Design feedback made simple: 4 steps to better collaboration

The design team at Blue State Digital tends to structure projects so each designer has ownership over an account or two (or five). In that way, one designer becomes super knowledgeable on that account, from their brand guidelines to the best methods of communication and delivery. Historical knowledge informs future design decisions and is a great way to build trust and understanding in a client relationship, which is crucial as an agency designer.

But what is the downside of designers working exclusively on different things? Without formal design collaboration, such as multiple designers assigned to a project, we can become shortsighted if we don’t go out of our way to seek helpful feedback that propels our work forward. Especially for those of us in smaller offices, it can be isolating without many people to bounce ideas off of or make suggestions when we get stuck.

The first question to ask is: Why aren’t we asking each other for help to begin with? There could be many factors at play here: Will I be sent back to the drawing board? Does it look like I don’t know what I’m doing? Is my team is too busy? Am I really just that good? These are realistic reasons why we wouldn’t naturally involve others in our daily flow—but all things we need to get past in order to make our design work better.

With a team that sits across four offices on two different coasts, we’re starting to formalize the ways we Collaborate (with a capital C), but I’m on a mission to improve the less formal means of collaboration (lowercase c), so that good ideas can thrive, no matter what time zone a designer’s desk is located.

Here are four small ways we’ve gotten started:

1. Set up casual check-ins. In Oakland, we have daily stand-ups at the end of the day. Before this started, the three of us would independently jam through assignments, earbuds in, and deliver the work directly to our project teams—without any peer review. Now, we have a recurring time to quickly share creative, offer feedback, or just look at cool stuff.

How to do it: Schedule daily 15-minute meetings for you and your in-office designers. When that calendar reminder dings, be diligent about stopping, getting up from your desk, and saying, “Hey, whatcha working on? Can I see?”

2. Keep critiques productive. We’ve stressed the importance of giving good feedback at BSD, but it’s just as important to learn how to ask for it. On Thursdays, our larger team breaks up into 3-5 person critique groups to see what’s cookin’ across offices and projects. To prevent these reviews from being just a show-and-tell, the presenting designer starts by identifying where she needs or wants feedback. If you’re simply flipping through comps and not asking questions, you miss out on a productive feedback loop or a chance to give your work a fresh perspective.

How to do it: When sharing your work, remember to allow space for fruitful discussion. Identify what you want feedback on: is it the hierarchy? Are you having trouble visualizing a metaphor? Help your peers help you by articulating your problem. And if you are sharing work that has already been sent to the client, ask retrospective questions, like “what would you have done differently?”

3. Crowdsource in-house ideas. A few weeks ago, I hijacked time from each of our three crit groups to get help with a super fast branding project. I wrote a short brief and then asked everyone to sketch for ten minutes during the meeting. Within a week, we had a final logo that came from a combination of two designers’ sketched ideas.

By crowdsourcing a large volume of ideas, I was able to refine and iterate much faster than operating solo—and everyone else got a lively, no-strings-attached creative exercise out of it.

How to do it: Be on the lookout for opportunities to involve others in brainstorming. Keep the commitment small (30 minutes, no homework or follow-up work expected) and come prepared with a creative brief to make the most of everyone’s time.

4. Experiment with tools. Emails get lost, screenshares are fleeting, and links in docs or spreadsheets don’t provide context until it’s opened. Easily sending visuals is a serious barrier to sharing work. As an agency, we recently migrated to Slack. Now sharing snippets of work is easier than ever, especially within dedicated channels for crit groups and ongoing discussions (this is not a paid endorsement, I’m just a big fan).

In addition to Slack, we’re currently demoing Wake. It’s a visual feed that aggregates what everyone in the group is working on, with an ultra simple interface and snappy filters to facilitate sorting and tagging. Our team feels more connected to each other by seeing, commenting on, and sharing what’s happening across their projects.

How to do it: Keep an eye on trends in the design community. If there’s buzz online about a new tool, it’s probably solving a problem that you may or may not realize exists. Be sure to try it out with a small group before rolling it out to a larger team.

Building an iterative and collaborative team culture doesn’t have to mean adding more meetings or formalizing the process—even some small changes can make a world of difference.

What are some ways you’re collaborating? Let us know in the comments.