How to normalise feedback by playing your cards right

#design  #advice  #management 
Feedback as playing card suits, Life Labs Learning

Feedback. We all need it in order to improve.

Growing up we had our families to provide feedback and help us course-correct and grow. It was normal and expected when your parents might have told you to sit up straight or stop talking with your mouth full of food.

Yet in a professional context feedback has become something we fear. We put it off to avoid conflict or awkwardness. We often wait too long, putting it off, so any feedback often comes too little and too late in a work setting to have the intended impact.

The ideal scenario is to have more open feedback more often, normalising it like it used to be and baking it into the bedrock of an organisation’s culture. But this is an ideal that’s seldom the reality.

When it comes to exchanging feedback, the variance in personal styles makes it difficult. Some people are great at giving feedback but find it hard to receive it. Others prefer keeping quiet whilst others crumble when any feedback is provided to them (either good or constructive).

Then there’s the middle where the majority of us sit. We’re aware of the benefits of feedback but find it inherently awkward. It’s uncomfortable to provide feedback, and so we put it off until ‘later’.

The Designer’s advantage

Fortunately designers tend to have an advantage when it comes to feedback.

Design reviews or critiques are typically forums in which a designer must demonstrate and defend their work to their peers or team.

A design review’s secret sauce is what all seasoned designers know: the critique is about the work, not the person. This detachment or decoupling gets easier with time. Once instilled it makes feedback what it ought to be: a rich source of ideas, new avenues to explore and novel ways to grow.

Creating a feedback culture

Creating a company culture where feedback is common and normalised isn’t easy. There’s no single formula or turn-key solution that turns a company into a feedback-friendly workplace overnight. The number of contributing factors requires a tricky balancing act of timing, people and a culture that includes trust, honesty, candour, open communication and more.


Yet one rubric that can help kickstart a feedback culture was created back in the 2000s by NYC-based LifeLabs Learning. Using playing cards as the metaphor and vehicle (who doesn’t know playing cards?) LifeLabs classified feedback into 4 distinct categories mapped to the suits of a playing card deck:

Hearts ♥️

This is positive feedback that lacks specificity. Think of Slack heart emojis… the feedback is positive, but not particularly actionable.

Diamonds ♦️

This is positive feedback that has specific, actionable points. Not only positive and encouraging, this feedback also — crucially — cites examples and gives evidence.

Clubs ♣️

This is negative feedback that lacks specificity. This type of feedback is uncaring and directionless. Consider it the villain of the group.

Spades ♠️

This is negative feedback that has specific, actionable points. The converse of Diamonds, Spades are the closest to the concept of design critique.


In a work setting this rubric provides a great way of classifying feedback.

If giving feedback, aim to provide Diamonds♦️and Spades♠️. Avoid Hearts♥️ and/or Clubs♣️.

If receiving feedback, it’s in your best interest to classify the feedback you’ve received. Call out vague or non-specific feedback (aka Hearts♥️ and Clubs♣️)

Thanks for that feedback but it’s a bit of a club♣️. Can you be more specific? An example of asking for better feedback

If you find yourself giving feedback about the type of feedback you’ve received, you’re in the right place! How very meta. Happy feedbacking.



Let's work together. For fractional leadership queries, drop me a line.