Episode #24:

7 Mistakes When Presenting Design Work and Asking for Critique

Graphic designer presenting design work

Are you making any of these mistakes when presenting design work to clients? Find out and learn how to present your design work, so you get more respect and less pushback on your designs. Also, find out mistakes you might be making when asking for critique from other designers and others in general. Plus, don’t miss this one seemingly harmless question you should stop asking clients.


Presenting Work to a Client

Let’s talk first about presenting work to a client. These are some mistakes that some designers make.

Presentation Mistake #1: Not presenting your work at all

Hopefully, you are in fact presenting your work. Designers often think that a good design will just sell itself and therefore there really isn’t a need to present or explain it. Surely, the client will just “get” it, right? But that’s not the case. Even if something seems obvious to you, it may not be to the client.

Presentation Mistake #2: Presenting too many designs

If you present too many design options to a client, it can cause them to feel overwhelmed or confused, and you don’t want that because you’re the expert and there to give them solutions, clarity. Or they may end up “cherry picking,” meaning they will ask you to use this color from that design and that image from this one. That doesn’t often work.

I have sometimes countered these types of requests by explaining this as an example:

Imagine picking out your favorite pieces of décor in your home. Say, it’s a green vase from your family room, a painting of a tropical beach from your office, a silver Moroccan-style lamp from your bedroom and a red Oriental rug from your living room. They may look great in those individual rooms in your home, but when you pick them out and put them in the same room, they don’t work well together.

The same can sometimes be said for interchanging various elements from different designs.

Presentation Mistake #3: Not showing the work as it will print

It’s important for clients to view proofs of flat pages, so they can proofread the text for accuracy. I like sending PDFs, so clients can easily mark any necessary edits using Acrobat’s editing tools or sticky notes. But if the piece will be printed and it has folds, I make a paper dummy, take a video of it and send it as well, so they can see how it folds and what you see when it opens, and as it opens up.

Presentation Mistake #4: Asking what they think

Many designers will simply send a proof or mockup and ask the client, “What do you think?” or say “Let me know what you think.” I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, and I learned many years ago why it is actually detrimental to do this. It opens up a huge can of worms and often results in one or more of the following scenarios.

Asking it will make you appear unsure about the work you just created.

If you’ve done your research on the client, the project and the audience, then you should be able to explain the choices you made as part of your design process and why they are effective.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. You haven’t been feeling well for some time and go to a doctor. You go see him, he gives you a diagnosis and then he asks you what you think of that diagnosis, asking if you agree with it? How would that make you feel? Wouldn’t you be like, “Oh my gosh. Why did I come to this doctor? Does he not know what he’s doing? I’m coming to him for answers, not the other way around.” So that would cause you to lose trust in that doctor.

So if you have done your homework and have valid reasons to back up your design decisions and they relate to the client’s objectives, then your confidence in having done so will build trust with the client. Now, if you aren’t sure what questions to ask before starting a project to find out that information, I highly recommend you run, don’t walk, to creative-boost.com, click on Resources and download my free guide, “17 Questions You Must Ask During a Design Consultation.”

A second possible scenario is:

Asking it will make it seem that you’re not the expert.

Instead, you could come across as an order taker, like you’re looking for the client to take the lead and to be the judge of your work. But they have hired you for the expertise, so you have to act like it.

Let’s illustrate this point by comparing a gourmet chef and a cook at a fast food restaurant. Let’s say, for a special occasion, you hire a chef to come to your home and make dinner. Prior to that, the chef would probably ask you about any foods you many not like or may be allergic to. Then they would think about some options and come to your home to put together a delicious meal. The chef knows which ingredients work well together and they aren’t going to ask your opinion about which ingredients they should use to achieve that, right? Why not? Because they are the expert.

You could go to the local fast food joint to get food if you don’t feel like making something, right? You don’t need a chef for that, and chefs are much more expensive. Fast food is about getting something fast and cheap: “I know what I want. Just give it to me.” You go there, place your order, and a cook makes the food and the cashier/customer service person assembles your order. You place an order from a predetermined menu, they follow provided recipes and put together the pieces of the order for you, almost like an assembly line, so it can get done in a systemized manner and quickly.

They are the “doers” who execute this step-by-step process. The chef is a “thinker,” getting paid for his ideas and his expertise—not just the doing, not just the making of the meal.

