Giving creative feedback

There’s no avoiding it – feedback. It’s a key part of the creative process. Feedback gives a creative some solid direction and helps to ensure that any final delivery is the best it can be and fit for the job it’s required to do. However, many people find it extremely difficult to give feedback to a creative individual or creative team. If you’re struggling to provide solid feedback on a creative project, look at the following tips to help make things easier for yourself and the people on the receiving end.

1. Be specific

When you are providing feedback on any creative work you need to be as specific as possible, avoid broad or vague opinions. Never say ‘I don’t like it’. Explain exactly what you don’t like, or better still say something like ‘I’m not sure about that, could you just give me a bit of background on your thoughts?’ – that’s much better, and will get you into a conversation rather than a possible confrontation.

When describing what you think could work, or how to improve a creative project, again be specific, avoid statements like ‘make it pop’, ‘it needs more zing’, or ‘can you make it a bit more edgy’ – none of these really mean anything and are wide open for interpretation and misunderstanding.

Being specific when you say ‘make it pop’ could be the use of bolder or stronger colours, adding graphical elements, changing the typeface, more vibrant and engaging photography etc – always provide some depth to your meaning. When you review it a second time, you’ll hopefully see some of your suggestions incorporated.

Another classic case of not being specific is ‘can we change the colour to blue?’. Again, what blue? There are approximately 260 different blues. So the chances of a creative designer picking the one you are thinking off is slim. Show an example, pick a Pantone reference, give them something concrete to match. The same applies to typefaces. There are over 36,000 font families, plus all their alternative styles within each family.

Specific is good, however, being rigid and unwavering on your feedback, isn’t. 

2. Leave your taste behind

Don’t get carried away with you own personal tastes and preferences when critiquing designs and remember;

  • The design is not for you, its for your organization or client, and maybe needs to reflect their brand and adhere to the brand standards, even if you don’t personally like them.
  • This project has an objective, and the ‘best’ design will be the one that does the most to contribute to accomplishing the project’s goals.

Remember, as a client requesting creative work, you are a steward of your brand, and it would be wrong for you to put your own aesthetic preferences ahead of the brand look and feel. And in the case that you are working with an in-house creative team, they will be even more invested in sticking to brand standards. In-house creative teams often function as the guardians of the brand. It is unlikely that they have submitted something to you that is off-brand. Your expertise is the project and its objectives, so focus your feedback on how the design contributes to those goals.

3. Two-way street

Feedback is a two-way street. Asking questions first is far better than jumping straight into a critique. If you don’t understand why the designer/creative has chosen particular elements (fonts, colours, photography, animation etc), ask.

Appreciate that the majority of designers are extremely thoughtful about the choices they make. It’s rare that they just randomly throw things together in a hope that it works. Instead, they develop themes, associations and visual cues that align with the project objectives and brief. If you don’t ask ‘why?’, you’ll be missing out on some potentially great nuggets of information that you could use to sell the ideas onto other stakeholders and clients.

4. Praise the good

What happens when you really really don’t like what’s being put in front of you? 

Even if its true, saying “I don’t like anything about this” is really, really unhelpful.

First, check whether the work matches the creative brief. If the designer has submitted something that is completely off  brief, then you’ll need to send it back and get them to start again. It can be useful at this point to return to #3 and ask them to explain their concept and thinking, but if you still don’t feel that the work reflects the brief, then it’s time to go back to the beginning and re-brief the creative team. That’s very time consuming process, totally impractical, can be quite confrontational, and there will no doubt be some ‘whose fault’ finger-pointing.

However, if the work does align with the brief and you just don’t love it, then go back to #2, and consider how your personal preferences are playing into your feelings about the work. Additionally, find ways to express specifically what you don’t like about the proof. Remember, the designer can’t do anything with feedback ‘I just don’t like it’ or ‘make it pop’.

Most importantly, try to find something you do like. Not just to be kind, but because that is helpful to the designer. If there are some elements, or colours, or fonts, or anything at all that you do like, point those out. Knowing both what you do and don’t like gives the designer useful data to find a better direction for round two.

I got fired for presenting a concept that used Yellow. Since that day, I’ve always asked “are there any particular colours you really don’t like?”.The client eventually realized that was unfair, and we successfully continued to work together for a further 10 years.

5. Make it snappy

Don’t let your projects sit around for too long before you provide feedback. Larger projects may take longer or require you to block off time, but many smaller projects can be reviewed fairly quickly. A few reasons to provide fast feedback:

  • Keeps momentum – the designer can’t do anything until they get your feedback.
  • Keeps focused – if you let a something sit too long with you, the designer could lose sight of the original project goals, or you forget previous discussions. This is when you start wondering things like “Why are all the stock photos black and white?” even when the designer has already explained that design choice to you.
  • Stays on track – if there are other people who need to provide feedback, you want to be reviewing at the same time as they are. If you wait until everyone else is done you miss your chance to collaborate, and your feedback may hold less weight with the designer.

Giving creative feedback can be difficult, but it is crucial to producing top-notch creative. Consider implementing some of these steps the next time you have a creative project to review to provide greater value in your feedback.

Receiving creative feedback

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

It’s easy to get defensive when you’re faced with vague or aggressive criticism about your work, but it’s best to avoid this. 

Instead, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for more specific feedback. This shows that you care about the project and you’re taking time to understand someone’s viewpoint and where the feedback is coming from (even if you don’t agree). 

Always consider who is giving you the feedback and adjust your language when asking questions so you’re easily understood. For example, a designer talking to another designer will use technical lingo that a manager or social media marketer might not be familiar with. The goal is to leave the conversation feeling like you have a set of specific and actionable changes to work on. 

Ultimately, fostering a healthy feedback culture within your business or freelance operation will benefit everyone. You’ll avoid unnecessary delays, time and costs on projects because all stakeholders will be on the same page – and you’ll deliver some of your best work. 

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