Who has the credentials to deliver design feedback?

Certification of giving feedback

I once heard someone say that to create you need an ego—the ego to believe that what you are making can somehow improve the world.

Our ego can be a tool. It is empowering. It allows us to take risks and make something out of nothing. But sometimes, it can prevent us from achieving more.

I’ve been reading several posts from designers: “If your portfolio isn’t great, I don’t trust your feedback,” and “If you don’t have real-world work to show, I don’t want your feedback.” Essentially: “Show me your credentials before I consider your input.” I understand where this line of thinking comes from, but I disagree with these statements. Feedback limited to people with perceived “credentials” only goes so deep. Context is vital; if you are designing an app for developers managing back-end servers, showing a typical consumer the designs may be unhelpful. But maybe not?

In a recent interview, one of the world’s most admired music producers, Rick Rubin, admitted: “I know nothing about music, I have no technical ability.” Rubin has no technical credentials, yet he is one of the most sought producers in the world. Why? It’s because he knows how to help musicians elevate their sound.

“I know nothing about music. I have no technical ability.” 

Executing and delivering feedback are different skills

I have been designing professionally since 2007 and spent hours in design critiques with many designers. Observing reviews and critiques has led me to believe that executing and delivering feedback are very different skill sets. I’ve witnessed some of the best design executors struggle with providing actionable feedback and also seen non-design practitioners like managers with research backgrounds ask extremely thought-provoking questions, which elevated designs. 

Being an exceptional designer does not equate to being skilled at delivering feedback that enhances the work of others. Some of the best technical designers I know give feedback that is so prescriptive it leads to dead-ends. I will be the first to admit I have been guilty of this.

My favorite folks to submit designs to aren’t necessarily designers. They are the people who ask great questions, force me to check my assumptions, and encourage me to iterate on areas that don’t resonate.

Filtering feedback

Designers shouldn’t disqualify feedback based on the person delivering it. We need to learn the skill of filtering feedback. What resonates, what is true, and how do I understand what someone is feeling?

I love what Bill Hader (a well known-comedian) said in this interview: “When people give you notes and tell you that it’s wrong, they are usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re wrong.”

Learning to filter out the noise is a fantastic skill for designers. I am growing this skill. We need to be open to feedback and home in on the “what is wrong” and “what makes it wrong,” and be less offended by the notes of “how to fix it.”