Is my work any good?

A three-fold framework for evaluating the quality of creative work

Everyone who’s doing creative work asks themselves that uncomfortable question frequently. Funny thing is, once you’re past certain threshold of quality, it becomes increasingly hard to get a definitive answer. I’ve seen people who are doing world-class work for 15 years straight — still being full of fears, doubts, and uncertainty. How strange.

The app design you just showed me looks gorgeously awesome, mate on Dribbble, but how well did it solve the client’s problems? Did the website copy you’ve written increase product sales as promised? Do people enjoy using the iOS app you built? What’s the emotional impact that your work has created? Is there any?

Some of these questions can be answered with numbers, thanks to ever-present (slightly creepy) data-driven approach: signups and sales are easy enough to measure. But the quality of work on its own, as well as its emotional impact, is rather difficult to represent in numbers.

The three-fold framework

To save myself from the impostor syndrome and to save my girlfriend from endless evenings of my self-deprecating monologues, I came up with a three-fold framework for evaluating the quality of creative work. It’s a result of several years of uncertainty and lack of knowledge which sometimes led to mood swings and mediocre performance.

An important side note: although a lot of examples of “creative work” mentioned here are from the design and writing industries, it applies equally well to other professions which are considered less “creative” — which is unfair, because people in development, PR, event planning, HR, marketing, sales — as well as many others — are unconsciously doing a lot of creative work.

1. Goals and metrics

Unless it’s a strictly artistic project, there’s always some kind of clear measurable goal attached to it. Make more people come to the website; make more people aware of this NGO initiative; make more people buy the products; make more people open the newsletter; reduce the time it takes to checkout. The owners of that project have a clear objective in mind, but they don’t know how to achieve it — which is why they hired you. Congratulations.

There’s no real excuse for a copywriter to not to look up the metrics of the campaign he wrote

So it only makes sense that you can’t ship a website and call it a day. You should check the numbers which correspond to the initial goals — these numbers (in comparison to “old” numbers, if any) show how good your work is. It’s the only measurable way of success; and, interestingly/sadly enough, often the only one that the majority of people in the commercial sector care about.

TL; DR: Don’t ignore the numbers. Be curious about them — they are the key indicators of your successes (and failures).

2. Function and usefulness

The previous point is about the goals of the company behind the project. Now let’s shift focus to the goals of the people who are exposed to it. It’s important for the creative output to address these goals and to stay true to them. In a way, you are the audience’s advocate within the project. Please don’t sell your soul.

How well is the product explained? How easy is it to use it? How understandable is this app? How informative, useful, and helpful is this article? Does it help me do what I want to do? Is it more like a smart and kind friend or more like an obnoxious salesperson?

Dieter Rams’ designs are wonderfully functional, useful, and stay true to the author’s 10 principles of good design

These questions are hard to answer objectively, but at least taking them into account is already a good start. Thinking in these terms will prevent creating horrible things which put marketers’ goals over human needs. Modal windows, popups and all this other shit would never exist if everyone were to stay true to these ideas.

The least you can do is to show your work to the people around you to test if they’re able to get what you want your audience to get: see if they understand your witty headline or an elegant design move. That would give you some — albeit biased—understanding of how your work is seen by others. More rigorously, you’d like to do some real research and qualitative testing — something very common in the UX world, but less common in modern advertising and marketing— to learn as much as possible from your actual audience. (Guesswork and gut instincts are all nice and all, but facts are unavoidably better.)

Oh, and it’s hardly a surprise — it’s exactly those qualities of the product that primarily affect the numbers and metrics described above.

TL; DR: Every creative output should be functional and useful above all else. You’re the audience’s advocate — make sure to do a good job.

3. Emotions and the human parts

And now for the hardest bits.

This looks a bit nostalgic in 2017, doesn’t it?

When you’re hit a broken link on the web, you’ll see something similar to what’s shown above. There’s no rational reason to invest time and efforts into designing a separate page which would explain that the requested content is not there. It won’t increase signups, conversions, sales, or whatever else. So let’s accept the standard error message and move on. Right?

Take a look at this:

MailChimp is one of the many companies which created a custom 404 page which entertain, delight, and amuse

Despite having no direct value in terms of the company goals, this page exists. It’s been created, it’s nice on its own, and although most visitors leave it within a few seconds, the designers of MailChimp made everything they could to make those few seconds as nice as possible, and somewhat memorable.

The point of that is that once you’ve accomplished the functional part, therefore, hopefully, addressing the initial goals, it’s time to embrace the human and emotional aspects and check if your work feels like a person or more like a zombie. Even in big serious projects for respectable gentlemen in expensive suits there is always some space for playfulness and extra attention to the important details. It’s worth finding those pieces and making them human. Everyone likes it!

TL; DR: Products and brands are more memorable when they have personalities and voices which trigger emotions. Make sure your work is not cold and dead inside.

Same thing but shorter

I think that to evaluate your work you need to consider three aspects. First: does it serve the measurable goals of the people who are behind the project? Go and check Google Analytics yourself; it’s not hard and very gratifying. Second: is it functional and useful for the people it’s created for? Try your work yourself and test on the people around — an easy way to be surprised. Third: does it have positive emotional impact? That one is not difficult to figure out — we humans are good at recognizing emotional triggers.

If all three components are checked, you did a good job and deserve a nice cocktail. If not, you know where and how to improve! And I think it’s much easier to have some kind of system than none at all.

I’d be very interested to know what do you think about all this. Does this framework make sense? Would it something you would consider using for your work? Every idea and opinion is very very welcome.

I also would appreciate if you’d recommend this article and share it with your friends. (I won’t stop liking you if you wouldn’t, but I’ll definitely like you more if you would.)