Criticizing designs the right way - Introducing the Design Review

Criticizing designs the right way - Introducing the Design Review

First, let me start off with this: I don't like the word “criticize”. Too often, it makes people think they have to say something "bad" or negative about something. However, a good approach to criticizing designs is essential, because you have to give feedback.

Let me introduce you to our “Design Review” method. It’s a group exercise for reviewing designs and for providing helpful and constructive feedback to designers. Also, this exercise is not limited to only designers. Any team could benefit from giving and receiving meaningful feedback. So if you run marketing, development or other creative teams, have a go, you will like it!

The basic idea is very simple: you sit down together with your team (including the stakeholders) and then you discuss each of the designs. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast, there are a few obstacles that we have to overcome first.

The biggest challenge: giving HELPFUL feedback

When I ask someone to give me feedback (or even worse: criticize something!), he or she usually concentrates on the negative things (what would not work, what does he or she does not like, etc.).

It’s practically engrained into us. We simply react like this, always focusing on the negative.
The problem with this approach is that we overlook some of the key points for our feedback:

When I ask someone to give me feedback, he or she usually concentrates on the negative things.

  • What is good about the design? (Very important!)
  • How could we improve the design?

... and we have to give the slightly more "negative" feedback as well:

  • giving objective feedback (for example: “a link is missing here” or “the color scheme doesn’t work”)
  • the potential risks (users are not familiar with this design solution, so it might be hard for them to navigate it)

The solution: introducing the roles

Have you ever heard of the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ technique? It's a brilliant method for dispensing feedback. The idea is to give people different roles that indicate different mindsets.

For the Design Review, we will use four hats for four different roles.

White Hat - Just the facts!

The White Hat - “The facts, Dr. Watson, just the facts!”

If you put your white hat on, the only thing you will focus on are the bare facts, providing others with objective feedback. With this hat, you’ll examine the designs using these key points:

  • What can we see here? What does each element do? What is clear and what is not?
  • Compared to the product brief or client wishes, what is missing? Or what should be further refined?
  • Is the design consistent? Have we used the same elements or a different layout?
  • Do we need more input from the client?
  • Is the content clear? Did we pay attention to the microcopy?

In our experience, the person taking on the White Hat role will also make sure that the designs are optimal before we deliver the final product.

For example:
Do the designs look great on low-quality displays? Do we only use licensed fonts or free web fonts? Are all the images royalty free or otherwise watermarked so that the client doesn’t have to worry about those finer details? .etc.


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The Black Hat - Houston we have a problem!

The Black hat - Houston, we have a problem!

One of the most important roles is taken on by the black hat. If you put your black hat on, you have to be critical (and this time, I mean it!). You will focus on what could go wrong and what risks are being taken:

  • What will not work? (e.g. users might not understand this)
  • What risks do we have to consider? (e.g. This looks great on full HD but might not be responsive)
  • What are the disadvantages behind a certain solution?

The black hat has to be critical but always have to back up their arguments and provide sound evidence for each remark.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the black hat and the white hat (e.g., something is missing). But then again, two sets of eyes are better than one!

The Yellow Hat - Always look on the bright side of life!

The Yellow Hat - Always look on the bright side of life!

This ‘infectiously positive outlook’ might seem unusual when asking people to criticize designs, but you shouldn't focus only on the bad things. You might want to ask yourself: What can I learn from the good aspects of the design?

  • If you know a design solution is good; you can use it again later. You don't have to re-invent the wheel!
  • If you know what is good, you can communicate this to others. One of the most important skills of a designer is to be able to communicate a design decision.
  • Your designers will be happy; the whole team will be happy. Do I really have to explain why is it good to give positive feedback to someone on a job well done?

So if you are wearing your yellow hat, you will do the following:

  • Identify everything that is simply fantastic. What did you (and your team) do well and why?
  • What is great about the project?
  • What advantages does a certain solution have?

The “why” is very important, just like when you’re giving critical feedback. You have to find reasons to explain why that design decision is right and why users will love it (you will find that out when doing your research, won't you?).

Every designer (and non-designer) has to learn how to defend a design decision. The yellow hat helps them to do just that.

The Green hat - I've got an idea!

The Green Hat - I've got an idea!

This hat is one of my favorites. If you’re slipping on the green hat, the only thing you care about is finding new ways to improve and enhance the designs, breaking down all the boundaries. It’s your role to bring new ideas to the table and be creative!

  • What new features or solutions could further enhance the product?
  • How could you improve the existing designs?

The sky is the limit when it comes to brainstorming new ideas and solutions. After the brainstorming session, the team should decide what ideas to include, which ones can be discarded or which ideas should be saved for later. Bear in mind that you might not have the time and money to bring in all the ideas.

That or you don't want to go overboard with the project scope. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to seek out new alternatives, bringing in fresh, original ideas. And most of the time you will find small improvements and ideas that could be implemented!

Putting this all together

So, we’ve had a look at all of the roles and now we have the full team. Let's put all of the pieces together and create a Design Review.

Who to invite to the table?

Invite all the designers who are working on the project. Remember to also involve your stakeholders (or clients), developers and everybody who has knowledge on the project and will be working on it.


  1. Sit down with your team. Invite around 4-6 people to the session.
  2. Decide who is who - give a role to each person. It's OK if there are two people for one particular role.
  3. Print out the designs and put them on the whiteboard or look at them on your laptops. We fire up inVision and review the designs on our MacBooks.
  4. The facilitator (project manager or the designers) should introduce the designs. Make sure you know which designs you are going to review and some of the background information about the designs.
  5. Work separately for 20-25mins. Take a look at the designs and write down your comments according to your hat or role. We use a Google Spreadsheet for this, but you could also write them down on paper.
  6. When the time is up, read your comments one-by-one and discuss them with everyone else. Remember to give proper explanations. With the help of the facilitator, decide which comments to accept and add to the ‘to do list’. Together you will also see which comments can be discard and which can be saved for later.

An alternative way

We always select the roles randomly. This way, everybody will adopt one of the mindsets, and everybody can express their opinion.

However, you can also do this another way. The whole team focuses on one color at a time, and everybody will give comments according to that role. When you have gathered enough feedback, move to the next hat.

The downside I see here is that most of the people will give feedback when it's "their color." Critical people will enjoy the black and white hat, but will not try to do their best to work with the yellow or green hats.

Your gift to get started

I would like to share our Google Spreadsheet with you. On this template, you will find four tabs that indicate the four, different colors. This way, you can work in one doc simultaneously.

Get started with this sheet:

Click here to download the Design Review Sheet

Now it’s your turn - go ahead and create your first Design Review! Let me know what you think!

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