Creative reviews are messy. The uninformed folks in the room offer vague, cryptic comments and then our egos rear up. It’s frustrating to receive unhelpful criticism from a client or colleague. But most of the time, it’s not their fault. If we coach our stakeholders right from the start, they’ll offer more meaningful feedback and can even help us navigate tough creative decisions.
I once asked a client to review a few concepts for his new website and he responded with:
“Can we make it more like Chipotle?”
This might have been useful if we were selling foil-wrapped food. But we weren’t selling burritos. Not even close. Unaccompanied by further explanation, this was bad feedback.
Every writer, creative director, content strategist, or designer has similar stories of woe. We spend a lot of time decoding ambiguous comments scribbled in the margins of proofs or fired off in a quick email.
“Not enough brand”
Creatives need more substance to these comments to prevent projects from spiraling into the madness of endless revisions. But our clients and coworkers aren't trying to give us bad feedback. They’re just not experts in the creative process. That’s why they hired us. We can actually take most of the blame because we don’t always prep them well enough to offer useful critique. So how can we help them out?
Start with the positive
Creatives have fragile egos. We need a lot of encouragement and support because our work is grueling and often self-defeating. It’s subjective. It’s personal. And it makes us vulnerable.
So instead of going right to the negative, lead the critique by asking your client to identify what’s working well and why.
Highlighting the bright spots not only keeps your confidence up but it also makes you better. When you know what’s resonating with your client’s brand or business, you’ll be more likely to repeat that good stuff in the future.
Ask a lot of questions
Because feedback is so subjective, you need to dig for specific, actionable comments.
When a client says “I don’t like this,” ask them why.
When they say “because it doesn’t sound like our business” ask them what they think their business sounds like.
When they say “I don’t like this word,” again, ask them why. What about it? Is it just the context or should you always avoid it?
Without coaxing out concrete details, there’s little chance you’ll be able to produce a new version that addresses their true concerns.
Talk about your goals
“I think you missed the mark.” Whenever I hear this comment, we need to stop talking about the creative itself and instead revisit our project goals.
Sometimes I misinterpret what my client really needs. Sometimes clients change their minds midway through the project. Sometimes we forget to pin down our goals from the start because we’re so amped and just rush out to do the work.
No matter how it happens, when you sense you’re misaligned, you need to move back in sync if you’re going to be successful. By asking the question “what are we trying to accomplish?” we can agree on a common direction and then discuss how to adjust the creative.
Model good listening
I’ll admit, I’m not the best listener. Often, I’m busy formulating my response mentally before my conversation partner has finished what they’re saying. This makes it quite challenging to truly comprehend their concerns.
When I’m receiving feedback, I have to remind myself to listen thoroughly. I take notes. I maintain eye contact. As an introvert, I have to make an extra effort to send non-verbal cues. When they’ve finished, I try to repeat back what I’ve heard to make sure I understand. And I ask clarifying questions when I don’t.
Demonstrate your objective decisions
Stakeholders often underestimate the amount of objective decision making creative folks put into their work. Often, they see design, wording, or style choices as the blissful whims of the creator.
But when it comes to web work, a lot of our decisions are likely based on:
- User experience best practices
- Identity guidelines
- Technology limitations
- Performance considerations
- Browser and device constraints
- Concern for sustainability
We’re always weighing the give and take. If we want to amp up aesthetic, it’s probably going to hurt performance. What’s most important? We have to choose.
When this is the case, we need to do some coaching and educating to help our clients understand our thought process. Find ways to explain your work and your priorities without sounding defensive or elitist. Affirm what your client already knows, help them grow their understanding, and make them feel part of the process.
If your clients begin to see the creative process as objective choices you can make together, they can help you determine what’s most important and even become your advocates.
Finally, turn off the ego
Receiving direct criticism on our work is tough, no matter how it’s presented. We put a piece of ourselves into everything we write, design, plan, or otherwise create. So when clients offer negative feedback, it hurts on a personal level. But it’s part of the creative process. It’s healthy. It’s valuable.
We need other people to produce great work and grow as professionals. Instead of approaching critique with trembles and loathing, embrace the opportunity to invite others in and learn something new.