Should you solicit feedback from your customers on decisions about your branding, design, or website?
It’s a pretty loaded question. This is a highly opinionated and subjective article, so feel free to disagree with me (and for reasons I’ll go into soon, I don’t particularly care if you do or not!).
Whenever a company launches a new brand identity, changes their name, or revamps their website, people are very quick to judge. That’s part of what’s fun about such brand refresh initiatives—it gets people engaged and interested in what you’re doing as a company!
But you shouldn’t pay so much attention to it, especially the negative feedback.
Why am I saying this?
Is it because I’m incredibly insecure as a designer, and wish to insulate myself from criticism? Protect my fragile ego? Get out in front of people exposing me for doing subpar work?!
Or is it because I’m a contrarian and stubborn asshole? Well, maybe, but hear me out anyway.
I think it’s great that people have opinions, and sometimes a few of them are even quite useful.
(And it’s a big but.)
It can be detrimental to the success of any big project to be too concerned about what people think, even if the feedback they offer up is well-intentioned.
Let’s look briefly at the Formula One rebrand, which I think illustrates my point nicely.
Formula One controversy
Take Formula One for example. A brand beloved by millions of dedicated fans.
In 2017, they revealed a new brand identity, which was a total rehaul from the identity that had been in use for many decades prior to the change.
People went nuts.
Thousands of people expressed their outrage on Twitter and, well, pretty much every platform they could get ahold of.
And within a couple of hours, an onslaught of low-tier designers tried to capitalize on the controversy by claiming they could “do a muuuch better job for waaaay less money”, submitting their ugly versions of the logo and enjoying the praise of hundreds of disgruntled F1 fans.
Here’s one example:
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Now, as a side note, Mr. Spiering’s logo is objectively bad. The negative space between the strokes is razor-thin, which means the symbol breaks down when you scale it to smaller sizes. He’s not a good designer. (And yes, I fully realize how ironic it is that I’m critiquing a design in this article.)
Also, look at some of the replies: “you should’ve made the E green, you should’ve done this, you should’ve done that!” People just can’t help themselves. It’s incredible.
Even some of the most prominent Formula 1 racers in the world seized the opportunity to be design critics for a day. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both made critical comments about the new logo:
Now, a less seasoned executive might have caved under the pressure.
That’s what Nathan Barry did when ConvertKit changed their name to Seva, and then changed it back to ConvertKit a couple of weeks after because of accusations of “cultural appropriation” (seva is a Sikh concept that translates roughly to “selfless service”).
But the Formula One management doubled down.
Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director of motorsport and industry veteran fired back, saying that changing the company’s logo was a “major priority”, and that its predecessor “was neither iconic or memorable.”
You know, a rebrand isn’t something that you suddenly decide to do one day because you’re bored at work. It’s a large investment, and you’re taking a big risk when you make it.
Formula One made the decision to rebrand because they had outgrown the old one, and needed (1) something flexible and (2) something that was actually aligned with their new business strategy.
The company was changing, and the brand identity needed to reflect that.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner offered this nugget of wisdom when asked what he thought of the new F1 logo:
“Does it talk to me? If it generates more cash it is talking very nicely.”
Design is a business expense. It is judged by whether or not it accomplishes a business goal—and at the end of the day, by its ROI. It is not art.
So what were the business objectives that the Formula One rebrand attempted to accomplish?
Better adapted to the digital world
Easier to apply on merchandise (you literally could not stitch the old logo onto clothing, for example)
Expand into the e-sports space
Appeal to a younger audience
Communicate to fans and sponsors that the brand is entering a new era
With those objectives in mind, the new logo—and the whole rebrand in general—is perfect.
Of course, your average Formula One fan isn’t going to consider those things. They have an emotional attachment to the old logo, and will have a negative knee-jerk reaction to the change.
Did Formula One upset some people and possibly lose some brand equity in the immediate aftermath of the rebrand? Sure. But people get over it, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to build brand equity when you can actually make your brand more visible—for example by using your logo to make some cool-looking merchandise!
Alright, enough about this Formula One nonsense.
Here’s why you shouldn’t care what people say about your new logo, your new name, or, well, any important strategic decision about your company:
Outsiders don’t know anything
When a client of mine launched his new website the other day, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
But there was a couple of people who had, well, suggestions.
