Giving and receiving feedback is a crucial part of the creative design process and a skill that takes years to develop. You can find hundreds of articles providing step-by-step guides on this topic, but in my experience, there’s never really been a one-size-fits-all solution.
There are many different factors that play into what works for each individual scenario, including things like the relationship dynamic, personality types involved, level of importance, level of effort, phase of project, size of project, type of client, deadlines, etc.
It Can Always Be Better
First and foremost, it’s important to remember (no matter how stressed or crunched for time you are), the entire purpose of giving feedback is to help make something or someone better. It’s not to prove your importance to the project. It’s not to demonstrate your rank or power. It’s definitely not to feed your ego. The purpose of giving feedback is to contribute to the common team goal of creating the best possible end solution. The more individual viewpoints, backgrounds, facts, expertise, and lessons learned that are voiced during the creative process, the more well-rounded, thorough, and polished end result.
The possibilities of what we make as creatives are endless. Nothing we do is ever ever perfect (apologies to all my fellow perfectionists out there). It’s not like solving a math problem that is either wrong or right. We are often solving abstract and multi-faceted challenges that can be interpreted or approached millions of different ways. What you and your team are doing can always be done better and if the person you’re giving feedback to is feeling defeated, remind them that you’re all in this together to come to the best solution. By giving them this reality check, they’re hopefully able to reset their expectations of themselves and be more engaged with what you’re saying since they’re feeling part of the team.
“The possibilities of what we make as creatives are endless. Nothing we do is ever ever perfect.”
Sometimes feedback needs to be direct and other times it may make sense to leave it as an open-ended idea to be explored. No matter which tactic is called for, explain the reason why you believe you’re making their work better. Let the person know they’re valued by pointing out what you like about their solution that sparked your thought on how to improve upon it.
Think Before Talking
This sounds like something I would say when lecturing my kids. But it totally applies to this as well. Let’s break it down. In our industry, everyone you’re working with was chosen to be part of this project because of their expertise. There has to be a certain amount of trust and respect you have for them because they got to where they are by being good at what they do. (If you don’t have trust and respect for your team, that’s an entirely separate issue we can explore in another post.)
When your trusted and respected team member is presenting their solution to a problem, that means you should assume they’ve considered all options, done their research, and are using their specialized skills to recommend what they think is best. Before reacting immediately to what they are presenting to you, you must first fully understand how they came up with the solution and why they think it works best. Most likely, they’ve spent hours upon end coming to their conclusion. Why did they choose that layout? What do those colors mean? How does it work functionally in the larger picture? How do they get here? Where do they go after? What was the inspiration? How does it solve the challenge at hand? If these questions are not clear already, then you must ask before providing your feedback.
“When your trusted and respected team member is presenting their solution to a problem, that means you should assume they’ve considered all options.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen teams present extremely robust, innovative, and bullet-proof solutions only to get nixed or ripped apart within seconds during review sessions by someone who didn’t fully understand the details and thinking behind it all. It’s painful to watch and even more painful to experience. So before providing criticism, make sure you understand how what you’re looking at came to be. You will probably learn something that will be very beneficial to you and your project in the end.
Collaboration over Critique
We at Gallardo Labs believe that creative feedback should always be kept positive and encouraging. There is no magic way to accomplish this. What it takes is practice, a mental shift towards collaboration, and the constant adaptation of your approach to each situation at hand. One good place to start is with some basic adjustments to your choice of words and tone. No, this doesn’t mean that sunshine and rainbows need to shoot out every time you open your mouth. But it does mean that you need to deliver your feedback with respect, poise, and empathy.
With any type of work, but especially with creative work, people put more than just time into creating something. They’re putting their ideas, passion, and heart into it. There is usually a certain level of vulnerability associated with presenting it to others. It’s hard for them not to get attached to what they’ve created, so when someone gives feedback on how it could be better, it might be difficult for the creator to accept it. If you approach them in a negative or authoritarian way, their natural response will be to go into defense mode. Even if they don’t express it verbally, it will be expressed in the next round of their work visually. If you view the conversation as a collaboration, then you will both feel heard and inspired in the end.
“With any type of work, but especially with creative work, people put more than just time into creating something.”
A huge part of collaborating and discussing feedback effectively is taking proper notes. We always try to make sure each piece of feedback is aligned on during discussions. Clear and actionable next steps are assigned to the appropriate people and those notes are then shared with everyone involved. When feedback gets sent over via email or message, it is too susceptive to being lost in translation (or just plain lost all together). Trust us: talk it out before writing it down.
Fact vs. Opinion
75% of creative feedback is usually subjective, so it’s important to clarify what is factual or proven best practice vs. what is personal opinion. Feedback that includes things proven to be helpful is what you should focus more effort on delivering effectively. As for the subjective opinions, we’d recommend sticking to collaboration and teamwork to hash out all the opinions together and decide on one aligned direction in the end. In this article from Forbes, they mention an interesting point, “Criticism is inherently neither constructive nor destructive. It’s just information.” If you learn how to give feedback that’s actually helpful, your information will be put to good use.