Hold the Hatchet! How to Critique Design Without Losing Your Creative Edge

Design decisions should be carefully considered, but it's important to avoid over-analyzing to the point where you lose the heart and soul of your concept and end up with something that makes you feel safe but actually puts you at risk of appearing unoriginal and boring. 

Below are some tips to refine your review process for optimum results.

focus group

Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes a concept is so fabulously inspired that everyone instantly agrees on its brilliance, allowing the joyful creative team to take a well-deserved, impromptu holiday at the beach after pocketing the time that had been set aside for several rounds of revisions.

At least I've heard of this happening.

For good reason, the design process normally requires considered cultivation on the part of the creative team, the client and sometimes other advisors. But, of course, balance is always key.

Design and the Brain: How We See Things

Left and right brain theory gets a little oversimplified, to be sure, but it's a paradigm most of us are familiar with, so I will employ that here. First, a review: In essence, the right brain is considered the center for creativity, impulsivity and gut reactions. The left brain is our more analytical hemisphere, where quantification and rational comparison prevail.

Always start with the right brain. What you want to do is make sure the "gotcha" comes first and then follow up with the practicalities: those details that ensure your compelling core concept is appropriate and does not fall apart at second glance. The early rounds of creative work on a given project should be primarily focused on identifying a visual strategy that will draw interest and bring emotional impact to your message or brand. This is the part where the biggest risks should be taken and primary goals should be flexible and uncomplicated. If you start with a long, strict list of details and requirements before you've allowed anything to freely flow, you are almost guaranteeing a tired, uninteresting end result. For this reason, it is often best to limit initial leadership to your top one or two most inspired internal players.

To be clear, this is not an anything goes scenario. Creativity thrives best when given just the right boundaries, and the ultimate goal of the project does not need to be thrown out the window here.  Just do not try to accomplish every objective in the first round. Make sure you have that gut impact in place before you worry about all the other desired outcomes. This core quality will speak louder than any amount of word-smithing or nit-picking can ever pull off.

Enter the critics. Once you've got a couple of strong options identified, then it's time to bring in the analysts. Here is where the left-brain perspective starts to come into play. Just be careful what you're asking during this phase … and how you listen.

Throw me a literal bone.

Throw me a literal bone.

The most crucial thing to keep in mind during this part of the process is that, for the most part, your intended audience will never look analytically at your marketing and branding. While you or certain members of your team may feel motivated to unearth all possible errors, pitfalls or potential misinterpretations of the project, they are essentially turning off their right brains in order to look at things in this way.

An experienced client typically learns how to balance these sometimes conflicting ways of seeing, but, arguably, as you bring more people into the review process, the more likely you are to lose your grasp of the gut reaction you started with.

How can this be avoided? A lot of it depends on how you ask for feedback. Here are some suggested guidelines:

  1. Start by saying absolutely nothing. Try leaving mock-ups of preliminary concepts visible in key places without telling anyone you're looking for feedback. This most closely mirrors the experience your intended audience will have (because, in the real world, it is highly unlikely anyone will be standing there asking them to evaluate the work). This is your best chance to gather genuine, off-the-cuff, right-brained responses. Any feedback you get at this stage is, at the very least, proof that you have something interesting going on!

  2. Ask open-ended questions. If someone makes a comment or you notice their attention is drawn to the piece, try to dispassionately ask, "So what do you think?" Or even better, "Oh, you've noticed that? What caught your attention?" It may be helpful to write down and compile responses, but do it after the conversation is over so they don't feel like they are specifically supposed to be offering criticism.

  3. Don't share your opinion (yet). Whether members of the internal team love or hate the concept, they serve the process best by keeping this to themselves during these "unplanned" conversations. This takes some discipline, but it's worth it!

  4. Avoid focus groups. Yes, these can be helpful in certain situations, but in reality, the environment created is completely unlike any in which the audience actually lives and breathes. Again, once you ask people what they think and request their critical input, their left brains switch on and they start influencing each other in ways that are unlikely ever to be mirrored in the real world.

  5. If someone has to tell you to see something, it doesn't exist. This one is tricky to explain. Say your buddy Joe remarks, "Hey, that shape in the background looks sort of like Hillary Clinton!" Well, if several people independently notice the same thing, then it really does look like Hillary Clinton. But if no one else notices it? Then it does not, in fact, look like Hillary Clinton. Officially speaking. However – and this is the important part – if Joe tells everyone what he saw, then suddenly it will be real for all of them, forever. Do not let Joe convince you that everyone will see what he's seen, and do not let him spoil the broth. Hold that thought, until …

  6. Synthesize the results of this process privately with your team or a few trusted advisors. Start with a reminder as to why the given direction was chosen in the first place. Then allow everyone to share all feedback that was gathered. Try to put extreme or unusual responses aside if they are not echoed by others, keeping in mind that a concept that pleases everyone equally is often not your strongest choice. Also, weight the responses according to whether or not the person quoted is representative of your intended audience. If common responses become apparent, these are your key findings. These will inform the revision process, hopefully leading to clear, predictable end-results. If no common responses float to the top, then it may be that the gut response you're seeking hasn't yet been accomplished and more additional concepts need to be developed.

The ultimate goal is to make sure any revisions made to the creative direction you originally believed in are based on objective experiences of the concept that are as authentic as possible with regard to your intended audience.

In the end, taking disciplined steps like these will help ensure objectivity and should make you feel confident in the final product, even with ideas that might otherwise feel risky.

- Melissa