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5 Tips for Giving Feedback on Creative Work

My last post looked at How Not to Give Feedback on Creative Work, with an example of breathtaking clumsiness from the Emperor in Amadeus. To recap, this is how the Emperor made a pig’s ear of critiquing Mozart’s opera Il Seraglio:

  1. He offered a second-hand opinion
  2. He pretended to be an expert when he wasn’t
  3. He failed to provide any meaningful criteria for judgment
  4. He was tactless
  5. He was patronising

Let’s see what we can learn by reversing the Emperor’s mistakes.

1. Give your own opinion

The only person on this planet who sees things your way is you. Even if you are a novice surrounded by experts, there is still the possibility that you will have spotted something ‘obvious’ that no-one else has noticed. Don’t try to second-guess others’ opinions or be something you’re not.

If you’re not sure how your view will be received you could start with “This may sound silly but…” – it’s amazing how many times I’ve said that and found people nodding and agreeing.

2. Make your own role clear

If you are an expert in the medium, you are in a position to give a different kind of feedback than if you are not. Not necessarily better, just different. You will only irritate a professional if you try to intrude on their territory. But even if you are ‘only’ the manager, you are perfectly entitled to give feedback based on your knowledge of the client, the audience, the market and so on – as long as you make it clear in what capacity you are speaking.

I mentioned in my previous post that I know very little about graphic design, but am happy to give a ‘layman’s view’ of how a piece of design strikes me. If I’m asked to give my opinion on a poem however, it’s a completely different matter. This is a task I approach with relish and a completely different perspective – one of the reasons I enjoy writing poetry reviews. But this doesn’t guarantee that in any given situation my views on poetry will be more helpful than my views on design.

3. Be explicit about your criteria

Your criteria may be subjective, but at least you are providing a reference point for your judgment. Others are then free to challenge your judgment on its own terms or propose alternative criteria.

In his book Purple Cow Seth Godin tells the story of the adult focus groups who hated South Park because they found it offensive. In terms of their criterion (offensiveness) they were absolutely right – but fortunately the broadcasters realised that offensiveness was a key part of the programme’s appeal to its target audience – teenage boys.

Valid criteria can include: your own knowledge as a practitioner; the audience’s response; the client’s response; the brief; the market; the competition; money; time; practical issues.

4. Be honest, but not brutally honest

There’s no point fudging the issue if you really don’t like a piece of work or think it doesn’t meet the brief. But you don’t need to be brutally honest, especially if you will be working with them again and want them to do better next time.

Unless you’re a sadist, of course.

5. Support the person even if you can’t approve the work

Creativity is risky, so no-one can churn out a masterpiece every time. Wordsworth wrote reams of turgid poetry, Dylan and Bowie have made plenty of duff albums – but we forgive them because of the good stuff.

Remember, creative people identify very strongly with their work, so they are liable to take criticism personally. One of the most valuable things you can do for them is to give them your support and encouragement at a time of ‘failure’ – they will (usually) remember and try to repay your faith.

Well, there it is. I’ll write another post shortly on how to receive feedback on creative work.

Over to you…

What tips would you add to this list?


  1. mark, this is a fantastic post!
    i would also suggest when giving negative feedback, the ‘sandwich’ approach is an oldie but a goodie – nice to hear feedback/not-so-nice to hear feedback/nice to hear feedback. nobody ever did a better job by having their esteem ripped out from under them. and it was so great to see you at the exhibition the other week – thanks for coming!

  2. Thanks Lauren, yes the sandwich is a good one. Thanks again for the exhibition – it was a pleasure to give you feedback there, it was all good!

  3. Hi, Mark,

    The whole topic of feedback on creative work indeed deserves its own space. I’m glad you decided to legitimize it.

    Certainly the same principles of civility apply to all commentary about one’s performance or product. But let’s face it, when we create something that we believe to be unique, we associate it with being “uniquely us.” (OK. I confess, I do!). And that automatically personalizes any comments and opinions.

