5 Tips for Giving Better Feedback to Creative People

The feedback you give -- and the way you give it -- can be the difference between a project everyone loves, and a project everyone wishes had never started in the first place.

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By Will Meier

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This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Strategic Management, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.

It doesn't matter if you hire the most talented creative minds in the world -- internal or external -- at some point you'll have to give them feedback. And that's where things can get dicey. Giving great feedback is an art in itself. But giving great feedback on creative work is really hard to do. You have to be specific without being overbearing. You have to guide the project without manhandling it. Make no mistake: Bad feedback can poison a project faster than almost anything else. The feedback you give -- and the way you give it -- can be the difference between a project everyone loves, and a project everyone wishes had never started in the first place.

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Don't panic. Here are five ways to improve the way you give feedback.

1. Always go back to the goal.

One of the hardest parts of giving feedback is figuring out where to start. Most feedback is a mixture of emotions, personal taste and critical thinking. So it can be just as difficult for the person receiving the feedback as it is for the person giving it.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

Luckily, designers Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry laid out a very helpful framework for thinking through feedback in their book Discussing Design. Forcing yourself to answer these four questions is a great starting point for getting your head around what's wrong -- and what's right -- with a design (or a film or a tagline or anything, really).

  • Question 1: What is the objective of the design?
  • Question 2: What elements of the design are related to the objective?
  • Question 3: Are those elements effective in achieving the objective?
  • Question 4: Why or why not?

Using this framework will help you take yourself, your emotions and your biases out of the equation so you can focus on giving feedback that is objective, goal oriented and -- most importantly -- useful. As a bonus, these questions are also a great way of making sure you understand the goals of the project. If you have a hard time answering Question 1, then there's a good chance the project is about to come off the rails.

Related: Stop Avoiding It: 4 Tips for Delivering Tough Feedback

2. Don't count on "knowing it when you see it."

"I'll know it when I see it" is code for "I have no idea what I want." This often leads to a situation where a creative is just guessing at what will make you happy, rather than thinking critically about the ultimate goals of the project. It's a terrible place to be as a creative -- especially a freelancer on the outside of your organization -- and it's a terrible place to be as a client. The remedy to this problem is twofold. 1) Go into the project with a very clear picture of what you want and why you want it. Find inspiration online that you can share. Understand what you like about the example work and why. Then, 2) realize that the final product will never be exactly what you had in mind. Often it will actually be better if you're willing to see it.

3. Be specific.

Intuition doesn't come with a vocabulary. Where a lot of feedback goes wrong is in the misinterpretation of jargon. What does "fresh" mean? What makes something "visceral"? Often it can seem like you and your creative colleague are on the same page, only to find out in the next round of revisions that you're on completely different planets. But even without the proper vernacular, you can find ways of getting specific about what it is you're feeling/seeing/wanting. Include examples of what you're talking about. If you want something to feel fresh, include a design that feels fresh to you, or be specific about what in the design doesn't feel fresh. If you want snarky copy, show 'em some snark. Make sure you share sources of inspiration, your influences, the things you like. Remove the guesswork. Include Google image links.

Related: 7 Times a 'Thank You' Is the Best Response

4. Take time to give good notes.

Creatives put a lot of time and more than a little heart into the work they deliver to you. So it can be very discouraging for them to receive feedback that feels dashed off, untimely and thoughtless -- even if that feedback is, in itself, very good. In the now classic book, Creativity Inc., Pixar Co-Founder and President Ed Catmull reveals Pixar's standard for a "good note." Our team at Musicbed, has found this is a great litmus test for any piece of feedback you give. Here's Ed:

"A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn't clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn't make demands; it doesn't even have to include a proposed fix . . . . Most of all, though, a good note is specific. "I'm writhing with boredom,' is not a good note."

Don't rush your notes. Don't dash something off. You don't have to have the solution (in fact, it's often better if you leave that to the creative). Just start a productive conversation. The time you take to make sure your feedback meets the requirements above will be rewarded.

Related: 5 Steps to Providing Constructive Criticism

5. Be quick to praise.

A little bit of praise goes a long way. Creatives will always do better work for people and projects they care about. So be sure to communicate what you like about a piece, what you appreciate about what the they are bringing to the project. Hearing what's working can be as informative as hearing what isn't. Give them something to hang their hat on, something that makes them take pride and ownership in the project, rather than begrudgingly trudging through your long list of changes. Empower your creative colleagues to bring their talent to the table. Isn't that why you hired them in the first place?

It takes effort to force yourself through the arduous process of giving good feedback. But trust me, it's worth it. Not only because you'll get a better product in the end, but because working through the process of giving good feedback will sharpen your skills as a marketer, a communicator, a business owner -- a person, basically. Before you shoot off a bunch of confusing, discouraging feedback, remind yourself why you care about the project in the first place. Remind yourself what your colleague brings to the table. Stay positive and your enthusiasm will transfer to your team. And believe me, you're all going to need it by round 11.

Will Meier

Content Director at Musicbed

Will Meier is content director at Musicbed, the music licensing site for filmmakers, brands, ad agencies and TV studios, where he leads the company’s branded content, social media and other marketing initiatives. Since joining Musicbed three years ago, Meier has helped foster a strong creative environment for his team, with a goal of maintaining a consistent and resonant brand voice in the music and film industries. He lives in Fort Worth with his wife, Claire. 

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