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Understanding some things about negative feedback

by / Thursday, 25 July 2013 / Published in Philosophy

When you get negative feedback on your work, it’s never easy to hear. What makes the feedback more difficult to interpret is the reality that it seldom actually has anything to do with your work in the first place. Bear this in mind – almost every bit of creative feedback you receive, is about how the person giving the feedback expects to be treated based on their opinion of the work, not about the work itself.

Very few people are comfortable expressing their opinion about creative work when it’s in a professional context. Considering the amount of feedback you get, that likely sounds wrong, but it’s not. If you have an experienced creative director, you’ll find that is typically your most reliable source of honest feedback. A good CD is paid to watch the shop, and deliver on the brief. They also possess the experience and discipline to “like” an idea they don’t actually like, personally, but know it’s appropriate for the target market. Your next level of good feedback will be a solid lead account person. Again, experience teaches them to rely on what they know – the brief. They might hate punk rock and skateboards, but if the target is 17 year old males who like punk and skateboards, they trust you to interpret that visually. And, the good ones are just as creative as you, so they know if you’ve done it or not. Apart from those two, your results begin to vary. Not always bad, but certainly harder to rely on.

All of that said, this is NOT to say, creatives are these elite idea-machines that no one can understand or appreciate. When I say feedback is hard to rely on, I mean you likely suck at giving it, too. No one wants to be the only one in the room that doesn’t get it. Or that likes it. Or doesn’t like it. “Am I wrong if I accept this concept and show it to the client? What if they hate it? What if we spend all our time on this and the president of the agency hates it, and I get in trouble?”

Many people who aren’t confident in their creative opinion will default to the following position: “I understand why you did this concept. But, I feel like we need to explore some other ideas. What do you guys think?”

There are others who don’t want to give you any feedback, and default to: “Well, I’m not the target market, and if you think this is right, then we’ll show it. You’re the creative team.”

Then, there are others who never like anything they see because it’s not “cool enough”: “Yeah, yeah, yeah …I get it, but I want to go crazy. We should just blow their minds. This is exactly what the brief asks for, and it’s really solid work, but what else have you got?”

Here are some solid responses to negative feedback, no matter it’s source.

Ask questions. Many people who give you negative feedback think they’re helping you. You might get feedback like: “The client isn’t happy with this layout. Change all the blue to green, make the headline smaller and center everything.” However, the client may have said something like, “Does this have to be dark blue? And, the layout feels a little busy to me. Can we tweak it?” That conversation happened 2 hours ago, and your teammate came up with the solution in his head while stuck in traffic on the way back to the office, thinking he could save you some time. My personal response to very specific design-related feedback is to say, “Can I ask what the issues are? Maybe I can crack this nut a different way and maintain the layout, but make the client happy. If I know it’s too busy, or too blue, or too …whatever, I can come up with a creative solution that I’m happy to present.”

Don’t take any changes personally. In my over 20 years, I can think of a handful of spiteful comments I’ve had to deal with regarding my work. There are tons of people between your concept and an approved layout. Each person has at least 3 issues they have to address when they look at your work, so it’s a bit of a shooting gallery. Mostly, they’re trying to do their best job and get through the day with all the check-marks in place, just like you. No one layout is the perfect and only solution to a brief. You’ll have plenty of projects go your way, and you’ll be proud to include them in your book. Now and again, you just have to push one through.

Always take on a supportive position. Don’t make the life of the person asking for the changes more difficult because it’s not the font you wanted to use. As I write this, I’m acutely aware (and chuckling to myself about it) how many of my account team friends from past gigs will flip when they read that. I’m the biggest offender, and I admit it. I’m getting better at it. To those friends, I say, “Yo …about all that …you know …well, sorry bro (and/or sis).” Your job (and mine, and theirs) is to serve the client’s communication needs. Those needs include creative changes. You’re not always going to be able to take it with a smile, but do your best to remember, they don’t want to be here until 7pm either.

It’s an ongoing struggle between ego, responsibility, mutual respect and, at the end of the day, perspective. It’s a layout. There’ll be plenty more, and that award isn’t going anywhere. You’ll get another shot.

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