How to give constructive criticism without being a jerk

Have you ever been asked to critique a fellow designer’s project that needs more than a little bit of work?

You don’t want to come off as snooty or rude and you certainly don’t want to hurt their feelings, but you do need to make it clear that there are several improvements that could be made.

And while your mind automatically wants to mess around with it on your own, it’s not your project, so what you’re really looking to offer is general tips rather than a step-by-step instructional guide.

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So here are a few tips on how to give constructive criticism without being a jerk:

Offer praise first

Find something praiseworthy about the project. It can be their attention to detail on their illustration, the layout of the text, or their font choices (or something else entirely).

When the compliment comes after the critique, it sounds less sincere. (Imagine if someone walked up to you and said, “Ugh. That jacket is horrid. But nice shoes.”)

Furthermore, starting the conversation on a positive note softens the blow of the improvements they need to make.

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Leave your opinion out of it

Truly, it doesn’t matter if you think it sucks. What’s important is whether it satisfies the client’s goals. Frame your suggestions based on how to improve their work, not what you think of it right now.

Instead of:

Can you choose a different color? That one is awful.”


Is there a particular reason you chose that color? Think about who the audience is and what colors they will respond best to.”

Share principles, not instructions

Your critique should never be a step-by-step guide on how you would improve the project. Rather, teach your fellow designer how to think critically about their own project.

  • Ask them questions about why they made the choices they did on the elements that need work.
  • Remind them of design principles they may be overlooking.
  • Suggest collaboration with others on skills (such as copywriting or photography) that are difficult to master quickly.

Example: “Think about hierarchy. Right now there are several elements competing for attention. Which one makes the most sense to be the focus, and which ones should be sub-elements?”

Be kind

Be honest but gentle. Choose your words carefully. Use humor if you can to soften your comments.

It takes guts to ask another designer where you’re lacking on a project, and one day you just might be on the receiving end.

You never know; you might find a great peer!

Tip: Especially on critiques for newer designers, share links to great designers and projects so they can see what level their design needs to be at to be considered professional work.

What tips can you share?

Do you have any great tips on giving constructive criticism? Share them in the comments on this post!

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  1. Good article.

    Diplomacy is key. I would ask questions about the decisions they made and then I would say “That’s good” (if it’s good) or “That’s okay” (if it’s not so good) Then I would say what I would have done differently.

    Thanks April and Douglas.

  2. Years ago, my boss brought in a stand-up comic to teach us a basic lesson about communication and it changed the way I speak with people. I still refer to it as the “Yes And No But” Rule:

    “When we say “but” we negate everything before it.

    eg: “You delivered a touching, entertaining speech, but you could project your voice more.” The speaker will only remember, “You could project your voice more.”

    In business and social situations, the more we can respond, “Yes. and…” instead of “No, but…” to the people around us, the more likely we will earn acceptance and cooperation.

    “Yes” validates and accepts the other person;
    “no” rejects the other person.
    “And” augments the other person’s thoughts;
    “but” rejects everything before it.

    “Yes and…” – validates what the other person says as true then adds more info to support the idea.
    “Yes but…” – validates the other person’s right to speak then negates what they said.
    “No and…” – rejects the other person’s right to speak and adds more reasons to reject the idea.
    “No but… – rejects the other person and rejcts their idea.

    Only one out of these four possibilities gives a positive result. “Yes and…”

    People will respond more positively to what is said and it avoids the competitiveness of being ‘right’.

    Listen for it when you are discussing ideas with people.

    1. Wow, that’s brilliant, Douglas! This is headed straight for my bag of tricks. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing!

    2. That is fascinating Douglas, I’m so going to remember that one, not just for critiquing projects either, I can see that would so useful in lots of situations! Great advice!

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