Your Reactions

You will have reactions when you see a design. Hold these loosely. 

Reactions aren’t helpful feedback, but they can lead to better critique. Slow down your response and try asking additional questions to help you understand your reaction.

Once you’ve got a grasp on your reaction, determine whether now is the time to discuss it. If it relates to the design’s objectives or audience, go ahead and bring it up during the critique. But if your reaction is rooted in a personal preference, then keep it to yourself.

#3. Get the Right Perspective 

Remember, the solution you’re being asked to consider wasn’t created for you. 

Learn about the target audience, then put yourself in their shoes. Be sure to analyze the design from the right angle, contextualizing all feedback from the perspective of the target audience.

#4. Don’t Invite Yourself

When someone isn’t in the right mindset to receive feedback and act upon it, the input can be ignored—or worse, cause a rift in the working relationship.

If you weren’t approached to comment on the solution, first ask the designer if you can both talk through it when they’re ready. This gives the recipient a chance to prepare to listen well instead of getting defensive.

#5. Talk About Strengths

Critique should be balanced. Giving feedback isn’t just about what’s not working. It should be an honest yet tempered analysis. 

Be sure to share the strengths you see in the solution and they help achieve the design objectives.

As you apply these principles to your own design process, expect to see your team producing better outcomes and thriving in their work. 

Why? Because in the context of a healthy culture, honest critique leads to greater trust, freedom, and innovation.

If, however, your team relationships appear to be breaking down under honest feedback, then you probably don’t have the collaborative culture you desire. Pull back on critique and take a hard look at your culture. Clarify the specific behaviors you expect of a collaborative team, then hold your people—and yourself—accountable for living those out.