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Want a Little Client Feedback?

I Heart Feedback

Whenever I receive client feedback, I think of stress tests for climbing ropes.

In a stress test, you tie a weight to the end of a rope, secure the other end of the rope, and drop it off a tall building. Then you see how far the weight can fall -- and how much force the rope can withstand -- before it snaps.

However, a rope doesn't just reach a instant breaking point. These ropes are designed to stretch and then bounce. The amount of flexion or "give" that the rope contains is a measure of its resilience.

A seasoned designer has a deep reservoir of resilience. This leads to a higher tolerance for change and ambiguity, as well as a certain level of professionalism around negotiating client feedback. At a certain point, you discover patterns in people's reactions and begin to anticipate them. This is a learned skill over a few hundred design projects. And through repeated stress -- not strain -- your tolerance increases.

But even with great designers, things like poorly considered client feedback can cause your design work to suffer. With that in mind, here are a few examples of how to triage client feedback to preserve a designer's resilience.

Have any of these scenarios ever happened to you?


You're confronted with feedback that is both negatively charged and entirely actionable. Here comes the client email: "What the hell were you thinking? I hate the color scheme, you should have used green instead of purple. And the stock photo is all wrong. Find someone who looks older and more rich."

This kind of response has to be revised before it reaches a designer's eyes. Since designers use empathy as one of their core tools to craft successful work, reading such an email is going to reduce their sympathy for their client's concerns and needs. You just can't say to a designer, "Suck it up." Over time, they'll lose their resilience and end up burning out.

So take the client email and strip it down to what really needs to be done: "Explore new options for the color scheme, especially the greens in the tertiary color palette. Take a look at the photo on page 2 and see if you can bring in someone in their 40s who is dressed nicely."

And then you can write back to your client and let them know what the hell you were thinking. This also gives you the opportunity to suss out why they were questioning your intent with such powerful language.


You're provided with client concerns that negate the creative brief, established style guide, or other elements that create continuity. "I think for this one, we can ignore the style guide and bring in some new visual elements that contrast what our competitors are doing. And this one won't need to go through brand review. Don't worry about it."

These kinds of situations come up when people get really busy and they're passing along what, on its surface, looks like completely clear client direction. However, once you really start thinking about it, red flags immediately pop up. Time to waste a few billable hours for a call to the account manager or your boss -- with a few dozen questions queued up and ready to be unleashed.

And all of that time could have been saved by a note after the client's direction that say, "This has been reviewed by the creative director and it's okay to proceed. And here are some ways that we can do what the client wants and still bring in brand elements/preserve some of our strategic direction..."


Your vision is blown out of the water. The client says: "I think you've missed the mark and need to try something else." In this situation, a designer's attention can fray and tear away if they're too emotionally invested in the outcome. Any designer would need a (brief) span of time to get over this hurdle and reset their intent for the project.

However, receiving this kind of feedback isn't actionable. If you've missed the mark this badly, you need discrete reasons why the design you provided didn't work. This provides direction and guardrails for your designer. They need some real boundaries in order to care enough about the new outcome and get back to work. Otherwise, they may feel like they're just pushing pixels.


I'm not suggesting that designers should be completely shielded from the client's direct feedback. It's critical that designers learn how to read emotional and written reactions from their clients, as there is valuable data to be gathered from it.

As a design manager, my major pet peeve above all else is as follows: Your account or project manager should only forward you client feedback that has been made actionable. If you or your designer works on a team and uses their valuable time and energy parsing out in great detail what a client wants from them -- that's time they could have been designing.

And isn't that what they hired us for?


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