How to give feedback on creative work

Ted Everson

July 5, 2016

Giving good feedback illustration by Luke Bott

I recently wrote about the importance of creative feedback in developing a design, video or piece of copy that really meets your project’s goal. The techniques I shared were about helping clients to take a high-level and non-subjective approach to creative reviews. But there is also a nuance to framing your feedback in just the right way to ensure you get both the response you need and that you’re maintaining a productive relationship with your team.

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

1. Make sure you have context and purpose
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 the 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.”
Pixar's brain trust
Creative reviews at Pixar

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
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.

These seven techniques for giving great feedback will not only ensure you have a better final outcome, it will strengthen the collaborative bond between you and your creative team. If you want to give me feedback on the feedback I’m giving to clients about the feedback they give to creatives, get in touch via Twitter or leave a comment below.