How to handle criticism of your open project

Remaining empathetic when people criticize your project can be difficult. Here's how my team did it recently.
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Participation text on a field

Over the course of the past year, the project I'm working on has been using open organizational principles as the cornerstone of the work. It's the first attempt at using open methodologies inside of Greenpeace. The project, code named Planet 4, is the global redesign and development of Greenpeace's digital presence. To put it quite simply, we are building a piece of software that content and web editors will use to put Greenpeace content on the web. We're building the software on top of Wordpress, a platform we selected in part because of its own open source roots. Throughout the project, we've used a remixed version of the Open Decision Framework to document and share everything we're doing. Aside from me, this way of working was new to my team.

Working openly isn't easy. It's very different from the ways of working most organizations still propagate. Distributed leadership and community involvement isn't as common as people reading this article might think. Recently, I saw the power of open in action—and it both broke my heart and made me feel like everything our team had done was exactly right.

The experience has me thinking about empathy, compassion, and how an open team should address ongoing challenges.

Making peace at Greenpeace

The design team on the project recently presented bits of our design direction (stuff like colors and fonts) to a group of Greenpeace designers. One of the designers on our team went to represent our project and talk a little about what our team at Greenpeace International has been doing in terms of design.

Our UX designer talked about the way our team works: using open methodologies, scrum, and a healthy dose of irreverence. He presented some of our ideas and decisions around the design of the new and the national and regional sites that will be forked from this design. Then he asked this room what they thought about our color choices, about the fonts, about our direction.

In an open organization, if you don't get involved, someone else will make decisions for you.

And the audience was critical. They felt that we had come out of the blue, sending our representative with a grouping of half finished decisions, ideas, and suggestions to a meetup of Greenpeace Brand Guardians. We didn't even include an image treatment, just illustrations and color selections. That might not seem like a big deal, but Greenpeace has millions of photographs taken from every corner of the Earth. Those photographs and how we use them in our communications and designs are part of the Greenpeace identity. We hadn't forgotten about them; we just hadn't used any yet. We went to the meet up fully open and prepared for our unpreparedness. We didn't want to miss the opportunity.

Here's the thing: Many moons ago, our team had felt restricted by the organization's style guide. We talked to a number of people in middle and senior management and made the suggestion that we use the relaunch of as an opportunity to refresh our digital look and feel. The suggestion was accepted, and we moved forward with a redesign.

Several of us were on video while our designer talked about the project. During the Q & A session, we could hear fear echo in the room. Of course not everyone reacted negatively, but there was a definite sense of disbelief, and change is always frightening. People were wondering who we thought we were. They were questioning our audacity at coloring outside the brand guidelines.

We knew this was going to happen. We'd prepared for it. You see, over the last year, we asked people for their ideas and their feedback. We circulated a survey asking people how they felt about the font the organization had chosen five years ago. We asked people if they thought we should change it in our redesign. We wrote articles asking people to build style tiles, to design alongside us, to come to community calls. We sent surveys and emails. We even sent personal emails to self-identified Greenpeace designers and asked for help.

We offered power to people and few—hardly any—took advantage. (We did receive a note from a Russian colleague asking us to include Cyrillic characters as a requirement when choosing fonts. We had been thankful that she reminded us, and we complied.)

When we were faced with a backlash of criticism about our expansion of the Greenpeace color palette and the switch to a new font, something interesting happened. The complaints were accompanied by disclaimers and sighs. People vocalized their disagreement while, at the same time, admitting that they hadn't responded to our emails. Someone actually began a statement by saying "I shouldn't say anything now. . ." That they'd seen the request for help and hadn't answered. That they hadn't participated.

I felt, and still feel, conflicted. On the one hand, I felt that our team had done due diligence, openly and actively soliciting feedback. I felt the lack of feedback as it was happening, and I encouraged my team to believe that they are, indeed, exactly the right people to be making the decisions we've been making. I even considered how to keep the team from losing motivation as I mulled over the expansiveness of this project.

We have a large scope, tight deadlines, and a global community to make happy. What can our open team do?

On the other hand, I can empathize with the designer community. is the organization's front door. How it looks and feels will influence hearts and minds. When you've spent your career caring for how an organizational identity comes across, naturally you will feel ownership over that identity. Although the Planet 4 team did review existing style guides and identity guidelines, we made decisions that did not adhere to pre-established rules.

Our team is building a software product, but the core concept of that product—the establishment of an engagement platform for Greenpeace—is inherently a design issue. We were tasked with conceiving, designing, and building this platform—and that is what we're trying to do. At some point, decisions must occur, and consensus isn't always an option.

We have a large scope, tight deadlines, and a global community to make happy. What can our open team do?

It's not about winning

The nonprofit world moves quickly. Saving the world is complicated business, and we're all busy people. We're too busy, actually. Sometimes we don't realize the impact someone else's work will have on our own. Participating in other people's projects, and a culture of feedback and contribution to work that isn't part of your day job isn't common outside of open organizations that have specifically focused on that kind of environment.

But in an open organization, if you don't get involved, someone else will make decisions for you.

Building absolute consensus about a global organization's look and feel amongst the millions of people who support that organization just won't be possible (especially about something as subjective as aesthetics—how do you think we ended up with shag carpeting, wood paneling, or astroturf?).

But when consensus doesn't or can't exist, an effective open team will do two things:

  1. They will continue to pull their project along, making the decisions they need to make.
  2. They will accept that their best decision on Tuesday might not be the best decision on Thursday, and be open and willing to iterate.

We'll launch our Minimum Loveable Product and continue to gather feedback. Then we'll iterate, change, expand, delete, and grow. Snickering,sticking to our guns, and moving on would have been easiest for us. After all, we gave people a chance, and they didn't bother. It's their own fault.

But we won't be disregarding feedback. To build a culture of contribution, we have to lead with our behaviors. We'll continue to value the input of any individual or team has because our collective work isn't about winning. It's about changing the world.

You have power too. Here's the survey we asked Greenpeace designers to fill out. You're welcome to share your thoughts as well.

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Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a Mozilla alum. Find her on Twitter and Mastodon as @epilepticrabbit


At Scribus we sometimes field questions about someone's design, often in retrospect it seems the questioners were mostly fishing for compliments.
When i decide to respond, I try to be objective, pleasant, but frank. With tools like Scribus for print or Wordpress for the web, it can be easy to get focused so much on the elements so as the lose sight of the overall appearance and usability, a trees versus forest problem.
So happy, bright colors are chosen, cute graphics, engaging placements of various items on the page, luscious fonts, and so on. But for many such efforts, what can get lost is that you are not making something for people to gush over its beautiful appearance, you are trying to inform, trying to help people navigate through some design to the information they need, to have an organization that takes the eye through the intended flow. You don't want unexpected detours from eye-grabbing graphics, a font that is tiring to read, or as I see very commonly, a combination of font color and background that make it hard to see, let alone read.
So regardless of the individual design choices that are made, keep going back to the page with a primary idea to find information, and find it easily, maybe even having the eye guided in a useful way.

Thank you, Laura, for this thoughtful and honest article. What you are describing here sounds familiar to me. Even in an organization that has always been open, there are many instances I can recall where people don't provide feedback until well after the time it was solicited. Many opportunities to learn how to better engage with people at the right time, meet stakeholders where they are, and so forth. But also the constant need to balance soliciting feedback with moving forward.

Great work - thank you for sharing

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