I don’t want to put anyone on blast and I don’t mean to give this guy any grief, but this one example in particular stood out to me and it illustrates my point perfectly:
everything is very good except maybe I'd change "Level up" either in terms of font or anything else. maybe make it more fat. maybe make it red.— ✝️Divided and Conquered🇩🇪 (@NoNameCulture) December 10, 2018
maybe make both level up and "subscribe" red. i dont have the solution frankly, but it could be improved im certain. rest is great.
Let’s break this down.
He thinks the headlines need to be changed. Why?
He has no idea what the design brief looked like. How can he be so sure that “red and bold” would be a more appropriate choice than black and regular weight for the look and feel we’re going for? He can’t! He doesn’t have a clue.
Is he making these suggestions because it would improve the conversion rate of the page? But that would require (1) a reliable benchmark, (2) an A/B-test where other variables are controlled for, and (3) access to the resulting data. Of course, he has none of those things!
In other words: Outsiders don’t know anything!
They’re not your ideal customer
If you’ve gone through a rigorous brand strategy process (as you should) and used it to create the design brief, it might be that people who dislike your logotype or complain about how your website should have this and that feature, just aren’t in your target demographic.
The people who shop at Burberry are very different from the people who shop at Gap. Parents who buy their kids Lunchables are very different from parents who only shop organic food. Corvette’s target demographic is different from Jaguar’s or Ferrari’s.
You shouldn’t try to appease everybody. If some people dislike your name, or your logo, or your website, that might even be a good thing. It could mean you’re repelling people who aren’t a good fit for your product, and attracting people who are.
Design by committee is a surefire recipe to mediocrity
I don’t care if they’re your board members, your wife, a highly targeted focus group, or the couple down the street. Do not involve them in the design process.
Great solutions are born out of vision + process + craftsmanship. Committees are where creativity goes to die.
If everyone on your board of directors or in your c-suite has to be a part of the process and sign off on every decision, you’ll just end up with a mediocre and watered-down solution that’s met with the least resistance.
Of course, we have to be practical about this sort of thing. Not everyone is Steve Jobs. Despite having “executive” in their job title, CEOs can’t just bulldoze everyone else and do what they want.
Here’s how I manage projects. Doesn’t matter if we’re naming a company, designing a new brand identity, or building a website. The process is the same:
Get alignment from key stakeholders on the strategic objectives early on
Assign one decision-maker on the client-side and one art director on the agency side
Decision-maker signs off on the work at key milestones, no committee-style feedback
Since implementing this way of doing branding and design work, I have not had any change orders or revision requests from clients. Client satisfaction has increased because they’re elated that a vendor finally does what they’re paid for properly.
When is it okay to listen?
Design is not art. Everyone’s opinion does not matter. Someone needs to take charge.
About these things, I am very resolute.
But, I’m not arrogant. (Well, not always.)
There are occasions when you should actually listen to other people’s feedback. In fact, not doing so can seriously hurt your business.
If you have a product or website where usability is a big concern, you probably need to do usability testing. This means you’re inviting people who currently use your product, or non-users who fit your target demographic, to give you feedback on how easy it is to use.
You should really listen to them.
And once again, it’s a big but.
This maxim comes with a major reservation:
Do not listen to their proposed solutions.
In fact, that’s the first rule of usability design: don’t listen to users.
Users aren’t usability experts. They can help you identify the problems and shortcomings of your product, but the solutions to those problems need to come from experts who actually know what they’re doing.
Don’t outsource usability design to your customers. It’s lazy and cheap.
Technical feedback from competent designers
This exception is particularly directed at my colleagues in the creative professions.
You don’t need to know anything about the underlying business objectives to determine that a logo doesn’t scale well, that the typography on a website is difficult to read, or that a brand name is difficult to spell or pronounce.
These are technical matters, and there is a right or wrong here that outside observers can identify. Solicit technical feedback well before you make something public, and be humble to the fact that it’s very easy to overlook technical details when you’re very deeply involved in a project. You become blind to things that others can see immediately.
And don’t be afraid to offer technical feedback to others, even if it’s unsolicited: just make sure you’re being constructive about it. And if the feedback is unsolicited, don’t obsess over tiny details that actually don’t really make a big difference. No one likes small-minded pedantry.
So, there you are.
My perspective on feedback, and the role that it serves in branding.
I’m a little nervous about publishing this article, because I really didn’t hold any punches or try to be more nuanced for the sake of not offending anyone.
This could damage my design business, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take.