Three Ways I’d Give Feedback on Creative Projects (without any experience)

A little while back I came across this excellent article at webflow.com. It’s got some great advice for how designers and other creatives should ask for feedback when, too often, the people in charge of their project just don’t feel comfortable giving their honest opinion.

This type of feedback may be a little too blunt.

In the past, I’ve been very reserved with my feedback. I’m even reserved when my wife asks me what I want for dinner. “Oh, whatever is easy for you to make.” That answer is usually more headache than help. The point of the question is to gain usable information she can take action with, not ambiguous statements of approval that are useless in decision-making.

I’ve often found the reason for my hesitancy in offering feedback when I’m asked is due to my lack of knowledge in that creative field. This leads to three reasons I don’t give any input at all:

  1. It’s easier to defer to someone else’s judgement. Especially when that other person is an expert, like the person asking for input. But sometimes expertise is a liability. Their precision and care causes them to be too emotionally attached to the work, which is why they need the input of others who are much less attached.
  2. It’s hard to know how to judge work outside of my expertise. I couldn’t tell you what makes one font pairing “better” than another. All I can say is what looks good to me, and I hesitate to give input to an expert on the sole basis of my feelings. I mean, they’re the expert; what can I say that makes them better at their craft?
  3. My response to a work may be very different than someone else’s. At a company I was working for, our designers built a minimalistic interface where the input buttons only appeared when you hovered over icons. A lot of people found it to be user-friendly. I didn’t. None of the inputs were where I expected them to be. That doesn’t necessarily make the design bad; that just makes me weird, and demonstrates the different ways people respond to the same work. (Now if nobody could find the inputs, I think that would make the design genuinely bad.)

Fortunately, I have three responses I’ve learned to use if I’m asked to give feedback on a creative project, regardless of my familiarity with the field I’ve been asked to evaluate.

1. “I like this design, but not that one.”

This feedback is simply a gut reaction. I give input based on what appeals to my aesthetic sense. The purpose of this form of feedback is to give the person creating the work a glimpse inside my mind, describing to them what intuitively and immediately appeals to me. Even if they don’t like how I think, it gives them valuable insight into how people similar to myself will react to their work. If I’m part of their target demographic, that makes my input all the more valuable.

If possible, I try to say why I like one design and not another, giving them something specific to work with: I don’t like the color, or the line style, or the font, or the layout. I try and give careful consideration to my intuitive reaction, offering a little more detail on why I like or dislike some part of the work. I don’t know any creative that doesn’t want to understand the psychological effects their work might have.

2. “Why did you choose to design this thing this way?”

I believe every design choice should have a reason. It doesn’t have to be functional, but it needs to be intentional. So if something looks arbitrary to me, or I don’t know why it’s there, I’ll ask. For example, if I’m editing a chapter or essay, I’d ask the writer if some sentence needs to be there, or if it’s simply a restatement of a previous point. Or, if the writer makes an unclear statement, I try to let them know that I need more information and that it would help to turn their two sentences on the topic into a full paragraph. I could apply the same thought to visual works as well — for example, does this box need a drop shadow? Is it necessary to use two colors this close in range? Picking out something to ask about doesn’t require skill in a field, just critical thought about how the thing fits in the larger context.

I also work to understand and accept the creator’s explanation. Even if they don’t make changes, they do need to defend their choices.

3. “My reaction to this is…”

Unlike #1 above, this feedback is intended to highlight the way a work makes me feel — it’s my emotional response to a piece. Granted, not everything is intended to elicit an emotional reaction, but everyone has some degree of emotional response to some feature of a created work. If a poorly designed interface is frustrating, I’d share that with the UI designer. A smooth-moving, highly intuitive website that leaves me impressed with its speed and efficiency will be sure to get me talking to the JavaScript developer. I try to help people hear how their work makes me feel, so they can know if they are on the right track — or if a course correction is necessary.

Creative work and valuable feedback both affect the bottom line.

Creative work is difficult. But it’s important. A well-designed interface, a proper font choice, well-worded copy — all of these things contribute to the ultimate profitability of the organization the creators are working for. Which is why giving feedback (when asked, of course) is necessary, and why I try to take it very seriously, even in fields I’m not familiar with.

Note that in all three of these suggestions, there is no impetus on the creator to make changes to their work. The point of these suggestions is to force creatives to think about their work from an outside perspective, making sure that their work is accomplishing the intended goal of building the thing better, and implementing the necessary changes whenever it’s not achieving that end.