Whether you’re giving it or getting it, feedback is tough — even for the most tactful of professionals.
And when you’re a creative, the sensitivity surrounding your work can double due to the subjective nature of creative feedback.
But giving creative feedback is incredibly important, both for managers and employees who work in a collaborative work environment.
As a boss or colleague, it’s your job to be equally clear about what’s going wrong as you are about what’s going right. That’s how Kim Scott sees it. The former Google director gave a talk late last year about the importance of good feedback, or what she defines as Radical Candor.
I would argue that criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it's actually your moral obligation.
For Scott, it’s not just about being honest, it’s about giving feedback that challenges directly yet makes it clear that you care deeply. There’s no ego, attitude, or ulterior motive – just a genuine and clear message that will (hopefully) improve a project/person.
It’s not hard to give honest feedback, but it is difficult to give it in an effective yet tactful manner. If you deliver even the best feedback poorly, you risk creating tension, bad energy, or worst of all, a complete communication breakdown.
For the Shopify Partners team, the collaborative nature of our daily work means we’re constantly giving and receiving creative feedback. That’s why I polled our team’s designers, developers, content strategists, and marketers to get their best tips for giving the most effective feedback.
Here are four ways to ensure you’re communicating only the best creative feedback, from my team to yours!
You might also like: 12 Rules of Engagement When Running Design Critiques from NASDAQ’s Aaron Irizarry
Set yourself up for success from the start
Feedback can be a highly emotional process, but if you start off on the right foot, your odds for success will only increase. These core ideas on communicating effective feedback might be basic, but they need repeating. Don’t start off any feedback session without keeping all of these at the forefront of your mind:
1. Be professional and respectful when giving feedback
Consider your choice of words carefully and remember that people react differently to different ways of communicating. This means using language that doesn’t only make you feel comfortable but that makes the recipient feel at ease, too.
Also, don’t be a jerk. This might be your ‘duh’ moment, but take a second to ensure you’re approaching a colleague or employee without any misplaced anger or frustration (we work stressful jobs, people).
2. Give feedback in person when you can
So much can get missed or misinterpreted through letters on a screen. Regardless of whether it’s in person, via email, or through chat, you should never do a drive-by feedback session (i.e. blurt out creative criticisms when your recipient isn’t ready for it).
If this particular project doesn’t have a formal time set up for giving feedback, then be sure to give your colleague a solid heads up in advance. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, either:
“Hey, I have some feedback for you on X project. Would this afternoon be a good time to go over my thoughts with you?”
Ultimately, it will show the recipient that you’re respectful of their time and ensure they’re in the right mindset to receive criticism of their work.
3. Talk about the good and the bad
Call attention to the stuff you think is good as much as the stuff you think is not so good when delivering feedback. It helps soften the blow and also reminds the recipient that they have produced work that is valuable. Lots of Shopifolk added that starting and ending with positive feedback (also known as offering the recipient a shit sandwich), was a particularly effective way to deliver constructive criticism. That way your message, while containing constructive criticism, leaves the recipient with positive takeaways fresh in their mind.
4. Use a common language
Feedback can be easily misinterpreted by creative professionals if it isn’t presented in a way they can understand and implement. Make sure you use a common professional language that is universally accepted in your office, and avoid using vague buzzwords. Nothing will annoy your colleagues more than asking them to ‘jazz it up’ or ‘make it pop more.’ Be specific instead.
Break it down
If you work in an environment where you know creative feedback is required of you regularly, consider creating your very own customized feedback process.
Having something in place before emotions and stakes are high will help you stay calm, focused, and on topic.
Don’t know where to start? Here’s a template you can work from or add to from our very own Shopify Design team.
1. State your path
- Where are you going with this conversation? Put the recipient at ease by defining your overarching focus.
- Is this a good time for them to receive feedback?
- I’d like to give you some feedback on X, is that okay with you?