So when you ask what the client thinks, you are positioning yourself as the cook or cashier, not the chef, and the client is the one coming to you to place their order. You’re seen as someone just executing their requests—the doer—and that design is a commodity.

In these cases, the client often takes the lead and assumes the role of art director: “Put this photo here,” “Make the logo bigger,” “Make this text bold,” “Sweep the floor, Cinderelly.” If they could use InDesign and Photoshop, they would probably do it themselves. (Of course, we know that that does not make a designer anymore than using QuickBooks makes somebody an accountant.)

When the client sees you as the chef, on the other hand, you are viewed as the expert and your work is seen as a strategic form of communication that will help them accomplish their goals. When you’re the chef, you take the client’s feedback and you decide how best to accomplish what the client is trying to achieve. Maybe something does need to be bigger. Maybe it should be in another color. Maybe it shouldn’t be changed at all. You as the chef should decide that and explain your reasoning to the client.

A lot of clients are clueless that there’s anything more involved in the design process than, “Poof! An idea came to me and just let me put it into InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop,” and I’m done. I’m going to show it to the client now. They don’t get that there is a process behind it, there’s thinking behind it, and a lot of trashing ideas in the process, that that thinking is going to accomplish something. It’s going to help them get more clients or customers, it’s going to help them sell a product or get more conversions on their website or be taken seriously with a more professional logo or something. We have to educate clients about this because this mentality of “there’s nothing more involved” just contributes to clients continuing to think of design as  a commodity.

OK. I’m done with my rant now.

A third possible scenario is:

Asking it will open up the design work for a debate.

The reasons for the design should always go back to the creative brief, goals and audience, not anyone’s personal preferences—yours or the client’s. Asking what they think may invite them to give their personal opinion or provide critique outside of the proper context. If that happens, then you must refer back to the creative brief, goals and audience—which is all objective information.

So, for example, if they say they don’t like something, ask why. If it’s because they just don’t like that color, well, that’s irrelevant. The design is not for them. Heck, it’s not even for the client technically; it’s for their audience and what will attract and appeal to them.

Everyone has different tastes. So deviating from the goals of the project and audience preferences to accommodate the client’s tastes is like chasing a moving target to satisfy everyone’s opinion—and you know what they say about opinions… Trying to accommodate feedback based on your or their personal tastes just takes you farther from the goals of the project. You’ll spend too much time, you’ll lose confidence and get aggravated, the client won’t respect you, and they won’t get what they need. No one wins.

Another potential scenario is:

Asking it will make it seem as if the design was arbitrary.

While there is more than one way to approach something creatively, there should be reasons for your design decisions, and, again, those reasons should be objective and go back to the creative brief, the goals, the audience—not “I chose this font or this color because I like it.”

You need to be able to explain with valid points. This reinforces your position as an expert, and it reinforces design as being strategic, not just “pretty.”

Solutions

So now you might be asking yourself, “What the heck do I do then?”

A more effective approach is to present—and by “present,” I mean:

  • meeting in person to explain the design(s),
  • making and e-mailing a screen recording showing the design and walking them through it (I like Loom for that), or
  • sending an e-mail explaining the design(s) in writing.

A screen recording and e-mail can be especially helpful if the design needs to be passed on to someone else for review too. That will ensure that your message gets conveyed properly, as opposed to hoping whomever you just explained it to will do so on your behalf. No one can explain your design better than you, so don’t rely on them to.

Regardless of which way you choose to present the work, you want to explain your design and how it aligns with the objectives they came to you with. For example, say the client’s business has a really stuff corporate image and they want to appear professional and friendly instead. How does your logo redesign accomplish that?

Some points you could make are:

  • how the colors, typography and any design elements work together to give the look they’re trying to achieve,
  • how the work sends the message they want it to,
  • how the design makes their audience feel,
  • why it appeals to their audience,
  • how the design is reader- or user-friendly,
  • how it makes the client appear to their audience,
  • how it sets the client’s business apart from its competitors.

What this does is position you as a strategic problem solver, not someone designing something that just looks good.

When you can back up the design choices you’ve made with valid explanations, it provides an objective basis for the design, and it usually results in less pushback. That is, as long as you’ve done your research beforehand and made valid design decisions along the way. You know, that you didn’t choose pink and a script typeface for a logo for a corporate law firm, for example.

