So you’ve laid out the scope of your project, built a rock-solid brief, come up with a brilliant concept and nailed down your strategy. The creatives have been hard at work bringing your shared vision to life, and now the product of their labor is ready for your eyes. This part should be pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast.
Giving good creative feedback is an art in itself.
A thoughtful and intentional approach to reviewing creative work can be transformative for everyone involved. But all too often, carelessly delivered feedback stalls and confuses a project when it should be moving it along. With intent, patience and diligence, meaningful feedback builds and reinforces that all-important important dynamic – the creative partnership.
This is a checklist for delivering creative feedback in a way that motivates your collaborators and fuels powerful creative collaboration.
☑Revisit the Brief
Context, context, context. The reality of the modern workload is that we are often rapidly shifting our focus between different projects with differing objectives and priorities. As a project goes on, certain details don’t always stay as fresh as they were at the outset.
Before each new round of feedback, revisit your brief. In revisions, the brief is one half of the “decoding” key that will help contextualize and frame why certain creative decisions were made. You can’t make any meaningful suggestions or requests without first internalizing it.
This might seem so obvious. But especially as a project gets into further iterations and evolves, it’s easy to lose sight of the original objective – often to the chagrin of the creatives involved.
☑Have the Last Version On-Hand
If you come across something that confuses you, your first move should be to compare what’s in front of you against the previous version, if there is one. This is easy if you use an online proofing tool with a comparison feature, making it easy to review any versions for a side-by-side analysis, and even highlight the differences.
With the brief and previous versions, suggestions and creative decisions, all work together to serve as a “Rosetta Stone” of sorts for continuous communication with your creative colleagues. Feedback, ideas and revisions all become threaded.
☑Highlight What is Working
In most creative writing workshops, workshoppers are invited to use the “sandwich method” when responding to the reader’s work. The idea is to begin with something that you like, explaining in detail why it’s working. The next layer is where the constructive part comes in, identifying areas for improvement. Finally, the feedback is “sandwiched” by another strength.
This is a good approach to take when reviewing any kind of creative work. Not only does it help create a safe environment for open discourse, but it provides a positive point of reference to compare and contrast any new changes against. Your creatives need to understand what parts of the work are measuring up to the project vision, in detail, in order to make changes that will conform to that standard.
In a broader context, this dynamic also contributes to developing successful long-term creative partnerships. Understanding what doesn’t work for a client is often as (if not more) valuable than what works. Approvals are often “I like it,” whereas a rejection usually requires deeper explanations. Stack up the rejections and the creative knows what to avoid. Of course, if it’s all rejection, well, there’s no way of knowing what works.
If you like something, you have to explain why. Naturally, this is also the case for any problem areas.
This much might be obvious: Advising someone to “try again” without providing any guiding details to direct them is most often destined to result in a disappointing outcome for everyone.
Just as importantly, you need to be sure you’re not exclusively using terminology that is vague or ill-defined in your explanations. Adjectives like “better,” “stronger” and “energetic” have no universal meaning and are easily misinterpreted when also absent of purely descriptive language.
Thorough and precise feedback should provide clarity with actionable tasks. What makes a desired change “actionable” is a comprehensive shared understanding of exactly what needs to be accomplished in each isolated instance.
What is the problem?
Why is it a problem?
What qualities should an alternative have?
☑…But Don’t Be Too Prescriptive
At the same time, in most cases you want to leave room for your creatives to channel the unique talents that you hired them for. When you are giving feedback to creatives, who’ve been hired to be creative, “identify the problem, but not the solution.” This means presenting the changes you desire in a way that is well-defined, but does not completely prescribe the desired outcome.
Of all the components of giving good feedback, this might be the one that’s hardest to master. It takes practice, and the precise way of achieving this balance can depend entirely on the specific dynamic between reviewer and creative.
In any case, the last thing you want is for your creatives to feel that their job is just to press the buttons.
☑Provide the (Visual) Context
It’s really difficult to achieve clarity, without visual context. We’ve all been there: clumsy wording in an email, a misinterpreted phone call, a broken feedback loop…
Feedback is easily misinterpreted when it’s not presented within the context of how it should be applied. If you’re working with visual media, this means providing visual information in the clearest manner possible – whether that’s through on-screen markup, including a sketch or attaching a specific asset rather than just referencing it.
Ideally, creatives shouldn’t need to go hunting for missing pieces or matching up comments with the material they’re referencing upon receiving feedback – with the context, it should provide a clear course of action.
And beyond the practical application of contextual feedback, collaboration itself is a highly visual medium.
☑Keep Things Exclusive
Getting a second opinion is one thing. But bringing on a whole panel of critics to weigh in is not recommended, especially if they haven’t been directly involved in the project throughout its various stages. All this will do is confuse your objectives, prolong turnarounds, and overwhelm your creatives.
If you must, ask third parties for their thoughts on a particular, isolated matter – but do not give them free rein for critique and input.
If it’s unavoidable, be sure to generously build a stakeholder feedback round into your project schedule at a strategic point – and come to that meeting prepared to explain how you’ve arrived at any decisions that have already been made, showing the evolution of the creative.
Nothing disrupts the flow of a project like waiting for feedback that seems like it may never come. The longer something sits on your desk (hopefully on a metaphorical desk, if you’re an online proofing convert), the more difficult it is for your creatives to sustain the same level of motivation throughout a project.
Conversely, quick turnarounds sustain creative momentum and encourage your collaborators by communicating that you are engaged and invested in your joint goals. If you need some ideas on optimizing your to-do list, there are several models you might want to consider – getting people the feedback they need to do their jobs is vital to a fluid creative workflow.
☑Keep Feedback Centralized and Synchronous
Having a readily available history of the decisions that have already been made (and why) is critical to giving clear – and accurate – feedback and keeping your team in sync throughout the review and approvals process. Online proofing does this for you by centralizing one document for synchronized collaboration, and cataloguing each version along with their respective threaded comments. It’s so much easier than manually keeping a chronological record of all suggestions, discussions and changes to the work, from all of the parties involved.
Coordinating and compiling feedback shouldn’t have any extra resource requirements – and definitely should not negatively impact your project schedule.
Now…The Ball is in Your Court
Ultimately, good feedback is what sustains a strong creative workflow, resulting in fewer versions and faster turnarounds. Using an online proofing software sets you up for success from the get-go, with built-in features that turn many of these essential practices into habits you don’t even have to think about. So go forth and empower your creative collaborators with thoughtful and applicable feedback that motivates them to their full potential.