    So here’s what I’ve had to learn to do over the years.

    Before I ask for feedback, I “get my own head on straight” about the reality of the situation. By choosing to follow “the beat of a different drummer,” I have elected to follow the road not taken. Therefore, why would I expect the masses to follow with a communal smile?

    What I want to know–from a broad-based group of individuals–is a range of personal opinions. That way I can see what the total impact is and choose to edit my work–or not–accordingly.

    So I always start off by simply saying (whether it’s a written piece, graphic, workshop design): “This is something I’m trying out. I’d like to know how it impacts you. Would you give me a list of reactions both pro and con?”

    Then if someone hates the piece but likes one little snippet (or vice versa) I can get a clearer understanding of what the “marketplace” really thinks rather than a “good” or “bad” response.

    Man, you really got me going. I think I just missed my deadline for creating my own post 🙂

  4. A wonderfully memorable example of how not to give criticism. It will stick with me!

  5. Steve – thanks, some excellent points, especially about being clear in your mind about where the feedback is coming from and getting a good cross-section. I’ve got another post coming up about how to receive feedback and you’ve antiicpated some of what I was going to say – I’ll incorporate your comment in my post.

    Roger – thanks, the Emperor has been following me around for a few years, I’m glad he’ll be with you in future!

  6. Excellent list Mark. As Stanislavski said, your creativity is like a delicate flower -easily crushed. Maybe I missed something in translation but guess you get my drift.

    Unquestionably people have emotional investment in their ideas. Creativity is intrinsically linked to feelings. Separating the work from the person is vital. My clienst will all testify to the view that low morale kills creatvity dead.

    I would advocate finding a method of enhancing the work through very specific comments. Examples could be “What I like about this is…”Or “What strikes me as missing here is…” I am sure we can all add to these comments. Find the part that works for you and seek to build.

    Another approach is to question how they feel about the work. Turn it around. Where would they take it with further resources, technical input etc. If they do not have a clue you definitely have a problem!

    Point is that we are enhancing and refing the idea through dialogue as opposed to leaving the creator unclear. Feedback in my view is part of the process of continual refinment. It’s all about how can we make this better. Any other apprach implies judgement and produces work that, well, is conceived as to meet approval only.

    Feedback is as tough as articulating the creative work. My experience is that people need support at both ends of the spectrum

  7. Thanks Deb, excellent points. I really like the idea of support at both ends of the spectrum. And using questions to elicit how the creator feels about the work – done well, that can be a really good way of bringing problems and opportunities to light while helping the person retain a sense of ownership.

  8. I’d add “Don’t. Unless you’re asked” One of my top prayers is “God, save me from helpful people” 🙂

  9. Good point Lloyd. I can’t remember who it was said something like there’s no force on earth as strong as the urge to correct another man’s draft.

  10. “Be kind.” You know, practice the golden rule.

    I’m a playwright. The way I develop my work is to convene audience and actors and have readings of the work in progress. I have had to develop a thick skin! And, frankly, “I like” or “I don’t like” comments are useless to me. I need concrete, meaningful feedback about what the audience UNDERSTOOD.

    At any rate, I always give positive feedback first – I can always find something – and then the “what can be changed to good effect.”


  11. Ah yes, kindness, so easily forgotten. As Philip Larkin put it:

    we should be careful

    Of each other, we should be kind
    While there is still time.

  12. Try to identify the root of the problem behind the request for change. For example: “Yes, you want it pink, but knowing that its not girly enough for you, we can determine that purple might work, too.”

  13. Hi Verhine, yes very good point – people often want one thing because they associate it with another. I once spoke to an architect who said she had a client ask for a ‘Victorian’ extension on a modern-looking 20th-century house, which would have looked very incongruous – when she probed a little deeper, it turned out they wanted high ceilings, which they associated with Victorian buildings.

  14. You forgot the always useful “don’t give a darn about PC” – the way people react to criticism is something that has nothing to do with how stuff is said because it’s the individual who listens to the criticism who has the power to choose how to react to it.


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