How to get and give better creative feedback

Feedback is an incredibly important moment at multiple points in the creative process because it can make things a lot better or a lot worse. Yet so many people don’t know how to give good feedback which endlessly frustrates creatives. In this episode, we will look at what makes bad feedback, how to give better feedback, and how to hear and act on all of that feedback.

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I do a lot of shows about creativity because there are a lot of different aspects that go into trying to do it well. The biggest variable in the the whole process is – YOU.

People all have different strengths, weaknesses, and so many other things that make you creative process unique to you. But those variations go beyond just your creative process and are a part of things like leadership style, presentation style, and the thing we are going to talk about today – how you get and give feedback. Feedback is an incredibly important inflection point in the creative process because it can make things a lot better or a lot worse. In this episode, we are going to look at the different things that make up bad feedback, how to give good feedback, the best ways to act on the feedback you are given and the importance of being deliberate with all of it.

What is bad feedback?

Lets start with bad feedback because if you are like me then it’s something you have had to contend with for better and worse your entire career. Giving feedback on creative work is different than normal work and this is the problem. Creativity is subject so there isn’t a right answer to any problem and as a result it is much more open to personal tastes, views and personality hang ups. I honestly believe that most people don’t know that they are giving bad feedback. They just don’t put themselves on the other side of the relationship or there is a communication style problem that prevents the feedback from being understood. There are a few specific things that always make feedback bad for creativity and they are things you should avoid when you need you give feedback to someone else.

Feedback focuses on the solutions
This is one of the single biggest problems I have to work on with leaders. It happens because as you move from execution into leadership you don’t learn how to trust your team so your feedback as given as someone who is still doing the execution and is given as solutions and specific direction.

Feedback includes personal likes and dislikes.
The problem with creativity is that there isn’t a right answer to any problem. As a result, subjectivity can come into the equation and cloud everything. You can tell when this is happening if you hear things like “I like” and “I don’t like”

Feedback is directed to the designer, not to the design.
Another version of personal like and dislikes happens when the feedback is directed to the designer not the design. If you start hearing things like “your layout” or “your choice of colors” instead of “the layout” and “the choice of colors”, something is weird.

Feedback comes too late
This one is a little different because it is a process problem and not a personal problem but You have to be clear about when is the window to give feedback because if you don’t then people will give you feedback when you have started on the next iteration and it will screw up the entire process.

Feedback is personal.
The absolute worst feedback at work is when it gets personal. It can never be a judgment or attack on the person, their experience, taste level, experience, etc. This is a violation of trust and isn’t just bad for the work but it will destroy the team and make people leave. Creative take their work personally so you need to balance honesty with a humanistic approach that understand the nature of type of work.

Feedback leaves you feeling lost
The absolute worst feedback just leave you feeling lost for all the reasons I have listed above. It is just a list of what isn’t working with no direction, or understanding of the problem you need to solve.

How do you give good feedback?

Now let’s look at the two parts of feedback – giving good feedback and then hearing and acting on feedback. Lets start with what goes good feedback look and sound like?

Speak in questions, not statement.
We already covered this as a big thing that makes up bad feedback
You want to be able to influence the work but you need to develop trust with your team. Yes, it would be simpler for you to just speak first when you see something and give them the answer to what you think needs to happen. But this hurts the work and the team. You have to give them space to work out the problem on their own, bring their experience and leverage all the smart people you have hired. To do this speak in question about problems, insights, and areas to explore. this will give them something specific to work against but it still gives them the space and freedom to bring their own approach to the problem.

Use multiple styles of feedback
To some people, design can feel like a subjective discipline where everyone just picks their favorite color or typeface and like magic, the project’s done. But we know that is the farthest thing from the truth. Successful creatives work with data to improve their work and process. Purely subjective comments don’t bring anything to the table and don’t help improve the design. Using evidence and descriptive terms is a lot more helpful.

There are three types of feedback –
• objective (non biased)
• data-based
• opinion-based (experience and gut)
You need to have all three as any one of them can easily lead you down the wrong path.

Critique impersonally but with honesty
Focus on the work and doesn’t criticize the person without being too positive or too negative. I know a lot of people like to use the feedback “sandwich” which is squeezing a critique between praise. I personally think this doesn’t work because the person can either fail to act on the negative feedback because it gets lost in the general positive vibe, or they can feel patronized by the sugar coating. I believe in honesty and approaching all feedback as a conversation are always best. But there are also a few more subtle things that work as well.

Try constructive criticism in the passive voice. Ask “Why was IT designed this way?” instead of “Why did YOU design it this way?” Explaining how the designer’s unique strengths can help improve the design. Some of the best feedback is honest and maybe even brutal but it doesn’t stop there. It builds people back up by showing them a way forward and making them believe that they can make it better. This is where there is a line between feedback and coaching which can bleed together.

Stop single opinion domination or rabbit hole discussions.
It’s common that two people will hijack design critique sessions to discuss a specific point, but it’s important for the designer to make sure other participants also agree with what’s being discussed. What you don’t want is to make a change based on what one person thinks. For people who dominate conversations have every show up with their own feedback and give everyone an equal amount of time.

Start with a recap
A good way to prevent bad feedback from coming up in the first place is to start every meeting with a recap of the goals. Don’t assume everyone knows what type of feedback you are looking for or they know the goals of the meeting. Be clear about what are we trying to achieve here? Where are we in the process? What feedback are we expecting to discuss today? I used to have all design feedback sessions start with just that where the team would let us know what type of feedback they were looking for.

Say thank you
These are two of the least used words when we are at work and they can make all the difference.

Hearing and acting on feedback

The work is not over when the critique session ends. The next step is (obviously) to address the feedback you heard — but don’t do it right away. Give your brain (and your team’s brain) some time to reflect on what was discussed, preferably only starting to address it on the next day.

Write down the feedback.
This not only shows your appreciation for the feedback you are getting but also helps you remember the details the next day. Make sure you collect all the details you need to be able to act.

Have patience and respect.
Avoid interrupting or contradicting the critique — the other person has taken time to engage with your work and they deserve your patience and respect.

Listen actively.
Make sure you are wholeheartedly listening and paying attention to what your peers or clients are saying. Too often what people are listening for is the silence so they can say what they want to instead of actually listening to other people. Take critical points on board and consider them with an open mind. If you need to absorb the feedback for a while, let them know you’ll get back to them later.

Ask for clarification.
When you receive feedback that misses a proper rationale, ask clarifying questions that will remove ambiguity and doubt. “What specifically do you not like about this menu, and is there another type that you like better? What makes you like that one better?”

Explain, but don’t be defensive.
Defending is adversarial, and can shut down further discussion. Explaining is neutral, and can lead to further discussion and better mutual understanding.

Take time to reflect.
Reflect before deciding what feedback needs acting on and what doesn’t. It will also take time to see the right way forward in terms of changes to your work.

Iterate and seek further critique.
Implement changes you decide upon in a new version, and seek further feedback if necessary.

Its about being deliberate

I think it is also really important to be deliverable about some really important things.

Build trust
The best feedback I’ve gotten has come from people I trust. People who care as much about their team as they do about finding the right solution.

Develop understanding
Understand where other people are coming from

Have a way to settle disagreements
What do you do if people have two different opinions or conflicting feedback? Most teams I work with have no answer for that question and that is a huge problem. When the discussion gets too personal, coming up with real use cases can bring the session back on track. “Let’s think about our persona, Joe, and imagine they are coming here trying to find our Products. Where do you think they would click?”

Get feedback on your feedback.

Look at feedback as more coaching than feedback.

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