I’ve daydreamed more than once about requiring clients to attend a “Giving Useful Input” workshop – or achieving some mythical level of success where I could afford to be haughtily dismissive of clients’ demands.
But I’ve learned that in fact, you can teach most people to give you better feedback—and it doesn’t require a whole workshop. Just a few ground rules can make all the difference in the world—and take collaborations from painful, “design by committee” experiences to fruitful ones. (You might even find that you start to appreciate others’ input, rather than dreading it. No, really.)
Rule #1: Get Into Your Audience’s Heads
One of the biggest challenges for people who don’t work in marketing and communications is that if you haven’t been trained to cater your style of communication to different audiences, you tend to forget that the audience might be different from you. As a result, many clients will give you feedback during a creative process that’s based on their personal tastes and preferences, rather than on the goals of the project or the tastes of the audience you’re trying to serve.
You can correct this tendency by telling them early and often that while you’ll do your best not to offend their personal tastes and preferences, the most critical success factor is appealing to their audience. So their job when reviewing concepts and drafts is to think constantly about what their audience wants and needs – and to help you meet their audience’s goals. And importantly, agree before the design process exactly who is their audience.
Most people will need reminders about this, so don’t be shy about pushing back on feedback that sounds more like a reflection of the client’s personal taste than their audience’s: “OK, I get that you don’t like bright colors. Is that true for the people who’ll be visiting your website?”
Rule #2: Communicate the “Why”
For every piece of feedback you receive, from “Can we move this over here?” to “I hate it,” practice asking your clients the magic question: “Why?” Not in a belligerent way, of course, but with genuine curiosity. You want to dig beneath the surface layer of what they’re saying and find out what’s behind it. Can they tie their request to the project’s strategic outcomes? Do they have a particular audience segment in mind?
This is such a simple but effective technique that you don’t even need to give your clients a heads-up that you’ll be doing it. You can simply coach them on the spot to give you more useful feedback with prompts like, “Tell me more” or, “What’s important about that?”
If you’ve spent some time before your first concept pitch defining your project goals, you can also guide your clients back to those. I like to tell clients they’re welcome to be as critical as they like, so long as they back up their criticism with references to the target audience or strategic goals. This approach helps everyone keep one eye on the strategy and the other on project execution.
Rule #3: Don’t Offer Solutions; Identify Problems.
Here’s where we tackle the problem with “Make the logo bigger.” A request like that doesn’t give you a good “why,” but it also leads with a proposed solution rather than engaging the creative team’s, well, creativity.
It’s common for clients (and everyone, really) to think they’re being helpful when they proffer solutions to the problems they perceive – without realizing the drawbacks of that approach. So it’s common for creatives to hear feedback that comes in the form of change requests (“Can we substitute blue for green here?” “Let’s drop this whole section.”), when what we’d much rather here is a clear articulation of what’s not working (“The green reminds me too much of our competitor.” “I’d like us to move more quickly into describing the benefits.”).
If you’re getting “solutions” from your client, try asking them, “Can you tell me what the challenge is you’re trying to solve?” You can explain, if you like, that by framing their feedback in terms of a problem or challenge, then you can put your heads together to solve it (or indeed, you can go away and come up with some proposed solutions for their review).
And if you’re working with a team, you can also open the issue for group discussion, by asking questions like:
- Anyone else see the same challenge?
- What other ideas do people have for addressing this problem?
- What if I went back to the drawing board and mocked up how that might look, alongside a couple of other possibilities?
None of these throws out the client’s suggestion, of course – it’s just a matter of wanting to dig a little deeper and understand the problem, so that everyone on the team can bring their creative skills to bear on solving it.
Rule #4: Give the Right Feedback at the Right Time
When you’re giving your initial creative pitch, I recommend briefing your clients on what aspects of the concept are easy to change now, as opposed to later in the process. So for example, a designer might want to nail down the logo treatment, layout, and logo treatment early, while the typeface choice could potentially be changed later without throwing the whole project off the rails.
These are the kinds of details that probably seem obvious to you, but are often not at all clear to people outside the creative professions, so by requesting feedback on the specific elements of your design that you’d like to nail down early, you’ll be doing everyone on the team a favor.
Everyone’s an Expert
At the root of all four of these ground rules is my belief that while creative professionals bring deep expertise to the table, so do our clients; it’s just that our areas of expertise are different.
You know a lot about designing brilliant solutions to your clients’ problems. Your client knows more than you do about their audience, strategic goals, and internal processes – so let them guide your thinking on those things, and guide them on how to make the most of your strengths.
If you can help everyone focus on their areas of expertise—and to support each other in doing what they’re best at—you’ll have an efficient, effective, and probably very happy team.
And you may banish “design by committee” from your life for good.
For a deeper look at the keys to effective creative collaborations, watch Lauren’s 3-part course on Collaborative Design at Lynda.com.