Six guidelines to follow if you see a different way to solve a design problem
“Too many chefs spoil the soup” is an apt proverb for describing the tension that can arise in large-scale creative team collaboration. How do sizable design departments reconcile the individual vision and innate sense of style that creative people possess, when conflicts in personal taste and execution threaten to spoil the soup? Even with the advent of design systems, ‘the way you designed it’ isn’t always the same as ‘the way I would have designed it’ and if patience runs in short supply, opinions flare — costing time for design teams and testing relationships with heated discourse.
So what do you do if you find yourself dismantling a colleague’s design solution, because you think your approach could be better, even with collaborative design team critiques and reviews? First, take a deep breath … then follow these guidelines to the letter. (Your manager will thank you for it.) These best practices preserve trust and respect — essential ingredients for any functional group — and you’ll notice themes including respecting your fellow designers, assuming personal responsibility, and exhibiting grace, humility, maturity, and collaborative spirit.
1 Make sure you know as much about the design problem being solved as anyone else does.
It’s all too easy to scan over another designer’s output and dismiss it with the idea that you could do better. Before you judge: proactively ask questions about the thought process informing your teammate’s solution, so your own assessment will be as well-informed. Do not assume you know everything about the problem space … a key unknown detail may have influenced your fellow designer’s choice or execution. If you’re truly interested about what the original designer created, they will likely want to engage about the problem, seek your perspective, and share their thinking. It is possible they already considered your ideas, but discarded them for good reason. Be empathetic and imagine how you would feel if you invested effort in designing something, only to have a less-informed colleague reimagine your work with only surface-level perspective.
2 Practice good critique etiquette. In a review for a concept you’d rather see redesigned, be aware this is not the time to advocate scrapping it in favor of your new model.
Instead, give constructive feedback for the design up for review — then take time separately to show your own alternative to the lead designer and/or team. The purpose of a critique is to give feedback to improve the incumbent design solution, not bring it down to make space for your own idea. If your concept truly is better, it deserves its own dedicated time for review — don’t do a worthy concept the injustice of hijacking designated time from another. Work with your manager to properly and professionally involve others, and assess priorities in conceiving an alternative.
3 Own your alternative by sketching it out yourself. No one else can take responsibility for your new idea, or even really see it in the first place, but you. A teammate with an incumbent design can respond to your feedback, but they cannot reimagine the concept on your behalf. Your alternative must mean enough to you that you are willing and capable of visualizing a complete plan of how it works, and articulate cogently its advantages.
Respectfully walk your lead designer and/or team through your alternative. It doesn’t have to be perfect or hi-fidelity (and really, it shouldn’t be), but you need to have assembled enough thought to demonstrate the whole of your idea.
4Don’t waste time debating opposing theories. Instead, use data to support your position. Prep a time-boxed test plan and submit for the team’s review, as a fair and real method to assess success for either design concept. Identify the key performance metrics either design option should be tested against to decide which should be implemented. Just as with building out the alternative design — don’t expect others to execute testing for you. Take responsibility for disrupting project momentum, and do everything you can to help make up for the lost time that would occur as the team disengages from the incumbent solution and transitions to yours. After running your tests, present data with specificity to support conclusions.
5Cultivate a sense for when it’s a good thing to challenge the status quo, vs. letting it go. Sometimes it’s best to curb perfectionistic tendencies, and make emotional space to allow an incrementally less optimal design solution stay in production if need be. Your newer, better solution must bring significant — not marginal—benefits in order to outweigh the cost of lost project momentum. Remember, perfectionism can be the enemy of done, according to this Forbes article.
6Always be gracious and humble in your tone and demeanor. Successful problem-solving as a team requires thoughtful communication and genuine goodwill. If your heart’s intent is personally competitive, and not truly rooted in the success of the product — your teammates will pick it up in your body language and manner of speaking. Ultimately, this will do your design career and reputation more harm than good, no matter how excellent your talent or skills. ❒