Tips for giving better feedback for better creative results

Intro

The right approach to feedback can deepen relationships between makers and stakeholders and take a piece of work from good to great. The best feedback happens at the right moment, at the right level, and in the right way, and it allows a designer, filmmaker, writer or artist to move their work closer to your vision and align it with the needs of the market.

As a head of design, I’ve been involved in enough creative reviews to be able to spot right away which clients know how to communicate with designers and which will need coaching through the process. The troublemakers are exposed by their subjective reactions to a piece of work and their focus on the wrong details.

There is a nuance to framing your feedback in just the right way to ensure you get what you want and create collaborative and energetic partnerships with designers. Here are a few techniques for delivering effective feedback on any creative project.

Section 1

The importance of creative feedback to your business

Here are five key considerations before your next review that will ensure you help the creative team deliver exactly the right piece of content your business requires.

Voice

1. Be the voice of what matters most

In a creative review, it’s tempting to focus on the surface layer and discuss individual components. However, the best clients resist this urge and instead focus on measuring the presented work against the big problem to be solved. Effective clients use feedback to course-correct a draft by asking important questions at the deeper layer: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Does this design or concept solve the problems most important to us and our customers? Feedback along these lines sparks creative solutions and forges real partnerships between creative and client.


2. Lose your fear of the sketch stage

Many design techniques have evolved to steer client conversations away from unimportant parts of a project’s current phase. The use of “lorem ipsum” to prevents clients from providing feedback on placement copy is a classic example. (Though personally I prefer Cat Ipsum.) Many clients only like to see really fleshed-out work that bears a strong resemblance to what the final version will look like. But it’s worth reviewing early drafts, whether they’re hand-drawn concept sketches or greyscale wireframes because doing so can focus your attention on the crucial overall concept. It does take practice to understand these early-stage conceptual deliverables and to map your feedback accordingly. Work with your creative team to know what these rough drafts communicate and what they don’t.


3. Measure against pre-set goals

An effective way to stay true to what matters is to use a goals-based mindset instead of a nitpicky, critical or pedantic approach.

Goals should be communicated to the creative team early in the project.

Consider the differences between these two statements:

  • Bad: “I don’t like the blue”
  • Good: “Based on what we know about the younger demographic we are hoping to attract, I think this treatment could feel more energetic and less corporate.”

The second statement is goals-based because it interprets a design through the lens of the larger purpose of the project. This approach helps the designer receiving the feedback open up possibilities for solutions instead of narrowing them.


4. Represent the target audience

Your creative team should never solicit feedback by asking, “Do you like it?” but if they do, then help them out by steering the conversation back to the important areas of the work. It’s not actually that important whether you, personally, really like it or not. When promoting a product or selling a service, you need to appeal to your target audience and that probably doesn't include you. While you should definitely consider things from the perspective of your overall brand identity, don’t let personal preferences for or against certain ideas, colors, styles and words get in the way of a successful outcome.


5. Give yourself feedback on your feedback

As a client, you should continually work to become a better provider of feedback because this one skill can lead to better project results. It’s good practice to do a post-mortem of your review process and see where improvements could be made, especially if you plan on working with that creative team again. Spend some time after the end of your next project to understand the effectiveness of your feedback loop. Were your comments helpful? What could either party do better next time? These insights are sure to help your next collaboration run more smoothly.


Section 2

How to give feedback on creative work

Providing good feedback and creating collaborative and energetic partnerships with creative teams comes with a bit of a formula. Here are seven techniques for delivering effective feedback on any creative project.

1. Make sure you have context and purpose

Comments

Avoid reacting to any form of creative work if you do not have a complete understanding of its ultimate goal. Also important to context is understanding the type of feedback the team needs and at which points in the process he or she needs it. If you’re part of a review where this is unclear, simply ask what type of feedback the creator is looking for.


2. Ask for permission

It’s a courtesy that can diffuse the emotional impact of receiving feedback. Simply saying, “Hey, do you have a minute? I’d like to talk about that logo treatment you sent…” can shift the exchange from feeling like an intervention to a conversation between co-collaborators. Most creative professionals don’t want to be interrupted in their process and critiquing unfinished work is unhelpful.


3. Take your time with unconditional love

I get uneasy whenever I’m told a deliverable is perfect. I worry that the reviewer hasn’t paid it enough attention and a “…but…” will come later (and by later I mean, at the exact wrong moment). If you love something and don’t have anything critical to say, pass on your initial opinion but also say that you want to think it over. You’re not necessarily looking to find problems where none exist but giving it more time is a good way to signal that you’re thinking through the work and project’s needs.


4. Describe, interpret, analyze

Take a breath when you see a piece of work for the first time. Often the first thing to come to mind is the wrong thing to come out of your mouth. Try a describe, interpret and analyze approach instead, like in this design feedback example:

  • First, describe what you literally see in front of you. “I see you added different shades of blue to the logo treatment.”
  • Next, interpret what the design seems to communicate to the viewer. “This seems to say that our brand is efficient and business-like.”
  • Finally, analyze how effectively the design achieves its objective. “I wonder if given our younger demographic if we should explore a more energetic color choice.”


5. Don’t prescribe solutions

A common business cliché is to avoid raising problems unless you have a solution. Yet multi Oscar-winning animation studio, Pixar does the opposite. Its review process involves a group of senior story editors and executives who will identify problems with a script or latest cut of a movie, but trust the film’s director to find the solution. Unless you have a clear and important objection to something, avoid interfering and let your creative team do the thing you hired them for.


6. Be sure to listen and solicit the creative team’s opinion

Listen

This may seem obvious, perhaps, but you’d be surprised. Feedback is a dialogue between co-creators. Soliciting the original creator’s opinion is a way to avoid the absolute good/bad statements that can give rise to conflict. Consider inviting someone to justify his or her own work instead of handing down a ruling:

  • Bad: “Users won’t know where to look or what to do.”
  • Good: “When you were designing it, what were some ways you thought of signaling to users where to take action on this page?”


7. End with a plan

The classic feedback approach sandwiches constructive feedback between positive intro and a positive summary. In my practice, I have added a small addendum to this approach: Turn feedback into action by wrapping up the discussion with next steps. This not only helps project momentum but also communicates to the designer that the problems identified are solvable and we know that’s true because we just came up with a plan to make it happen. This small trick is important when working with junior designers in particular, who may find receiving feedback overwhelming and can get stuck in a rut as a result.

Additional resources

Check out more content on creative collaboration.


  • 6 tips for writing a creative brief


  • Tips for dealing with feedback


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