You’re not going to last long in the creative world if you can’t give and accept criticism gracefully—or at least without sparking conflict. That’s not guaranteed, however, when you’re working with clients outside our field. It can be a struggle for them to convey creative feedback about projects in an actionable fashion, simply because it’s a skill they’ve rarely or never had to use. That results in profoundly unhelpful comments such as “Just let your creative juices flow,” “It’s missing something, but I’m not sure what,” “You’re the (writer/editor/designer),” and the worst offender of all, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Giving the client the benefit of the doubt, you can see why someone might think these vague statements are hunky-dory:
- “I’m not saying you’ve done something wrong.”
- “See, I’m giving you tons of creative latitude to solve the problem! That’s what you want, right?”
- “I’m trying to be sensitive to your feelings, because I know you creative people don’t like being criticized.”
- “By the way, I’m also letting you know that there’s still work to be done. Very gently, of course, because I’m a nice person and not a cruel taskmaster.”
But those are also the reasons why they’re completely unhelpful in the realm of creative feedback. At best, this person is giving you the wrong kind of freedom and offering misplaced kindness. At worst, they’re hoisting a major red flag that they’re going to be a challenge to work with.
As a result, if you just accept it and attempt to make the client “see it,” you’re probably doomed to fail.
Encouraging Your Client to Provide Useful Creative Feedback
So, how do you move your client from these wispy words into concepts that can actually move the project forward?
Be direct. In a way, this situation is similar to clients who want you to provide an estimate based on vague information. Your task is to persuade them that it’s in their best interest to provide more detail. Example: “The process will be faster and easier if I can have some additional specifics. When would it be convenient to have a 10-minute conversation so I can get a better understanding of where version 1 fell short, and what I can do to bring it up to your expectations?”
Be persistent. There’s a good chance that, even if pressed, your client still won’t have an answer for you about what needs to be done. Don’t swap the client’s red flag for a white one of your own. Example: “I realize it can be tough to describe what you’re looking for. Can you point me to an example of something that accomplishes what you need?”
Be gracious. Anyone who uses phrases like those listed at the top of this post may be signaling they dislike confrontation. That’s why they used marshmallow language in the first place. So, while you’re playing detective, keep it objective and polite. Example: “I realize you’re trying to give me free creative rein, which I really appreciate—thank you. What I really need now is your unvarnished opinion of what’s good or bad about the current status of the project. I’ve got thick skin; you’re not going to hurt my feelings!”
Final note: In my experience, this is a situation that is best and most quickly solved over the phone, if at all possible. Attempting to achieve resolution via email could result in a prolonged back-and-forth—and it could even exacerbate the issue if the client has difficulty conveying their thoughts in writing.