Illustration by Justin Tran After days, if not weeks or months, of thrashing through ideas and then carefully refining your work, you send your client or manager a product that positively shines. But instead of commending you for your creative genius, they respond in a far more maddening manner. Maybe they dash off a terse "I don’t like it" or send back a long list of overly prescriptive change requests or reply with a vague and confusing request to make it "pop." Whichever it is, you’ve just received some pretty terrible feedback. No matter your creative field, you’ve likely encountered some measure of poor input like this. Luckily, there are ways to translate unhelpful comments into constructive criticism, or, even better, skip the bad feedback altogether.
1. Educate them on the creative process
Creativity can be messy. It often comes in fits and starts, with multiple drafts and rounds of revisions. Many people on the reviewing side have no sense of how many incremental steps are involved. Before embarking on a project, walk them your through your process. Explain how many rounds of revisions you anticipate and what level of detail they should expect at each stage. If you don’t prep them first, they might be worried by rough or incomplete drafts and conceptual sketches. Remind them that early versions are helpful steps on the way to the final product. The work is currently in flux and their job at this point is to focus on the basic ideas being presented—not nitpicky details. As the work progresses, let them know which elements need to be nailed down early (e.g., layout) and which could be changed later (e.g., typeface) without derailing the project. Neither of you wants to be caught off guard by a major revision when you’re nearing the end.
2. Elicit feedback early and often
Prior run-ins with clients who fired off aggressive criticism might have left you understandably gun-shy, but it’s important to share your work before you’ve polished it into a perfect little jewel. Even the most detailed creative briefs can be misinterpreted. If you wait until the end to present your work, you might discover that the diamond you thought you cut to their specifications looks like a lump of coal to your reviewer. Head off these sorts of misunderstandings by regularly soliciting their responses to mood boards, wireframes, and works-in-progress. Be sure to give your client or colleagues enough time to formulate thoughtful responses, rather than gut reactions. Spur of the moment replies may come across as unintentionally harsh or contradict the agreed-upon goals. Once you’ve gathered their considered feedback, you can recalibrate your vision until you have their desires clearly in sight. Seeking your reviewers’ input along the way also allows them to feel like they’re part of the creative process and gives them a greater sense of ownership over the end result. You’re much less likely to receive pushback on the final version when your client or manger feels like their voice has been heard and integrated into the work.
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3. Explain what useful feedback looks like
The biggest obstacle to receiving good feedback? Most people don’t know how to do it. Your clients and colleagues who don’t work in a creative field probably have little to no experience giving creative critiques—and, more than likely, they’re a tad intimidated by the whole process. Before sharing an initial draft, let them know
what helpful feedback looks like
- Remind them to set their personal tastes aside. Their comments should always tie back to the project’s goals and the needs of the target audience.
- Encourage them to give clear and specific feedback. While "and" may be the preferred conjunction in improv and brainstorming, "because" is the key to unlocking useful feedback. Let your clients or co-workers know that saying that they like or dislike something is only a start. They need to also explain why they feel that way (e.g., "I like this blog post because you nailed the conversational tone we were hoping for.").
- Invite them to point out problems—not come up with fixes. Clients may be tempted to play designer or editor and alter your work themselves. They might even think this is helpful. Coach them ahead of time to say what they think isn’t working so that you can develop the best solution together.
- Reassure them that this is a dialogue. Their comments don’t need to be perfectly worded, and they don’t need to worry about using the correct technical terms. And if they don’t understand a design or editorial choice, let them know you’re happy to talk them through your thinking. As long as they’re willing to ask questions and answer yours, you can sort out any confusion together.
4. Ask questions
The favorite word of two-year-olds is now your favorite word. Even after providing explicit directions on the type of feedback you need, you’ll likely still hear comments like, "I hate the color scheme," or the dreaded "Make the logo bigger." Instead of tensing up or saying yes to something that will hurt the final product, take a breath and ask the magic question: "Why?" Maybe the color scheme mirrors one of their top competitors, or perhaps too much marketing copy is crowding the logo. By addressing frustrating feedback with genuine curiosity, you can uncover the legitimate concerns behind your client’s initial comments. Similarly, when you receive vague or confusing comments like, "That doesn’t look premium" or "The sandwich needs to be more playful" (both
real examples of client feedback
), follow up with questions to tease out the meaning. What does "premium" look like to them? What does "playful" mean to you? Encourage them to elaborate. If they’re at a loss for words, ask them to find examples that demonstrate what they’re hoping for. As mentioned earlier, giving creative feedback can leave people tongue-tied when they aren’t fluent in the relevant jargon. If your client is stuck on a general response of "I don’t like it," break the project into smaller components. Is it the layout, typeface, color, language, or tone that isn’t working for them? Guiding them through the various parts will help you pull out the specific feedback you need to move forward.
5. Set aside your ego
After putting so much thought and care into a project, separating yourself from it may be the hardest thing you have to do. But it’s crucial that you remember that you are not your work. If your client says that the copy is boring or the illustrations are garish, they’re not calling you boring or garish. Don’t waste your energy getting defensive. Instead, try to see things from their perspective. It’s true that they hired you for your expertise, but they’re the experts when it comes to their business and customers. Again, stay curious and ask questions. Maybe "boring" means that their end users aren’t interested in the technical ins and outs of their product. And perhaps they called the illustrations garish because their strait-laced audience prefers more muted hues. Listen carefully to their thoughts and stay focused on figuring out what changes are needed. You’re providing a service, and, no matter how much heart you pour into it, the final product is for them, not you. It’s also important that you remember the difference between bad feedback and negative feedback. It can be hard to hear the difference when your ears are burning with emotion, and that’s where setting aside your ego becomes critical. Comments like, "I don’t like it," or even, "I love it!" are prime examples of bad feedback. Neither explains how you missed or hit the mark. Negative feedback, such as "This animation is too comedic for the serious image we want to project," may sting a little, but it lets you know what you need to do differently to get closer to the target. Conjuring up something that doesn’t exist yet is a tricky task for all involved, let alone for someone with no experience in your area of expertise. People might misspeak. Misunderstandings can occur. Words might fail your client entirely. However, with a healthy dose of inquiry and a dollop of empathy, you can teach almost anyone to provide the useful feedback you need to translate their fuzzy wishes into a finished product that sparkles in everyone’s eyes.