I spend a considerable amount of time these days reviewing design work; usually interface designs at various levels of fidelity from rough wireframes to polished visuals. It still feels a bit odd, having spent most of my career on the other side of the table having my own work critically appraised.
Review sessions can be an awkward experience. Many people can’t tell the difference between someone criticising their work and criticising them as a person, and you often end up with a cocktail party scenario where improvements are never made because nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. Incidentally, this is one of the best things about long term working relationships - you can dispense with the pussy-footing after a few months when you get to know each other and just get on with the job.
I have found a really simple approach to these kinds of reviews, which side-steps these common issues by effectively getting the designer to review it themselves. I just ask two questions:
1. Why is it good?
2. Is it the best it can be?
Why is it good?
This question is useful because it reveals the designers thinking, and gives a valuable insight into how they arrived at the result. It’s also useful because it develops the designers ability to structure their thinking, which translates into better self-appraisal during the creative process. If a designer can critique their own work effectively as they go along it saves a lot of time spent aimlessly pushing pixels around on the screen.
Being able to clearly articulate the merit of your work also has another benefit - it means the work stands a greater chance of making it through the board-room in one piece. Too much time is wasted in subjective debate amongst stakeholders because they aren’t provided with robust reasoning that supports the work. They want to know why it’s good so they can sign it off; you want them to think it’s good so they don’t make unnecessary changes. Give them what they need and everyone wins.
If you can’t explain why a piece of work is good, chances are you’ve not thought it through well enough. Interface design is more science than art, and there are theories and principles at work that if understood can be put to good use (contrast, grouping, the gestalt stuff, visual density, balance, affordance, disclosure, the basics). If a designer is unable to articulate the visual structure of their work in these terms, great - you are opening the door for them to get better at their job, and they should thank you for it.
Is it the best it can be?
This question is a double edged sword, but no bad thing because of it. If they say it is the best it can be, and you can find improvements in the work you should both be pleased because you are not only improving the quality of the work, but are also developing the designers skills and identifying opportunities for them to improve.
If they openly admit that it’s not the best they can do, then their answer as to why this is the case reveals further opportunities for improvement, most often in the process. Typical answers include: “I got a shitty brief.”…”I didn’t have enough time.”…“The client really wanted it this way, even though it’s rubbish.” (see question one) or my favourite, “I’m an intern, we ran out of chargeable time for the creative director.” Don’t treat these things as immovable objects to work around. Tackling the root cause of the problem will yield benefits for everyone.
There is one further reason to ask this question, which is perhaps more important than any of the others - it clarifies the standard that you are aiming for, and encourages your team to excel. So often designers are treated like machines in a sausage factory, or have spent so long compromising their professional standards to meet silly deadlines that they’ve forgotten what they’re capable of doing when they put their minds to it. Often just showing your team that you want them to do their best work feels to them like finally getting permission to do it.