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How (and when) to stand up for your designs

Emily Belden's Layout avatar

Client feedback is part of the game when it comes to being a creative service provider. Whether you are a solo freelancer or part of a creative department, everyone should be prepared for a critique of his or her work.

I wish I could say that client feedback or revision requests are few and far between in our industry, but the truth is: it is quite the opposite. The nature of the business is to absorb details from the client on the project, produce the deliverable, present it, and then wait for impending feedback.

Naturally, designers feel that by the time they present their work, it is their best foot forward – the best attempt at answering the client’s creative questions in the form of a new logo, web design, tagline, etc. That being said, it always feels like a bit of a punch in the gut if the response is anything less than, “It’s perfect. I love it. No changes necessary.”

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Sometimes clients are right, and we as the designers need to learn to listen and respond with grace. But other times, it’s appropriate to stand up for your work. First, we’ll talk about how to take the criticism, then we’ll dive into when and how to stand up for your designs.

Put it in perspective

Designer Claude Piche at Digital Telepathy, an agency in San Diego, says, “If your job title is “Designer,” you should always be prepared for feedback. If your job title is “Artist,” you don’t have to be.” Piche notes that very few people are actual, traditional Artists (think like the way Michaelangelo and DaVinci were), and therefore, some amount of feedback is just part of the process. Just remembering it’s part of your job as a designer to embrace the opinions of your clients makes putting things into perspective a bit easier.

Grand-slams are rare

Just like in baseball, it’s a rare occasion that everything lines up perfectly. Bases loaded, two outs, last chance at bat in the last inning of a tie game and then all of the sudden: a grand slam takes place. Magical moments like that are also just as rare in the design world, so the expectation that the client will absolutely love what you’ve sent over and have no additional changes is not something to bet on. By adjusting your mindset before sending over your final draft, you’ll prepare yourself for any critique that your client throws at you.

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Change your view

Consider it a win if the client comes back and compliments certain aspects of the design. Just because it’s not a grand-slam, doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the partial wins. Listen to their feedback, then try to hone in on the elements they liked – these can help you find the right combination of revisions to hit it out of the park next time!

Get excited for the journey

Passionate designers should consider their job as a journey. Submitting the first round is just step-one in the right direction. With each round of client feedback, treat it like uncovering a mystery until you finally solve it. This should feel exhilarating and exciting and should make the project feel extra rewarding when it’s closed out.

Now that you know how to handle the incoming feedback, the next step is to figure out when to stand up for your designs, and how to do so.

When to stand up for your designs

Before embarking on a creative project with a client, you should sign off on a scope. During this time, you’ll discuss a multitude of things that will set you up for the project, including information about the company, why they need the item they are asking for, what they envision (if anything), what companies they want to mimic, what designs they can’t stand, etc. All this culminates as “clues” to help you design the requested item as best you can in the way they want, but it also serves another purpose. The scope sets the boundaries that both you and the client agree to stick to, and if things change, that’s when you’re allowed (and need to) stand up for your work.

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For example, after you present your initial concept for say, a simple website redesign, if the client decides it’s not just a redesign of their site that they want, maybe it’s a full rebrand, it’s okay to stand up for your designs and bring up that they’ve flip-flopped on their original request.

The other time you can stand up for your design is when the client is voicing unhappiness, but has no concrete reason for dissatisfaction. “I just…I don’t know. Something’s off.” doesn’t count as helpful feedback, so it’s up to you to take control of the conversation and explain the design decisions that were made.

How to stand up for your designs

“The key to standing up for your design is to be helpful in nature versus defensive. ” For instance, if the issue is that your client has seemingly flip-flopped on what they wanted, you can remind them of all the information from the recent, agreed-upon scope that supports the design you created. You’ll also want to avoid accusatory language such as the word “you.” For example, try not to take this approach:

“You said you wanted a logo. Now you’re asking for a text treatment? My logo is gorgeous and your feedback honestly makes no sense. I think you should look at it again.”

Instead, keep it about the work instead. Try something like:

“In looking at the scope, my notes show that we discussed having a visual logo so that your customers could quickly see the icon and associate it with your company. A text treatment of your company name would not achieve that. Have your goals or customer needs changed?”

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If a client is struggling to provide productive, constructive criticism on a design you’ve presented, don’t just shut down and throw your hands up. It’s okay to take the reins and drive the conversation forward. Remember, a lot of clients don’t know the correct terms to use when talking about design or marketing strategies, so they tend to freeze up a bit when trying to describe how they feel. Steer them in the right direction with a solid rationale and guided questions. Try asking something like:

“Let’s start with the color. I chose green because you are an environmentally conscious company. How do you feel about that?”

If you find out that the color is what they are taking issue with, continue the conversation with some fact-finding questions, such as:

“Is there another color you prefer, perhaps one that is commonly used in your industry?”

All in all, the major thing to keep in mind is to not take feedback on your designs personally. Treat it as a mystery that you’re hired to solve and always be graceful and helpful when sticking up for your work.

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