You Get What You Give With Feedback

With help from literary greats, we put together some guiding principles for giving feedback that’s less painful, and more effective. When you’re looking at someone’s work it’s so easy to say, “I don’t like that.” Or “That isn’t working.” But celebrating what’s valuable? That takes understanding. It takes a well-developed vocabulary. It takes experience. It’s not like your feedback is going in a museum bookstore, but you should think of it like a form of criticism. We do at least.
And we get it. That 30-day landing page isn’t going to be the Sistine Chapel. At best it goes live on time, does its job to drive conversions and then it crawls into a designer’s portfolio. Still, it hurts to get negative feedback after you’ve spent hours creating something.
And that’s why we explored how artists over time have reacted to their own critics, to see if we could get our industry to react with fewer foul-ups. Think of it this way, creatives having to build up their jilted egos is wasted billing. So, let’s have fun exploring ways to give better feedback. That way people can work with less fear, less feelings of failure, and moves projects to successful places faster.
GIVE FEEDBACK CENTERED AROUND A GOAL Susan Sontag sounded slightly bitter when she said, “Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.” Of course, she’s talking about books and essays, but she sets up a great point: don’t add creative cholesterol when giving feedback. Think about the goal you are trying to achieve. As you are writing notes, frame your reactions in context with that goal, and express it accordingly.
Think of it like a triple aim: time, quality and contentment. Often, a designer is going through two pages of changes and notices some contradictions. Not only are they possibly upset by the poor reaction to their work, they are now confused as to what direction will course correct it. Of course, they can send back questions, and you can all get to the bottom of the issue. But if you’re clear about the goal you wanted to accomplish with revisions, the creative is more likely to figure out smart solutions without the additional go around. This saves everyone time, gives the creative a sense of purpose—something they can set out to achieve—and leads to a superior finished product. With good feedback, it’s possible to get a good product and have creatives feel pleased with their work, while fostering efficiency, too.
ONLY GIVE DIRECTION IF YOU ARE QUALIFIED Ezra Pound, notoriously opinionated critic and artist, said, “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.” Only you can determine if you are qualified to give design direction, though. It’s a fine line. Did you study it in college? Were you employed professionally? Did you win any awards or noteworthy recognition? When in doubt, you should defer to the professionals you’ve hired to do the work. The last thing anyone needs is to sit around the watering hole, telling the allegorical story about the client who told the architect how far he wanted to have the deck extend over the hillside. The architect says it’s not wise but the client insists. Don’t insist that someone spend hours building something that’s going to topple down into a ravine the first time you use it.
DON’T MAKE IT PERSONAL Ray Bradbury famously quipped, “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” And we get it, designers can’t always walk from a project after getting unseemly feedback. But why make them want to leave in the first place? Don’t make creatives feel like they have bad taste. Communicate what the work did not accomplish and set them off the find answers.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s offered universal wisdom when she said, “If you consider that you are being criticized by someone who is seeking knowledge and has an open mind, then you naturally feel you must try to meet that criticism. But if you feel that the criticism is made out of sheer malice and that no amount of explanation will change a point of view which has nothing to do with the facts, then the best thing is to put it out of your mind entirely.” Sometimes employees aren’t meeting expectations, and that’s unfortunate. But by following the above principles, your feedback should give them the straightest path to success. Emphasize that you are sharing feedback not to pit them against outside examples, but rather to get them to compete against their personal best. Communicate in a way that empowers them to give you better work, not in a way that makes them fear failing you. Be strong, but show them that you are intelligent and have an open mind. If you do this, we believe your projects will achieve greater success.
As a “client” (anyone who’s providing feedback) we are guilty of these caricatures to a certain degree. There’s the “do whatever you want” client. And the “insane” client asking for a million things—probably due to pressure from higher ups to accomplish ridiculous things. And the impossible to please “You’re the designer” client, amongst others. Remember Adam Gopkin of The New Yorker’s sage opinion: “ Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end.” Sneak a peek at N.C. Winters’ comic depicting 6 dreaded clients. [Link is no longer active. Check out Triggers and Sparks.]Here’s to being more civilized, and less like any of them.
Joan Didion makes a fabulous point when she said, “ A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.” Yeah, she was talking about art and literature, but it echoes into the design world, too. Designers need to be grateful for the outside observer who can keep them sharp. And as creative directors or senior designers we should remember that our job is to clearly articulate our vision, not expect a junior creative to find it in the dark. The problem isn’t that we don’t like something. It’s the manner in which we express our displeasure. Our main goal when critiquing should be to shine a light on what worked and point that light where the work needs to go. With this attitude, creatives can react to your reaction more positively, and develop better and better work.
Check out these links for more reading on the topic of feedback: And if you’re craving some of Mark Twain’s brutally honest feedback check out this entertaining blog post from Brain Pickings! (Mark Twain sent some outrageous stuff in correspondence!)

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