The worst kind of creative feedback and what you can do about it

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creative feedbackYou’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.

In the comments: What’s your go-to strategy when you receive vague or unhelpful creative feedback?

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  1. says

    My favorite strategy is my list of initial questions. Typically, I ask them leading questions to get them talking during the first conversation, but sometimes I need to pull those out again on revision. If they didn’t tell me in the first conversation, they might in the next one.

    Probably the best way I’ve been able to nail them down is to say “I know you say there are multiple issues. Can we walk through them one by one? I want to make this right for you.” That usually means the “multiple” issues (errant comma, missing possessive, etc.) are cleared up quickly and my reputation is spared.

    That said, I had one client I couldn’t get info from. They weren’t readily accessible (Hawaii), so the few Skype calls had to be perfect. I asked pointed questions, but apparently people in Hawaii aren’t used to saying what they want. I listened to the conversation twice, pulled what I could from it, and never heard another word beyond “Please send the invoice.”

    There are times when they just don’t know how to work with contractors. This may have been one of those times.

    • says

      That’s a smart strategy—lay the groundwork early about how your process works. Interesting point about the potential cultural nuances, too. Even after 20+ years in the relatively mellow Southwest, I have retained my New England directness 🙂 Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lori!

  2. says

    I’ve found that the “be persistent” point Jake makes can be helpful, but I like to ask the client at the start to point me toward similar work they like a lot and also really hate. Makes good jumping-off points for discussion about the project.
    Your job as a professional is to help the client articulate what the issues are. If you’re honest and objective about your work, you probably already know what could be improved anyway. Don’t be defensive, get exasperated, or stonewall. Instead, offer some critique. A client might say something vague like, “It just doesn’t read well.” Deep down, I know it’s because the piece is s a little flat and could use some anecdotes or case studies to liven it up. I’ll say so. At that point, the clients often agree with relief that I’ve put my finger on it.

    • says

      Thanks, Sheila. Absolutely, getting an assessment of similar work (or hazards to avoid) is key at the outset of a relationship as well as for mid-project course corrections. And I concur that volunteering a critique can open a conversation when you’re having trouble getting feedback.

  3. says

    Just giving a client a choice can head off a lot of feedback problems: submit 2 ideas, and the client can pick one or the other, and thereby exert some control. If you just submit one idea, there’s more apt to be a “it’s not quite right” situation because the client needs to exert himself but isn’t sure how. No guarantees, of course, but giving a client alternatives improves the odds of his making a clear-cut choice.

    That said: I once had a client who’d suggest something, then say: “You can probably think of something better.” So I’d suggest alternatives, and… he’d always pick his own idea! I’m embarrassed to say it took me awhile to get wise!

    Good advice, Jake, thanks for sharing.

    • says

      Ah, yes, the A-B option is another fantastic way to move the project, uh, from A to B! Great point, Mark. And yes, there are more than a few clients who require the kind of wisdom cited in your second graf: I remember one project, with a physician, in which we went round and round…only to ultimately revert to the brochure copy he’d written himself. Frustrating, but educational. (And I still got paid.)

  4. says

    Nice post, Jake. My experience has been that when they can’t pin down what is wrong, there’s absolutely nothing I could do to help them get there. Thing is, in all 3 instances I am recalling, there were red flags that these were bad clients and I took them on anyway. The upside? Never again – I feel like I was a slow learner.

    • says

      Hi Laura—thanks for dropping in to comment. I agree that some clients/cases are essentially unsolvable mysteries. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though: Red flags are always obvious in hindsight, not necessarily in the present moment! In the project that sparked this post, for example, the client gave absolutely no indication of being challenging, even after the first draft. He’s a super-smart, successful businessperson. I’ve come to the conclusion that the website content going live triggered the “it’s not perfect yet” impulse.