The Right and Wrong Ways to Give Feedback to Creatives (with Examples)

How to Give Creatives Feedback

“This copy sucks.”

“Your photos are terrible.”

“What the @#&% were you smoking when you designed this?”

As a marketing project manager, I understand that a creative asset needs to be reworked multiple times before it can be considered suitable for publication, and that multiple internal and external parties need to be able to voice their opinions.

As a writer, however, I understand that I am a trembling, person-shaped toothpick-tower of insecurities. I am in constant fear that the next round of edits will break my heart, shatter my pride and drive me to drink. 

I exaggerate, of course (but not by much).

I’ve heard many marketing managers defend themselves for being “tough,” “brutally honest,” “efficient” or even “professional” (hint: it’s not), and they almost always end up with creatives whose output is listless and bland. In a word: safe

At best, poor feedback is unhelpful and won’t help make the asset better. At worst, you risk killing a person’s motivation to either work on the project, or work for you

There are much better ways to give feedback–feedback that helps the project move forward, helps the creative  improve their skils, and helps them know your own (or the client’s) creative preferences. 

I’ve included examples of the wrong and right way to do it below:

1. Edit the work, not the person

I get that deadlines are stressful, and the client is up in your business, and that you’re still working on the same thing after the fifth round of revisions. But there is no excuse for going all Gordon Ramsey on your creative team. 

Restrict your comments to the work itself. Never comment on any aspect of the person’s personality, appearance, upbringing, racial background or education. That’s called getting personal, and that’s a quick trip to HR. 

Yes: “I think the layout looks too busy.”

No: “That shit looks as chaotic as your hair.”

2. Be as specific as possible

Want to know the quickest way to anger a creative? Give vague feedback. 

Generic comments don’t help the creative fix your problem. What it does do is ensure that the next version will:

  1. Have the same problem
  2. Go completely in the wrong direction
  3. Be a complete waste of time
  4. All of the above.

Examine your reaction to the work and break down what is causing the issue. What is the source of your dissatisfaction? What would you change to make it better?

Yes: “The stock photo looks dated.”

No: “This is bullshit.”

3. Tell them the problem, not the solution

Are you a designer yourself? Then maybe don’t tell the person with an art degree how to fix a design problem. 

It’s human nature to want to pitch in helpful ideas. But unless you have relevant experience in that role yourself, your attempt to “helpfully instruct” will just lead to more problems. Worse, you won’t even see them as problems because they’re your suggestions, and you’re automatically biased towards your own opinions. 

Also, recommending a single course of action stifles creativity and eliminates possibilities of a much better solution. 

Yes: “That font is hard to read.”

No: “Use Comic Sans size 52. It’ll really make the CTA pop. AND USE ALL COLORS OF THE RAINBOW.”

4. Don’t do the work for them

Sort of related the previous point, however offenders in this case take it to a whole different level. These are the type of people who will “take matters into their own hands” because if you “want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

One of the worst project managers I’d ever met would literally sit at the designers desk and point out where the designer should retouch an artwork. Down. To. The. Pixel. 

Yes: “Here are the edits. Let me know when you’re done.”

No: “I thought it needed a fresh set of eyes so I redid the entire logo. No need to thank me.”

5. Stay goal-focused

You’re not doing this asset to make someone happy (well, not only that). You have a larger business objective to serve.

As a marketing manager you should always be ready to question the direction you’re given in service of the larger goal. Doing so increases the chances of you contributing to the bottom line and proving marketing’s value. 

Yes: “The writing’s good, but it’s not going to convert.”

No: “Yes! More dank memes!”

6. Make it a conversation

The best collaboration happens when two people are, you know, collaborating

One-sided conversations or directions are narrow by their very nature. If something doesn’t work and you can’t quite pin it down, talk to your creative about it and see what you can do to get the creative juices flowing. They will be able to give input based on other projects they’ve worked on and, even if that doesn’t work, at least they’ll understand where you’re coming from.

Yes: “How can we make this more informal?”

No: “Substitute the “Greetings” for “Yo, wassup.”

7. Allow them to push back

You hired the creative for their expertise, knowledge, and skill. If they have an opinion on your edits, then it’s worth listening to. 

You might not always agree with their opinion, or be able to act on it (especially if the edit is client-driven), but give them a voice anyway. They will respect you as a leader and you may even learn a few things along the way. 

Yes: “Good point, let’s do another version and see what the client likes more.”

No: “Shut your pie-hole and get to work.”

8. Give them their space

Creatives aren’t an assembly line that can pump out deliverables to a set timeline. Just because I can type at 63 wpm, doesn’t mean I’m actually working at that speed.

When you set a creative to a task, leave them be. Micromanaging will just stress them out and force them into doing work just to get you off their back, and not because they think it’s good. 

Yes: “How much time will you need for this?”

No: “I want this done by the time I’m back from lunch.”

9. Explain what you like

Don’t be a Negative Nancy all the time. Yes, you have to communicate changes and improvements to whatever creative gives you, but you should also tell them what you and the client like. 

Not only does this make the creative feel better about the work, but it also reinforces desirable design trends and habits, and encourages them to take risks and surprise you with new ideas. 

Yes: “I really like those Kirby Dots you put in the background.”

No: “It’ll do, I guess.”

10. Consolidate feedback

I totally get that a project needs to be approved by multiple people before it gets published (including you), but just because feedback gets to you piecemeal, doesn’t mean that your creative has to suffer through the same thing.

There are a bunch of reasons to consolidate feedback:

  1. Edits from different people might contradict each other. Resolve that before handing it to the creative
  2. You might be taking bad suggestions from someone you should be ignoring. I was once told to ignore edits from a CEO who was only included “to make him feel involved.”
  3. Drip-feeding edits slows the creative down. Instead of banging out the edits in one go, he has to open, fix, save, publish/render, and upload multiple times. 
  4. A constant stream of tiny changes is frickin’ annoying.

Side note: This is how you get filenames like *_final1.pdf, *_final2.pdf and *_final-final.pdf

Yes: “I marked the PDF with all of the edits from the client’s team.”

No: “Disregard the edits from yesterday. I have a new round of edits from the big boss.”

11. Be direct and honest

From all the above tips, you might think that I am telling you to treat creatives with kid gloves; to be careful of their feelings and avoid upsetting them. Treat them like the special snowflakes that they are.

Nope!

Be a straight-shooter. Tell it like it is. Don’t dance around the point. Tell them exactly what you need to tell them and be honest with your assessment of their work. 

Just don’t get personal or emotional when you do.

Yes: “I know you put a lot of effort in this, but you’re gonna have to do it all over again.”

No: “Yeah, um. Maybe it needs, um. A bit more work? BUTI’MNOTTELLINGYOUIT’SHORRIBLEIT’SACTUALLYPRETTYGOOD.”

Bonus: Have your team’s back

Your team will be much more open to your feedback if they’re confident you will back them up when needed. 

Defend their work to the client or stakeholder. Protect them from terrible design decisions. Insulate them from unnecessary meetings. Be mindful of their creative sensibilities and encourage their career growth. 

In other words: be an awesome boss.

Up Next: Why Isn’t Sales Using My Marketing Leads?!?!?

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