8 ways to give better feedback to creatives

Illustration by Fabio Bene

Even the most skilled creative team will occasionally miss the mark. Maybe their aim was slightly off, or you perhaps you were looking at totally different targets. Providing useful feedback can help everyone realign and pull the project’s objective into sharper focus. But helping them draw the best version out of their creative quiver can be a challenge. You want to be precise without micromanaging, kind without being condescending, and direct but not dismissive. With all these fine lines to walk, how do you make sure your feedback sparks forward momentum and doesn’t derail the project? The following tips will help ensure you and your creative colleagues are communicating effectively, so that you end up with a final product everyone is proud of.

1. Be specific

Avoid frustrating, and potentially unnecessary, rounds of revisions by giving clear and specific feedback. Saying you like or dislike something or that something “feels off” isn’t particularly helpful without more context. Take the time to think through what’s lurking behind your initial impression. Is the copy bogged down with technical jargon? Is the text difficult to read? Is the layout too busy? Say so. If your creative colleague knows why you like or dislike it, they’ll be better prepared to move forward in the right direction.

Similarly, phrases like “Make it pop,” “Jazz it up,” or “Let’s take it to the next level,” will only leave them trying to puzzle out your meaning. And when the next round of revisions comes in, you’ll likely discover that you and your creative team have completely different ideas of what “fresh” or “bold” looks like.

Giving creative feedback can seem intimidating, especially when it lies outside of your area of expertise. If you’re struggling with articulating what you want, find examples that demonstrate what you’re looking for and then explain what you like about them. Without examples to reference, even the most specific feedback can get lost in translation.

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2. Find the problems, not the solutions

Share your opinions, but don’t tell them exactly what to do. There’s a big difference between being specific and coming up with the solution. Many creatives work best when they’re able to maintain a sense of ownership of their work. This is their area of expertise. You didn’t hire them to be a glorified transcriptionist or mouse-clicker. Trust that they know what they’re doing—and that they’ll probably come up with a better solution.

This isn’t to say that creatives don’t have their own blind spots. But rather than attempting to redesign or rewrite something yourself, explain what you think isn’t working. For example, don’t say, “Make the logo bigger.” Explain why you want it bigger. Is it getting lost on the page? Is it difficult to make out what it is? Once you’ve laid out the problem, your designer might see a more elegant solution involving color, placement, or white space.

When you’re discussing possible revisions with a group, a problem-focused approach also invites greater collaboration. If you say, “I think the logo should be orange and blue,” the conversation might not move beyond whether or not orange and blue is the right combo. But if you say, “I don’t think the color scheme matches the company’s personality,” you’ll invite a conversation about what the company’s personality is and what colors would best reflect it.

3. Stay focused on the goal

Most of us are opinion-making machines, well versed in spouting off critiques of movies and Instagram photos. But when it comes to giving creative feedback in a business setting, you need to check your personal tastes at the door and focus on the project’s target audience and goals. This might be one of the hardest and most important parts of providing useful creative direction.

To keep your emotions and biases out of the equation, always ask yourself how the current version is or isn’t meeting the business objective. Then frame your feedback accordingly.

A personal response, like “I hate blue tones in film,” isn’t particularly useful. Whereas if you said, “I feel like the dark lighting in this clip won’t appeal to the outdoorsy millennials that we’re trying to reach,” the mismatch between the end goal and the current version is clear.

4. Ask questions

Much of the creative process is about whittling down options. If something isn’t working for you or if you’re confused by a choice that was made, ask your writer or designer to walk you through their reasoning. Posing questions will give you better insight into their perspective and you might discover that their version solves potential issues that you hadn’t considered. Likewise, your questions might help them see holes in their work that they wouldn’t have noticed on their own.

Asking questions is also a surefire way to turn a one-sided critique into a dialogue. Opening up the conversation shows the person you’re working with that you respect and value their expertise, encourages further collaboration, and often leads to a stronger final product.

5. Don’t give surprise critiques

No matter how excited you are to peek in on the progress, don’t surprise people with drive-by critiques. Their work might be in an amorphous stage, and your spur of the moment review may cause them to waste time sweatily defending ideas that they’ll likely soon discard.

Skip this unnecessary stress and frustration by waiting to until the work is ready for review. Then set aside time to think through your feedback and schedule a meeting to discuss. This way everyone has a chance to mentally prepare.

6. Consolidate your feedback

Few things are worse for creatives than receiving a pile of feedback from an entire team. Collaboration can lead to creative breakthroughs, but a tangle of disparate feedback only leads to confusion. If multiple people need to approve the final product, gather and sort through their thoughts before sharing them with the designer or writer.

Be especially mindful of eliminating conflicting comments, opinions that diverge from the stated objectives, and any other criticism that isn’t constructive. You should also be selective about whose input you solicit. Only incorporate feedback from relevant stakeholders. Then translate the edited comments into a concise document (bullet points are better than a string of long paragraphs) with straightforward next steps and timelines.

Similarly, if several people will be meeting to discuss the current iteration, consider limiting the number of people giving feedback to no more than three. You may want to synthesize the team’s various responses ahead of time and translate them into a coherent agenda. After the meeting, follow-up with a document that summarizes the discussion, so that no one has to rely on their memory.

7. Don’t forget to explain what you like

An unfortunate thing happens when people get into critic mode: They often forget to mention what they like. Even when you think the project is nearly perfect, it’s easy to focus solely on what needs to be tweaked. Knocking out a list of changes can feel invigorating. But for the person on the receiving end, this can feel overwhelming and demoralizing. So it’s important to remember that discussing the successful elements is just as valuable as going over areas that need a bit more polish. They both help people know which direction to pursue or ditch.

And, of course, hearing a few compliments just feels good. This isn’t to say that creative team members are delicate flowers who need to be handled with care. After working hard to get a project just right, a long list of changes can feel overwhelming to anyone on the receiving end. Acknowledging the time and effort they put into the piece and pointing out its strengths will help keep your working relationship healthy and morale high.

8. Be direct and honest

You might have heard that you should sandwich criticism between compliments. Although it is important to share what’s working well, you can toss the “sandwich approach” in the trash. It’s awkward, disingenuous, and more than a tad infantilizing. Starting with a compliment and then rattling off a series of complaints only to wrap things up with another compliment doesn’t take the sting out of the criticism. This pattern also makes it seem like sharing any positive feedback is simply a perfunctory duty that must be handled before getting down to the real work of the critique.

Be kind, but don’t worry. You’re giving feedback to professionals. They won’t crumble under your critique, and they won’t take it personally if you don’t make it personal.

Rather than forcing positive comments into prescribed slots, pay attention to your tone and wording. Saying that you found something confusing is far better than saying, “No one will understand this.” And, as any relationship counselor would advise, avoid “you” statements and instead say what the work itself is or isn’t achieving. This may be common sense to most people, but a little tact goes a long way.

Remember that you and your creative team both want the work to be as strong as possible. They’ve invested a lot of energy and effort into their work and they deserve thoughtful feedback in return. By facilitating an open conversation, continually grounding your comments in the project’s objectives, and following some basic schoolyard etiquette, together you can elevate any project from good to great.

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