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How to make design reviews productive

The Storytelling Studio aims to share work early and often with all stakeholders involved on a given project. We believe in transparency, and as a result share design work at every stage: research, sketches, mood boards, wireframes, and more.

The purpose of a design review is to review and discuss all design progress up to that point. It’s important that designers share their own work and to talk about the work they are doing, rather than a different person on the team sharing the work. A design review does not need to solve every problem, but it should identify areas for improvement so the designer can handle revisions and solutions. We hold a few types of design meetings:

  • Studio project-specific reviews: We conduct project-specific reviews frequently in order to address visual design, usability, and user experience concerns. These meetings typically include the project team and other Studio designers.
  • Larger team design reviews: We also hold full team design reviews, during which everyone involved in a project attends and can offer feedback. This includes reporters, editors, developers, and designers. They are important for transparency and to ensure all stakeholders are included in the design process.
  • Bi-weekly inspiration design meetings: The Studio, with optional attendees from other teams, discusses work that has been published from Vox Media or other outlets. It’s a chance to review inspiration without the stress of changing design on a deadline.

Here are a few things you can do to help your design reviews be effective and productive:

Prepare for the meeting

  • Show work early and often. Don’t only hold design reviews with high-fidelity design mocks. It’s important to get feedback at every stage of the design process from research, to sketches, to wireframes, and beyond.
  • Prepare for the format of the review. Are you going to share your screen? Circulate a link? Decide this early so you can prepare adequately.
  • Gather all your work in a presentation-ready format. This could mean a Google Slides presentation, a PDF, a link to a website, or any other format. You shouldn’t be scrambling through a layered design file during a design review.
  • Practice running through your presentation. You can practice in front of your immediate team, or just one collaborator. Get comfortable with all your talking points and moving through your work.
  • Take notes on the most important talking points.
  • Designate a note-taker for the design review.

Meet in-person, or via video call

  • Meet in-person, when possible, to avoid miscommunication and to allow for open discussion.
  • Avoid email or Slack design reviews.
  • If you must share design work via email or Slack, schedule a follow up in-person call to get feedback and discuss any questions. Design feedback should only be communicated in-person or on a video call, and decisions should never be made in Slack or email.

Clearly establish goals

  • Briefly recap the previous meeting or interaction. Get everyone on the same page about the process and how the design has gotten to this point.
  • Explain what type of meeting this will be. Should the conversation be open-ended and divergent or more focused and convergent?
  • Establish the points of focus to discuss. If you are presenting sketches, explain that the meeting is about concepts, not fidelity. On the other hand, if you are sharing a polished logo, small details like type kerning may be discussed.
  • Express what decisions (if any) need to be made as a part of this meeting.

Present your work

  • Explain the problem you are trying to solve with your work. For example, you could say, “these mocks aim to improve the typographic hierarchy of our feature headlines.”
  • Walk through the work high-level at first. Try not to ask questions during this phase and instead focus on the bigger picture.
  • Highlight any important features and details that accomplish specific project goals.

Facilitate productive conversation

  • Do: Ask targeted questions like “does this color accurately reflect the tone of the story?”
  • Don’t: Ask vague questions like “do you like this color?”
  • Do: Distance yourself from the work.
  • Don’t: Take the discussion personally. The conversation is about the work, not the designer.
  • Do: Identify problems. Steer all conversation away from solutions.
  • Don’t: Try to solve problems in this meeting. Instead, get to the root of the problem so that you can solve it later.
  • Do: Stay on topic.
  • Don’t: Go on tangents. If a tangent is being discussed, steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.

Recap the meeting and set clear next steps

  • Recap any high-level takeaways from the design review.
  • Share next steps for the project, or communicate when the next steps will be shared with everyone.

Follow-up

  • Share notes and next steps from the meeting with everyone involved in the project.
  • Set up another design review and follow these steps from the beginning!

Shout out to Jason Santa Maria, who helped us document a great baseline on how, when, and why we hold design reviews on this team. Much of this post is adapted from internal documentation that he started.