Design Critiques: How to Maintain Trust at Scale

Design critiques are an essential part of the design process. If run effectively, critiques can elevate a team’s work and contribute to a team culture of trust and collaboration. Continuing to make effective use of this time can be challenging as organizations grow and responsibilities shift. We spoke with design leaders at Facebook, Asana, and Medium to learn how they’ve maintained a productive critique process over time. Although there is no one-size-fits-all model, their insights provide a great blueprint for any growing design team.

 

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Share work early and often

Blaise DiPersia, a product designer at Facebook, said a sign of a successful critique is when designers trust each other enough that they “share their work early and often.” Work in early stages retains a range of possibility, but as work is refined, it often limits the scope of the feedback teammates can offer. “It took us a few years, but now this practice is in our company and design team DNA. Raw, embarrassing, unstructured work needs to be accepted.” Amanda Buzard, a design manager at Asana, agrees: “When we see more projects come through design critique at early stages, we can tell that designers are finding the meetings valuable and are open to feedback.”

On a small design team at a young company, trust often exists naturally around sharing work in its early stages. Members of a small design team have opportunities to work more closely, there are fewer people in the room during critiques, and there tends to be less hierarchy in the org structure. A larger group setting can be less conducive to vulnerability because sharing work feels like you’re on stage rather than a part of a conversation. Amanda said, “It can be intimidating to get feedback from someone at the executive level, and difficult to weigh that equally with feedback from a direct peer.” The desire to put your best foot forward becomes strong when there are new and less familiar personalities in the room and some team members are distinguished with leadership roles. Over time, trust in the process can break down and design critiques can become less effective.

Signs that trust is fading

Keep an eye out for signs that trust is fading as your team grows. “When people aren’t having candid, early-and-often type of conversations, and not showing napkin sketches or wireframes, you know something has gone awry,” said Bradley Artziniega, a design lead at Medium. The purpose of design critiques are to solicit feedback on work at all stages of development. When presenting nearly finished (or even finished) work becomes the norm at every design critique, it’s a sign that designers no longer feel they can bring early-stage ideas in front of the group in a productive or safe way.

Another indicator is unequal participation or lack of productive discussion among meeting attendees. Missed meetings or dread can be a sign that critiques have stopped being helpful or that they’ve even become a point of anxiety for team members.When we repeatedly cancel our standing design critique meeting, we can surmise that it’s no longer valuable to the team. This is when we shake up the process,” said Amanda.

Regardless of role or size of team, we hope these insights will inspire thoughtful discussion about how to adapt your design critique to meet your team’s needs and how to maintain a culture of trust.

 

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How to Create an Environment of Trust

1. Host in a room that’s small, comfortable & casual

As your team grows, what might have once been a stand-up or a crowd-around-the-desk type of critique may now be an hour scheduled behind closed doors. Seemingly small changes to a physical space can have large effects on the feel of a meeting. “The large conference room setting felt too formal” for the Asana design team, said Amanda, “so we re-located to a smaller open space with floor seating.” The change was transformative. Gathering the team in a more intimate space with comfortable seating influenced the spirit of the meeting in a positive way.

2. Keep the meeting small

There are two easy ways to tell that the design critique has become too big. One, there isn’t enough time for everyone to get constructive feedback on their work, or two, members of the meeting don’t have enough context on a project to offer a helpful response. “We try to keep the number of people in the room as small as possible for review meetings,” said Amanda. “It’s intimidating to present your work—especially as a new hire—to a large group.”

If the number of attendees keeps increasing, try splitting up the meetings for distinct projects or areas of focus like Product Design and Marketing Design. If design critiques become subdivided, consider ways to maintain unity across the design organization in a different setting, like a casual weekly gathering or regular team outings.  

3. Create a check-in ritual

Sometimes meetings can get off to a slow start if personal conversations take a while to fade. As team size increases, it becomes increasingly important to start on time and keep meetings moving along on schedule.

Bradley’s team at Medium has instituted a check-in ritual that sets aside time for the design team to connect before diving into critique. “We go around the room in a circle and each person shares one sentence that summarizes how they’re feeling in that moment. Simple statements like ‘I was at the office late last night, so I’m moving slowly today,’ or ‘I had breakfast with an old friend am feeling energized’ remind everyone of the unique perspectives and energies that any one person can bring to the table on a given day.” Sharing in a ritualized manner helps the meeting start quickly, making side conversations unnecessary, and also sets the tone for vulnerability and honesty between team members. It breaks the ice for those who are more hesitant to talk and also limits personal emotions that can be misdirected at someone’s work.

 

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4. Continue the conversation one-on-one

When the team is small, side conversations and casual feedback cycles naturally happen outside of a formal design critique meeting. This collaboration is a natural part of the design process but can take a concerted effort when the team is large and doesn’t sit together. Setting aside one-on-one time with teammates is a great way to continue a discussion that might have been cut short in effort to keep a design critique meeting on schedule.  

More intimate conversations can be especially important to clarify a point or work through feedback that was ineffectively communicated. Amanda suggests “when giving difficult feedback that is hard to articulate, offer to have a one-on-one follow-up with the person receiving the feedback, so you can work through it together.

5. Formalize meeting structure & ground rules

A good critique will have defined structure and a leader who keeps it on track,” said Blaise.

It’s natural to feel resistance to formalizing process for fear that it will take the fun out of things or feel corporate, but it’s essential as a team grows. Set up explicit ground rules based on what’s been working for your team. Write them down and discuss them openly with everyone involved.

Blaise emphasized the importance of both teaching new hires your team’s best practices and being inclusive to each new voice. “It’s important,” he added, “to actually tell somebody how things are done and not just assume they know how everybody is going to behave. And it’s to your team’s advantage to ask them the techniques that they likeand those they don’t.”

Although each team should establish a unique structure and process to best serve its needs, here are a few tried-and-true tactics:

  1. Name a facilitator to keep the meeting on track.
  2. Before the meeting, ask each presenter sign up for the amount of time they need for feedback.
  3. When presenting your work, always state which aspects of the work you’re seeking feedback on.
  4. Give feedback one by one around the room. Stop when time is up or when a round of feedback yields only ‘+1’ or ‘pass.’
  5. When receiving feedback on your work, just listen. Speak up only to respond to a clarifying question.

 

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6. Always be re-evaluating

“The way design critique is run will change over time as the team’s needs change,” said Blaise. “New people or hard design problems may need extra time and it’s important to adjust your process to support these challenges.” Don’t set the ground rules once and expect them to work forever; the structure of the meeting should be an iterative, ongoing process. Keep the dialogue open, ask people what they find most valuable or ways to improve the meetings, and be open to changing things up. “At Facebook, we check in on critique every few months to make sure people are getting what they need and they think the team’s work is up to the standards we all value. And we constantly change our process to support those needs.”


For a growing team, design critiques will never feel exactly as they did when the team was just a few people, but that’s okay. What’s important is that they always feel productive and conducive to creativity and growth. Be excited by the new and unpolished ideas that emerge and know that you’re on a path to building and maintaining a design culture of trust.

Thanks to all our contributors for their openness and insights. If you have lessons about effective design critiques that you’d like to share, tweet at us at @designerfund




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