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The Four Stages of Successful Design Critiques

There are many ways to conduct internal design critiques, but are they effective? Are you getting the right feedback, from the right people, at the right time?

Overview

Who is this post for?

Designers & internal project teams

What's it all about?

Well, I’m glad you asked… Design critiques play such an important role in our design process here at Solid Digital. They help us ensure that the design is progressing in the right direction, meeting all goals & requirements, and challenge us to maximize the quality of work we produce. In this post, I’ll walk you through the four stages of design critiques that our team has adopted over many years of experimentation. 

  • Stage 1: Explore 
  • Stage 2: Validate
  • Stage 3: Finalize
  • Stage 4: Dry Run

From exploring the initial concept to validating, finalizing, and presenting the design solution… it goes without saying, communication is key! We use this all of the time on our website design projects. But keep in mind, this is merely a framework, so depending on your specific project type, size, and budget, you may need to adjust accordingly. Whether you are a designer or a member of a project team, I believe this will help you improve your design critique skills and deliver better design solutions.

Before we get to the four design critique stages, I want to start by explaining the roles of the participants involved and what a typical agenda should include. Additionally, I will share some tips on how to provide and receive effective feedback during the critique process. This will give you a solid foundation for understanding how the process works and how to get the most out of it.

Design Critiques Participants

As we examine each of the four stages, I will refer to the roles required for each critique session. The specific individuals responsible for these roles may vary slightly depending on your project and organizational structure, particularly in terms of their job titles. But, regardless of who is assigned to each role, they should carry out the following responsibilities:
  • Presenter: The designer is responsible for presenting their work and explaining their thought process. They should be open to feedback and willing to make changes based on the critique.
  • Facilitator: The facilitator is in charge of time boxing, keeping the conversation on track, ensuring equal opportunity for feedback, and negotiating any tension.
  • Recorder: The person who documents the agreed-upon feedback.
  • Contributors: The other team members who provide feedback based on their knowledge of the client’s needs and goals.

Design Critique Meeting Agendas

No matter what stage you’re at in the design process, you’ll want to set a clear agenda before a critique meeting and ensure that all topics are covered. This will help you stay organized and focused, allowing you to make the most out of your time together. Here is how we typically break up our sessions:

  1. Framing: Set the stage for the meeting. Cover things such as company background, project scope & goals, intended audience, design process stage, critique purpose, and desired feedback.
  2. Presentation: The designer presents the design, outlining their approach and thought process in detail.
  3. Feedback: Go around the room, allowing everyone to ask questions and provide input & feedback on the design.
  4. Action items & next steps: Provide a concise summary of the feedback and action items generated during the critique; outline a clear plan to move forward with enhancing the design.

Tips for giving & receiving a design critique

Giving

Receiving

Giving

🎯 Understand the purpose

Know the design’s goal and the desired feedback to provide relevant input.

☀️ Start with positives

Commend the good aspects to motivate the designer to improve the weaker areas.

👨‍🦰 Focus on the user

Consider how easy it is to use the design and whether it meets the needs of the target audience.

🔎 Find problems, not solutions

Encourage critical thinking and avoid rushed ideas by identifying design problems without offering immediate solutions.

💬 Encourage dialogue

Asking questions and allowing the designer to clarify feedback can promote productive discussions and mutual understanding.

💁‍♀️ Explain yourself

Be specific and clear by explaining the reasoning behind your feedback instead of just saying something looks bad.

🖼 Use visuals

Use visual aids like diagrams, annotated images, and examples to help the designer better understand feedback.

Receiving

💪 Take Responsibility

Be proactive and seek out feedback by setting up your own meetings.

🙆 Expect criticism

Anticipate criticism during the critique and let go of emotional attachment.

👂 Listen

Attentively listen and avoid interrupting. Don’t just wait for others to stop talking, pay attention to the feedback being given.

🙋‍♂️ Ask questions

Clarify feedback by asking questions to understand the problem.