Having confidence and enthusiasm when presenting helps tremendously too. It really reinforces that you know what you’re talking about, that you’re prepared and that you’ve done the appropriate research. Plus, when you’re confident, it helps build trust. You’re conveying that you know what the heck you’re talking about.

Presenting your work in this manner helps establish your design as a statement, not a question looking to be answered.

Now, don’t get me wrong: just because you don’t actually ask the client what they think in those words doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to getting feedback from them. The client’s feedback should indeed be welcome and discussed, and you should consider any valid points they make.

So instead of asking “What do you think?” or saying “Let me know what you think,” after explaining the work, you could say, “I’m confident that you too will find that the design meets these objectives,” or “I reviewed a checklist I made of your objectives throughout the process, and that guided the design.”

If they end up requesting changes that would be detrimental to what they’re trying to accomplish (cause that happens) or start asking for things simply because “I like blue” or “The CEO wants it that way,” despite your expertise and offering your professional opinion to the contrary, you may rethink working with them in the future or you may end it now and say, “This isn’t a good fit/working out. I think ___ would be better for your needs.” Fill in the blank with a commoditized design service.

Asking for Critique or Feedback From Others

Feedback Mistake #1: Asking the Right People Without Providing Context

On another note, before presenting your work to a client, you may want to, understandably, get feedback from other designers. Asking for feedback from other designers is important because it helps you improve your technical skills and challenge yourself creatively.

I often see designers asking “What do you think?” about their design work in Facebook or LinkedIn groups or in graphic design forums. Sometimes they ask others to “vote” for “their favorite” from two or more provided design options. Usually, the designer asking this question shows images of the work but leaves out pertinent background information about the purpose of the design. They get responses from other designers that run the gamut:

  • “I vote for option 1.”
  • “I think you should use blue instead.”
  • “I don’t like that font.”
  • “I don’t like the brown.”

When I see this, it concerns me. People are giving their opinions—subjective, not objective—without getting the full story.

This approach usually results in you not getting appropriate feedback, and that certainly won’t help you achieve a good result for your client. Also, this approach treats the design as if it’s nothing more than a piece of visual artwork, like it’s all about what it looks like.

But design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a strategic form of communication. It serves a purpose. It’s not there for decoration. A design can look pretty, but it needs to get results. It needs to evoke a response from the intended audience. It needs to make them do something, feel a certain way, make the client look a certain way, etc. Otherwise, it’s failed.

So understanding whom the design needs to appeal to (their age, gender, occupation, industry, etc.) and what it needs to accomplish, what problem it needs to solve (make the business appear modern and cutting edge, for example) is vital.

Solution

The solution to this is just be sure when soliciting opinions from other designers that you share some background information about the goals, audience, etc.—whether it’s something you’re designing for yourself or for a client.

Feedback Mistake #2: Asking the Wrong People

Some designers may ask family and friends for their feedback. This may sound harsh, but their opinions don’t matter unless they are in your or your client’s target audience. Otherwise, again, you risk getting unqualified advice if it’s solely based on their personal preferences.

Feedback Mistake #3: Asking the Right People the Wrong Questions

If you have the opportunity, it can be extremely helpful to get feedback from people who are actually in the client’s target audience—or your target audience if it’s for you. But the mistake some designers make when doing this is asking the wrong questions.

For example, don’t ask them:

  • What do you think of this typeface?
  • What do you think of this color?

Those are the how of the design, the pieces that you put together to accomplish a goal with the design. The audience is not qualified to talk to you about typefaces and colors, etc. It’s up to you to figure out how to achieve what’s intended.

Solution

Instead, you would ask:

  • How does this (meaning the design, not the typeface, not the color) make you feel?
  • Looking at this, how would you describe this business, product, service (whatever it may be)?
  • What type of business, product, service do you think this is just by looking at this?
  • Does this make you want to hire this company, buy this product or donate to their cause?

The answers will help you assess whether or not what you’ve designed has achieved the desired effect. If not, then you’ll need to revisit the design and figure out why that’s the case and what to change.

Conclusion

I hope these tips will help you take the lead, get more constructive feedback and less pushback on your next project, so you can have more confidence in what you present to your clients, get results for them and be seen as an expert that they trust and will come to time and time again. Please let me know how these tips work out for you.

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