Make it Pop! Surviving Client Feedback

tip_052913By David Sherwin

This article is an excerpt from David Sherwin’s “Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers” (HOW Books), which first appeared on FastCoDesign.

Clients deliver feedback on everything we create for them: proposals, deliverables, project schedules, email communication styles, what we’ve worn to a meeting with their CEO, and so forth. Soliciting and receiving feedback from clients is a crucial part of any ongoing collaboration between a client and a designer. To quote Robert Allen, “There is no failure. Only feedback.”

The inability to manage client feedback causes your design work to suffer. Here are some ways to work with feedback that will help keep your design projects running smoothly, while reducing the tension that poorly considered feedback can cause in a client relationship.

How should I manage client feedback?

1. Put the feedback in writing for all parties to approve.
For every project, you should schedule a date by which clients are responsible for providing you feedback. Often clients will want to deliver this feedback face-to-face or over the phone. Document everything discussed during those meetings, then send it to the client as a record of your conversation. Otherwise you’re going to forget details and nuances.

2. Clarify ambiguous feedback before making changes.
When receiving written feedback from a client or discussing the nuances of their perspective, strive to turn ambiguous comments into directions instead of opinions. Don’t say in your email, “Client dislikes green color, wants us to explore other options.” Tack on the end of that sentence a way to focus and narrow the comment’s implications. Instead, try “Client notes that green background in sidebars might be too similar to green in competitor’s site.” Ask them to agree to your interpretation before starting on the changes.

3. Describe what feedback may impact project scope.
The client may not be aware that requested changes will influence the scope of the project. Describe potential impacts to schedule and scope with every major round of feedback and approval. Be clear about how her input is contributing to the final goal, or possibly changing that goal. This will help everyone involved stay on the same page. No surprises!

Here are a few examples of issues that can come up when receiving client feedback, even if you follow the process outlined above.


You’re confronted with feedback that is actionable but has a negative tone.

I hate the color scheme. You should have used yellow instead of purple. And the stock photo is all wrong. Find someone who looks older and richer. What the hell were you thinking?

Put the client’s tone aside for the moment. Don’t let it cloud your judgment.

Take the client email and strip it down to what really needs to be addressed: “Explore new options for the color scheme, especially surrounding the purple in the tertiary color palette. Assess photo on page 2 and see if you can find someone in their 40s wearing fashionable clothes.”

Then write back to your client with this clarification of your original intent, what action items have arisen from her feedback, and a query as to why she questioned your intent with such language. Finish up with the type of feedback you would appreciate in the future based on your rules of engagement.

If you manage a team, this is your job. Be cautious that you don’t make your team expend emotional energy to resolve these types of ambiguities around what a client wants from them. They may be distracted from better uses of their time and talent.


The client asks you to make changes counter to the creative brief, brand style guide and so forth.

I think for this one, we can ignore the style guide and bring in some new visual elements that contrast what our competitors are doing. I’m really excited about this, so I don’t think you need to worry about a brand review.

These situations can happen when clients become busy and pass along what seems like actionable feedback from other stakeholders. However, once you really start thinking about the feedback, red flags begin to wave frantically in your mind.

You should initiate a direct conversation with the client regarding why he is contradicting agreed-upon standards, and capture that rationale in writing. If you feel the feedback will adversely impact their brand or quality of project execution, you should propose alternate actions that preserve the integrity of the project strategy and the client’s brand.


Your client tells you she dislikes everything you have created so far.

I think you’ve missed the mark. Maybe you need to start over.

This kind of feedback isn’t immediately actionable. Take a deep breath before crafting a response.

Ask the client for discrete reasons the design you provided was not appropriate. Make sure these reasons point to specific places in the agreed-upon brief, brand guidance, functional specifications and so forth. Her feedback needs to be tangible and quantifiable, not just emotional. You will need to establish clear constraints and boundaries in order to target what needs to be rethought or revised. Otherwise you may burn additional hours toward an uncertain goal.


david_sherwinDavid Sherwin is the author of “Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers” and “Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills”, both from HOW Books. He is an Interaction Design Director at frog in San Francisco and a Senior Lecturer in the BFA in Interaction Design program at California College of the Arts.


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