As a designer, I care a lot about feedback and I am constantly improving on how I give and get feedback myself. This post is about how you can level up your feedback skills by providing good creative feedback, but these principles can extend beyond just creative feedback!
Three ways to improve your feedback
Getting feedback on your creative work is vital to its success for a variety of reasons. Creatives crave constructive feedback on our work, but it can be hard to find (and give). We may not even recognize it when we ourselves are giving bad feedback.
So how do you ensure that the feedback you’re giving is useful?
1. Frame your feedback appropriately, not in a ‘shit sandwich’
You may have heard of the ‘shit sandwich’ method (sometimes called the ‘oreo method’) of providing feedback. If you haven’t, this is where you give criticism between compliments.
The problem with this method is that the person you’re giving feedback to is either going to pick up on the insincerity of your compliments and tune out, or walk away from the conversation feeling like they’re doing a great job.
But that doesn’t mean you should be painfully blunt with your teammates, either. As hard as it can be to give feedback, it’s also difficult to get feedback. In fact, it’s so difficult that when we get negative feedback, our brains can perceive it as a threat to our safety and security. FastCompany wrote an article that expands on this idea, and it’s worth a read. The tl;dr here is that receiving criticism can make us feel like our sense of belonging, place in society, and job security are all under attack.
We’ve all likely experienced giving and getting poorly framed feedback. But how should we be framing our feedback to one another?
First, focus on what it is that you want to give creative feedback on. Is it a UI element? A bit of writing? Examine what it is about the material that you think could be improved. Perhaps a UI element is placed strangely. Maybe it’s (gasp) even breaking the grid. If your knee-jerk reaction is to say something like “Why are you breaking the grid?” or “The UX flow here is really great! I love the auto-advance features. I’m not sure about the placement for that UI element, but I like your footer!” stop yourself and think about your feedback before articulating it.
Try to evaluate what it is that you feel could be improved. We’ll run with this example of a UI component breaking the grid. Instead of assuming this is a wrong choice, seek to understand why the choice was made. Reframe your feedback to something like, “Can you walk me through how you arrived at the placement for this?” You’ll gain more context and clarity around what goal the designer is trying to accomplish, and you’ll be able to offer better feedback to help achieve that goal.
Ask open-ended questions that allow your teammates to respond without sounding defensive, and keep an open mind — you might be missing some context that changes your understanding and feedback.
2. Be specific and focus on the goal, but don’t micromanage
It’s a long-running joke in the design community that clients and other non-designers will ask their creative counterparts to “make it pop.” This kind of feedback isn’t helpful because it’s simultaneously too vague and too prescriptive. (An impressive feat, truly).
But it’s not just clients that give feedback like this. Designers and other creatives can be equally guilty of being too vague or too prescriptive in our own feedback. Sometimes creatives are especially prescriptive in our feedback because we have our own ideas for how the work could be done.
If you’re tempted to say something like “Make it pop” first stop and consider: What is ‘it’ and how will it ‘pop’? Do you feel like the colors (it) being used are too dull (not poppin’)? Is the typeface too formal? Examine why you think it should it pop. Is it because you personally prefer brighter colors and a sans-serif, or is it because the project legitimately calls for the material to be more lively? You and your teammates should be aligned on a shared goal, focus on that and communicate ways to best achieve it.
You may also disagree on how to best achieve something. For instance, you might feel that in order to make a project ‘pop’ it requires both bright colors and a bold, exciting font choice. Your teammate might disagree and feel that doing all of these things is overkill. At the end of the day, it’s the creator’s choice and you are merely offering suggestions and input. Be comfortable letting things go, and remember that your teammates are smart people with expertise.
Be clear about what you think could be improved and why it will help the work achieve its goal. Remember that you’re offering suggestions, not commands.
3. Cheerlead early, critique later
Giving specific feedback early on in the life of a project can be detrimental to the success of your project and demoralize the person working on it. Being too cheerful and sunny when someone needs an eagle eye to review their work is equally unhelpful.
Ana Mardoll wrote an excellent thread on Twitter where she explains giving the right feedback at the right time. Ana writes, “When a project is in its infancy, it needs water and fertilizer and sunlight, not pruning.”
Ana’s point is simple: The earlier on a project is, the more you should call out what’s working, what you love, and what you want to see more of. Think big picture and call out what you like about it. Cheer your teammate on! Your feedback doesn’t always have to be critical to be good, and in fact, sometimes it shouldn’t be.
As a project progresses, your feedback can begin to ramp up, until near the end of a project it will be more appropriate for you to give more detailed feedback, like pointing out typos or commenting on specific visual design elements.
It’s also entirely likely that you’re better at one of these things than the other. Personally, I’m a great cheerleader, and while I feel quite capable of giving good feedback mid and late stage, I struggle with being comfortable giving that harsher criticism. Whether you’re a cheerleader or an eagle eye, know your strengths and try to play to them as much as you can while you work on your weaker areas.
Remember that there is an appropriate time for different types of feedback. Cheerlead early, and critique more thoroughly later. Do what you do best!
Giving and getting feedback is tough, but it’s also rewarding. Like any skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and the better your work will be.