Some insights can get the visual side of software design off on the wrong foot and derail efforts already underway, especially when it comes to the user interface and experience (UI/UX). Topping the list is client feedback like “just make it pretty,” a phrase as vague as it is frustrating when you’re a designer looking for a toehold to move a project along.

“Pretty” is subjective, right? For one person, pretty could be all about jumping on the latest design trend that pushes the envelope, but for someone else, it’s about sticking to tried-and-true patterns. Adding complexity is that descriptors like “pretty” are moving targets – what’s considered “hot” one day can easily be “not” the next.

But hey, as a designer, you’ve got to roll with it. Sometimes a client’s thoughts can be opaque, but like a puzzle, it’s your job to connect the pieces in order to fulfill what they envision while keeping the end user in mind. The following tips can help you get what you need from executives, so that you’re able to deliver what they want.

From context to cocktail napkins

So what do you do when an executive doesn’t know how to give constructive feedback? It’s one thing for them to say they like or don’t like what you have delivered, but breaking down why they feel that way is another. 

You will need to pry their mind open, find out what the client means and get a handle on their context and internal aesthetics. Without some back and forth, you’ll have no idea what their jargon (industry specific or not) or definition of a term (which could be wrong, different or skewed) may really mean. It’s a skill to communicate abstract thoughts and it takes practice to dictate internal aesthetic tastes.

That said, have conversations and ask questions, even if they seem unrelated or off topic. Build a solid foundation for talking and make a cheat sheet for those terms that keep popping up. While you’re at it, get a feel for the type of working relationship the client is after. Do they want you to push back, state your opinions and drive work forward? Are they interested in an intellectual exchange and collaborating on ideas? Or are they really just looking for someone to deliver their vision without friction?

Next, set up consistent conversations to test stuff out and get feedback that will help build their design-speak muscles. As you do, use a channel they are most comfortable and effective communicating in. Also, figure out the level of fidelity they need in order for you to get their buy in. Are they good with stick figures sketched on a cocktail napkin, or do they need pixel perfect mockups for you to get their thumbs up? What’s more, explain to them the risks involved: One approach can eat up days or weeks, while the other is quicker than sending a Snapchat. 

Can you kill your darlings?

You might get hit with the classic client line, “I’ll know it when I see it.” In that case, dive into quick iterations and embrace the art of failing fast. After a few sprint sessions, and a little bit of design charades, you’ll start figuring out if you’re inching closer or veering off-course. Keep throwing new ideas into the mix until you find that sweet spot, but also be prepared to throw away a lot. Repeat the process over and over as needed.

Detach your personal feelings and be prepared to kill your darlings, as the saying goes. It’s not about you. Nor is it about the client, because they aren’t the end user. At the end of the day you both are in the business of driving forward a design that’ll make the end product easy to use and pleasing for others. 

If you do feel strongly about a certain approach, choose your battles wisely – long or heated disagreements can zap objectivity, team spirit and the flow of work. Ask yourself if you’re ready to die on a particular hill. And if it’s a change that departs from design patterns and standards, or dramatically affects users, be prepared to take a stand.

There may come a time when it’s best to let a client with an unrelenting opinion or request see firsthand why you advised against it. If they insist on changing something that’s already been meticulously crafted – the product of a hundred micro decisions and backed by gut, experience and standards – going back through the process together can build empathy for the added work even “one small change” can make. 

This rings especially true when there’s the potential for lost time and money. It can be a painful lesson, but you usually don’t have to tell someone not to touch a hot stove twice. 

Making sense of it all 

Throughout the iteration process, be patient and true to yourself. A mentor once told me, “They hired you, so be you.” Stay level headed, flexible, nimble and collaborative, but don’t hesitate to say “no” when everyone else is nodding yes. Remember, you’re the champion of design and users, as well as the conduit for delivering on the vision of the client. 

As frustrating as a lack of feedback can be, the exercise of getting information can upskill your communication methods, push you out of your comfort zone and past creative barriers you may have unconsciously put into place yourself. That said, keep an open mind – sometimes the act of “just making it pretty” ends up making a successful product and beautiful relationship.