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How to give constructive design feedback

Learn how to put your thoughts into words and make sure your feedback is getting the love it needs by communicating effectively and constructively

At Sketch, we’ve been remote from day one. We’re a fully distributed team that’s worked asynchronously across the globe for over a decade now. And to do that successfully, text communication has become a key part of our DNA.

Through the years, we’ve learned how to effectively talk, brainstorm, coordinate and — most importantly — give feedback on everything from design to marketing. So we asked the Sketch team for their best tips and advice on how they make our design critique sessions more productive — and enjoyable.

The basics of written communication

Before we can get into the specifics of design feedback, let’s go through the dos and don’ts of written communications in general.

Letters are boring 🥱

When you’re trying to express yourself using just letters and symbols, it’s easy to miss oral or visual communication nuances. But there are a few ways you can fill that void. At Sketch, we use a frankly staggering array of custom Emojis. But you can also use animated GIFs, links to YouTube videos, song snippets, TikTok videos, and internet memes as effective ways to communicate and express yourself.

Read more: our own María Munuera has written about remote communication on her blog

Be direct, but kind

While honesty and clarity are essential when giving feedback, as a rule, it’s better to flatter than offend. Being constructive and considerate with your criticism doesn’t just improve your product — it improves relationships within your team.

Sometimes, the kindest thing you can do is to be direct with your feedback. If something someone made is bad, they need to know. But that doesn’t mean you have to be rude about it. Explain the issues with it while offering encouragement, and make suggestions on how they could improve it.

Make yourself clear

In addition to being direct, it’s always a good idea to be explicit. Even if you think a word will do, don’t assume your reader will have all the context you have. In this scenario, being a little verbose is sometimes a feature, not a bug.

It’s a small, but diverse world

Something we’ve learned when working with people from all over the world is that, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’ll be completely misunderstood due to cultural differences. You’ll say “oh, that’s an interesting idea!” because you think an idea is… well, interesting. Meanwhile, some of your British coworkers might think you’re being a passive-aggressive jerk.

If you want to keep it simple, follow this simple rule: always provide extra context where possible.

While shared cultural knowledge can help speed things up when everyone understands the context, internationally compliant communication can be more challenging. Pay attention to subtle (and not so subtle) differences between cultures when it comes to the meaning of words. A great reference to keep in mind is Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, where she discusses the issues surrounding international communications and provides tools to help you deal with them.

If you want to keep it simple, follow this simple rule: always provide extra context where possible.

Level up your design feedback

With those basics out of the way, let’s focus on giving (and receiving!) design feedback. Some of these ideas are not specific to written feedback so you can still apply them to in-person sessions, too.

Give all the context for the feedback you need

When asking for feedback, few things are more frustrating than receiving great feedback about the wrong thing. Save yourself a headache by making sure everyone knows exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.

✍️ When giving design feedback: make sure you’re addressing the right issues. If a designer made their needs clear when asking for feedback, stick to those. If they did not, double-check with them and ask for clarification. As a bonus, it shows you are extra considerate and keen on giving them useful feedback.

👀 When asking for feedback: be explicit about the state of your design, and share what you need and what you don’t. It may sound obvious, but it’s frustrating to receive comments about the typography you’re using on your titles if you’re struggling with the flow of a complex interaction. Not to mention it’s a waste of time for everyone involved.

Image showing a Sketch document with an app screen showing a CO2 tracking app and a comment thread.

Ask, don’t assume

Asking good questions and actively listening to the answers to those questions are two key skills for giving great design feedback (or any kind of feedback, really). You want to understand the journey as much as the destination. The only way to discover the less evident parts of a thought process is by letting the designer talk you through it.

When giving design feedback: you’ll be tempted to comment on the current state of things, sometimes missing important information about an element’s context in the wider design. Make sure you have all the information by asking lots of questions. An easy way to do this is to rewrite your comments as questions.

👀 When receiving design feedback: even if some of the questions sound too obvious — embrace them. Remember the other stakeholders are less familiar with the context, and you may have assumed things that aren’t clear to them — or your end-users. The distance that a reviewer has is helpful. Also, feedback framed as questions helps stimulate your thought process and gives you room for more consideration.

Image showing a Sketch document with an app screen showing an add flight option and a comment thread.

Remember: great feedback can come from anyone

Designs often have a lot of stakeholders. You could be a design manager who needs to review some work in progress or even a developer who needs to communicate the technical implications of a design proposal. If you work in tech, chances are you’ll need to give or receive design feedback at some point.

✍️ When giving design feedback: every member of the team brings a unique perspective to a design. Focus on how the design proposal addresses the problem you and a designer are trying to tackle together. Many times a designer might have incomplete information and you could be the missing piece of the puzzle.

👀 When receiving design feedback: sometimes, the best design feedback will come from non-designers. Keep your eyes and ears open, and try to keep a zen mind. Also, don’t get too defensive — when done right, design feedback is not about you.

Image showing a Sketch document with an app screen showing energy offset and a comment thread.

Take your time with feedback, don’t improvise

One of the advantages of working asynchronously is you don’t have to give feedback immediately. This won’t be the case always, but whenever possible take a bit of extra time with feedback.

✍️ When giving design feedback: Use the time as an opportunity to separate yourself from your daily grind and focus now on what you’re trying to convey, and how you’re saying it. Giving reactionary feedback on the spot won’t be as useful as thoughtful, measured feedback. Write and reread. Giving feedback may be the most important thing that you will do that day.

Celebrate the good

In case we didn’t drive the point home enough when we told you to be considerate, it’s essential that you also praise all the good you see. We’re not talking about the old and tired ‘shit sandwich’ technique here. We’re talking about a real, honest, lets-celebrate-good-design attitude. Not only will this help you build rapport with the people you work with and help them become better designers. It will also feel really good.

✍️ When giving design feedback: don’t limit yourself to giving feedback on the things people need to improve in a design. Also mention what’s working, what you like, or what you think was a good solution to a particularly tricky problem. Be the change you want to see in the world. Starting with what you write.

Image showing a Sketch document with an app screen showing a CO2 tracking app and a comment thread.

We hope these tips help you and your team connect more effectively, and give even better feedback. Try using some of these techniques in your everyday communication, and see how they improve your feedback experience.

But don’t stop there — experiment, share your experience with others, and if you find a tip that works for you please share it with us on Twitter. After all — language is alive, and great communication is a lifelong journey.