I wrote this article keeping in mind my own relationship to feedback; as an owner of a company giving feedback to my team or when receiving feedback from clients. I wanted something to guide my practice of giving feedback and is informed from my own experiences receiving unhelpful feedback that had the unintended consequence of making the project less successfull.

The Goal of Feedback

Creatives ultimately want to do great work, they want feedback that will make what they are working on the best it can be. The challenge is that poorly executed feedback can lead to a loss of morale, confusion and ultimately lead to less inspired work. To get the best results out of your creative team you need to provide a clear objective, foster a collaborative environment centered around achieving a common goal. Below are some tips for how to inspire a team to do their best work.

Start with a Compliment

No matter how you feel about what was presented to you find something positive to say right off the bat. This is a great way to get the receiver out of a defensive position and keep the creative momentum high.

Examples could include thanking them for working hard. And pointing out the things that you think are working to achieve the overall objective. This way the team will be receptive when it comes to pointing out areas you think are not working as well and you will frame the conversation around working towards a common goal.

Keep it Collaborative

No matter your role in the process, whether you’re the client, boss, manager or creative director you will get the best results by treating the team as creative collaborators. Consider what the Harvard Business Review has to say about this;

“When providing feedback to creative workers, signal that your opinion is exactly that: an opinion. This seems deceptively easy. Doing it requires providing feedback that includes first-person pronouns: I, me, and my. “I see…” or “What strikes me is that…” or “My opinion is…” Providing feedback on creative work means setting aside the managerial impulse to plan and retain control.”

Stay Focussed on the Objective

Before providing feedback be mindful of the projects objective the creative team are working towards. This may seem obvious, especially if you were the one who determined and communicated the objective to the creative team. “Of course I know what the objective is”, you may think. But it’s easy to get distracted by your idea for how the objective should be excecuted and lose the ability to embrace other equally effective approaches. You may not like a creative decision because it’s not what you were thinking. But you didn’t hire the creative team to read your mind, presumably you love their work and that is why you’re working with them. Before providing feedback you need to step back from your ideas and review their work with one question in mind, “Does it achieve the objective?” If you fail to do this you’ll end up saying things like, “This is not what I was imagining.” And you will leave the creative confused because as far as they can tell they delivered exactly what you asked for.

For changes you feel need to be made make sure to communicate them using constructive feedback…

Be Constructive

What makes feedback constructive is its ability to provide clear direction that achieves the intended goal.

Unconstructive Feedback

First, let’s start with what isn’t constructive. Feedback like “This isn’t working” or “I don’t like this.” This feedback is unhelpful because it doesn’t provide the information the team need in order to make the creative achieve the intended objective.

Be Specific

Do not generalize your negative feedback to a large chunk of the work. For example, if you say, “This is not working.” You will demoralize the team while not giving them any specific things they can work on. Be specific.

Show Don’t Tell

If you don’t like something, the most helpful kind of feedback shows the creative exactly what you want. If you’re not an artist then find an example online of what you’re looking for. And explain why you think the reference will better achieve the goal.

Put the Work In

It’s easy to look at something and have a reaction to it. When you’re overwhelmed with work it can be tempting to take a short cut and hope the creative team will be able to figure out what “is not working.” If you’re not prepared to put the work into presenting an informed and articulate presentation of a change you think will make a work better then it may be better to bite your tongue and save your opinions for something that will really make or break a project.

Be Humble

If you chose to weigh in on something but lack an ability to provide a clear example of how to make it better, then you could say, “There is something not working about this but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Could we discuss?”

Consolidate Your Feedback

Don’t provide your feedback in multiple formats. Organize it in one place alongside the feedback of all the other stakeholders. Have someone review the feedback document and edit it to ensure that it is presenting a unified voice and there is no input that will toxify the creative process.

Get Buy in From the Target Audience

You need to make sure that the creative team is receiving feedback from the target audience or those with a long history of serving them at the earliest stage in the creative process. If you wait to finish the project to put it in front of the audience and they don’t respond well to the work then it’s too late. You’d need to re-commission the creative team, a costly and time consuming mistake.

A company benefits when executive decisions are made by those with the strongest connection to the target audience. The boss, management and art directors should only care if members of the target audience responded positively or negatively to the creative. This means the key decision makers should not approve something based on their personal feeling, it should based on a report that shows the audience responded positively to it.

Don’t Point Out the Obvious

Depending on the stage of a creative delivery some feedback may not be necessary. If the creative team tell you that a delivery is an early draft that is using placeholder images then it is not helpful to point out all the images that need to be polished. Yes, this is actually something that clients do. When you point out the blatantly obvious the creative team may perceive this as condescending. If you’re at all in doubt ask if it is a “dumb question”.

If a project is in the concept stage then talk about the concept not criticize the specific wording of something.

The creative team should clarify the phase the project is in and the type of feedback that is helpful. If they don’t, and you’re in doubt then you should ask.

Less Is More

Be as critical of your feedback as you are of the work you are critiquing. Poorly crafted feedback can destabilize a project workflow, so choose your battles carefully.

Trust The Creative Team

Most importantly, trust your creatives. 99% of the time your creatives will do their best work if you give them a maximum of creative freedom within a clear objective and constraints such as;

  • Who the target audience is
  • Budget / schedule
  • Brand guidelines
  • Intended distribution format
  • Examples of things that have worked in the past if available
  • Things from the creatives portfolio that you like.

I recently worked on a project for a client where they literally said, “in my experience the development process goes much smoother when the client more or less stays out of it.” I’d certainly never heard that before from a client. But he is right. We had clear direction and were extremely motivated to create the best experience possible for their client, and we did.

Consider this tip for getting a tattoo, “start by finding an artist whose style you love and ask to see their books of work for ideas” (Independent UK). This advice is true for any creative project. The biggest mistake people make is asking an artist to replicate something that another artist made. The misconception is that artists are so talented that they can replicate anything, that is what makes them an artist. But that is untrue. Expect that your creative team will create something in their style for your purpose. If that won’t work for you, you may need to find another creative team.

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