Disarming loaded feedback

While I was off sipping Mojitos in a pool bar in Portugal, Laura Kalbag wrote a column for A List Apart about eliciting more effective feedback from clients. She shared her perspective and experience on the subject. Please read that before you read this. Her approach works for her, but that didn’t keep a couple of commenters from declaring that she was wrong.

She’s not wrong. There is no wrong in dealing with clients, unless you say or do something that jeopardizes the relationship or the end result.

Here’s a fact: every client is different. Every contractor is different. And every client/contractor relationship is different. Every unique combination of personality, chemistry, experience and expertise calls for an appropriate approach. And mine might not be Laura’s, and hers might not be yours.

I think that in addition to articles about shaving two bytes off of your JavaScript and demos of cartoon characters made with pure CSS, we should start sharing more of how we deal with clients (if you are fortunate enough—yes, I mean that—to be in that position). That would be a good thing.

Before starting my consultancy, I ran a design and development firm. I’m a schooled graphic designer, but selling was completely new to me and I eventually found myself in the position of having to do it, and with big and sometimes scary clients. While my previous experience pitching designs as a print art director was useful, selling websites (which design presentations are a part of) is not quite the same.

Stop getting defensive

I have a pretty thick skin about critics of my design, as long as they’re not me. I torture myself. But stuff others say, I (usually) handle pretty well. But, boy, do I have questions when they do.

What helps keep me from getting defensive—on good days—is a sort of detachment from the work. I mentally try and cut myself loose from it. Almost as if it’s someone else’s. And then I await the comments and don’t absorb them. I try and imagine that the comment or question is a physical thing. Something I can put on the table and examine. Because I’m going to do a sort of autopsy on this thing. And if I do end up having to implement the client’s will (it does happen), I can do so knowing I’ve done my best to handle the situation well.

There are three main ways I tend to deal with client comments on design work, or any work, for that matter (in no particular order):

  • Defer
  • Drill down
  • Disarm

(Yes, I did spend a minute or two trying to find synonyms for these words that start with a “D”. Have fun, Twitter.)


If I do happen to be feeling overly emotional or defensive on a particular day, or if I don’t know how to deal with it right at the moment, I’ll just hear the comment or listen to the question and make a note of it.

“Okay. we’ll look into that”, or “Thank you. I’ll discuss that with the team and we’ll get back to you”, are examples of how I might react. This tactic is particularly useful for larger clients in big meetings with lots of stakeholders. Trust me, there’s enough discussion, politics, and psychology going on in those meetings. I’ll regroup with my contact later by phone or in a separate meeting.

Drill down

In many cases (seriously), someone knowledgable on the client side gives useful and informed feedback, and all that needs to be done is to drill down to specifics:

Client: “Given the recent discussions about hamburger icons and our lack of data, I’m concerned about the use of solely the icon.”

Designer: “Are you thinking in terms of an alternative icon, or more in terms of text?”

Client: “I’m not sure. I like the clarity of text but I don’t want it to be boring.”

Designer: “There are ways we can design text so that it stands out visually, and so that customers know that they can click or tap on it. Would it be worth exploring that?”

Client: “Yes, that sounds great! Here’s lots of money.”

Okay, maybe not that last bit.


This last one is what I do when I get feedback I can’t do anything useful with. I basically encourage the client to rephrase or reconsider their feedback. I want them to figure out what their problem is and then tell me. Or at least get close to it so that I can do a proper drill-down.

One thing I will not do is waste my time on discussions of taste. I’m only interested in someone else’s proposed solution if they are able to properly articulate the problem.

This is tough, because how you do it depends on your personality and your relationship with your client. If you want to be sarcastic or use some humor, you’d better know how that will pan out for you.

Some clients, if they were to say “make the logo bigger”, I could squint at the page, straining to see the obvious logo like a guy without his reading glasses. “Where—what? You can see that thing? You have great eyes. All I can see is your product.”

They get the point and have a laugh. Then we discuss the real problem.

With other clients, you can still disarm loaded feedback without humor:

Client: “The text is too large.”

Designer: “Okay. Too large compared to what, exactly?”

Or this dangerous one:

Client: “We want a carousel. Users like carousels.”

Designer (delivered sincerely and without any sarcasm): “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had user data.” (implied question)

Client: “We don’t.”

Designer: “Oh. You said, ‘Users like carousels.’ I’m curious which users you were referring to?” (question)

Et cetera. This is a slightly obnoxious example, but you get the point. You also have to be very, very careful. The point is not to jab or insult, but to encourage deeper thinking about the problem and more useful feedback. Disarming is generally asking questions about their feedback. And then questions about their answers. Do not state your knowledge or opinion on any matter at this point. You must latch onto everything the say without giving them anything to argue with.

The key to disarming is to focus on what the person said, and return it to them, as a question, in such a way that they must reconsider and return more refined feedback or information to you. So that you can do your job.

That’s how I tend to deal with feedback, in a very small nutshell. I enjoyed reading Laura’s, and I’d certainly enjoy reading how more people approach client feedback.

Hint, hint.

1 thought on “Disarming loaded feedback

  1. What also helps a lot, is a long term relationship with your client. You have to get to know each other. It makes it easier to put feedback in perspective, and the client won’t be offended as easily when you question his/her feedback.

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