💡 Use non-technical language

Avoid using technical jargon or design terminology that someone may not understand. 

❤️ Practice gratitude

Show appreciation for the time and effort taken to provide feedback and gain new perspectives.

✍️ Provide Explanations

Include brief research conclusions that help support design decisions.

Alight, let's jump into the 4 stages...
Stage 1

Explore

“Are we heading in the right direction?”
Percent Complete: 30%

Purpose

During the “explore” stage, it is important to ensure that the project is headed in the right direction. To make the most of this stage, designers should consider a broad range of concepts and ideas. The ultimate goal is to identify the most effective solution that not only solves the problem at hand but also meets the desired level of design quality/expectation for the project. If needed, designers may need to further explore alternative concepts in order to achieve the best possible outcome for the project.

Pre-work

  • Inspirational references (mood boards, images, websites, etc.)
  • Create as many design ideas/directions as possible (there are no bad ideas at this stage)

Participants

Presenter

Designer

Facilitator

Design Lead

(add Creative Director for larger projects)
Notetaker

Both Designer & Lead

Stage 2

Validate

“Feeling good on the direction but could use some outside perspectives”
Percent Complete: 60%

Purpose

In the validate phase, the objectives are to ensure that the previous feedback has been addressed, solicit input from creatives outside the project, identify potential issues, and explore ways to enhance the overall design. At this point, a considerable amount of effort has been invested into the current direction(s); you should only consider making significant changes if there are compelling reasons to do so.

Pre-work

  • Revisions from stage 1
  • Multiple design variations that solve the problem(s)

Participants

Presenter

Designer

Facilitator

Design Lead

Contributors

Design Team & Strategist

and/or other outside perspectives that would be valuable
Notetaker

Selected design team member

Stage 3

Finalize

“Finished, but did we knock it out of the park?”
Percent Complete: 90%

Purpose

The purpose of this meeting is to confirm that you have achieved your goals. Did you “nail it”? This is the final check to ensure that there isn’t anything blatantly wrong or missing, that all aspects are refined from a grammatical standpoint, and that the designs can be easily translated into development (or whatever medium your design will be in). There should be no drastic changes at this point.

Pre-work

  • Revisions from stage 2
  • Documented explanations of design decisions

Participants

Presenter

Design Lead

Facilitator

Varies depending on the size/scope 

Contributors

Project Team

(Developer, Project Manager, Digital Strategist, etc.)
Notetaker

Project Manager or team member

Stage 4

Dry Run

“Are we effectively communicating the solution?”
Percent Complete: 99%

Purpose

By stage four, the focus should no longer be on reviewing the design output. The primary objective of this critique is to ensure that you are effectively communicating the thought process and research involved in addressing the clients’ or stakeholders’ pain points and goals. The group should critique and provide feedback on the talking points to ensure they are clear, concise, and persuasive. Additionally, they should evaluate the flow, timing, and opportunities for engagement in the presentation to ensure maximum effectiveness in conveying the message.

Pre-work

  • The presentation is set up and ready to go
  • Documented research/data points
  • All talking points are in order

Participants

Presenter

Designer

(along with others on the team)
Facilitator

Project Manager

Contributors

Project Team

Notetaker

Each team member takes their own notes

Give it a try!

If you’re looking to improve your team’s design process and produce higher-quality designs, consider implementing this proven design critique framework. We’ve experimented with various methods and have found that following these four stages of design critiques can lead to better feedback from the right people at the right time, resulting in improved design solutions.

To ensure your design is meeting all goals and requirements and maximizing its potential, it’s important to set a clear agenda, assign roles to participants, and follow the tips provided earlier for effective feedback. By incorporating these best practices, you can elevate your design process to the next level.

Design critiques are a valuable tool for improving the quality of your designs and achieving successful outcomes. Try incorporating these stages into your next design project and experience the benefits for yourself.

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