- I want to have a conversation with you about X, and practice my radical candor. Are you okay with that?
2. Present the facts
- Observables: What is missing, what needs work, what is perfect, what do you want more of, etc.
3. What’s the impact
- What’s the impact?
- Why is that important?
- Who/what was effected?
- What are the consequences?
4. Find alignment (check-in)
- What’s their side? What do they think? Agree/disagree/modify?
- Find alignment. Align on the facts and impact — establish this baseline before moving on.
- Are you with me so far?
- Do you agree with that?
- Is that what you had in mind?
5. Explore alternative outcomes
- When all the facts are discussed and alignment established, what might be the best alternative?
6. Confirmation of agreement
- Agree on next steps and process.
- No need to be heavy here. Open and straightforward is good.
Add and edit the above as you see fit and as it applies to your particular workplace context. The overarching idea is to have a process set up and ready for you to use at a moment’s notice.
If the process above doesn’t feel like your style, there are other ways of inserting some structure in to how you give regular feedback. Take VP of Design at Buzzfeed Cap Watkins, who talks about his Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck.
The idea is to check in with yourself to see how much you really care about the decision at hand. Out of a scale of 1 to 10 (1 meaning you couldn’t care less, and 10 meaning this is critically important to you), communicate to your colleague how much this project decision means to you. This concept also encourages asking others to check in with themselves and rate their attachment to certain decisions.
This not only helps you accurately pick the moments where you should speak up and offer creative feedback, but can also create goodwill among employees or colleagues. As Watkins put it:
“There have been a few times recently when I could tell someone felt far more strongly about a decision than I did. So, I acquiesced, with the hope that the next time I’m a ten-out-of-ten on a topic with that person involved, they’ll recognize that and hear me out. If you can let go of the things that don’t matter so much to you directly, you can build currency with others and earn their trust when you do wind up pushing back.”
Restrict feedback parameters
If you’re in a large group session for feedback, set expectations early on. This will not only help you cultivate the best feedback, but help you keep the tone of the conversation professional and positive. Some concepts to keep in mind:
- Be clear about how much time the group has to give feedback. You don’t have three hours to pick this design apart, you have 45 minutes. That means each person has time to give one or two ideas that are the most important details for them personally. This will help yield only the most important and relevant feedback.
- Provide the feedback that is needed. When entering a creative feedback session, get the recipient to define the kind of feedback they’re looking for from the start. For example, if your colleague has already received feedback about the fonts used on a page, but needs help with colors or image treatment, than you should focus your feedback on the latter to avoid unsolicited feedback.
- Keep your feedback to your area of expertise. Now don’t confuse my words; this doesn’t give you a free pass to ignore someone’s feedback who is not in a similar line of work as you, say your client (that’s another argument for another day). What I do mean is that if you’re being asked to give feedback, it’s likely for the particular type of knowledge and expertise you hold.
Nothing is more infuriating than someone who acts like their feedback is the only “right” choice. Avoid this by giving context on how decisions are made and backing up your creative feedback.
Don’t just say “this is wrong,” give direction as to why it’s “wrong” or how it could be improved. Nothing is less valuable than feedback that has no rationale behind it (especially for bigger pieces of feedback).
Another way to ensure feedback remains valuable, and is not passed off as rude or hollow, is to make sure you’re not making it personal. Say things like, “this paragraph needs rewriting” rather than, “you need to rewrite this paragraph.” This will hopefully help you appear objective in your critiques.
Check in with yourself and be sure the advice you’re doling out isn’t a personal preference, but rather based on professional knowledge, branding, or client preferences.
Demonstrate genuine care for the work
The reality is that your team should be focused on producing the best possible design or copy, egos and personal preferences aside. That’s why constructive feedback is so crucial; you’re communicating professional wants and needs. Learning how to communicate creative feedback clearly and without pretense will not only keep your team strong, but will ensure that the work you put out in the world is only the very best.