Top creatives share how they deal with negative feedback

In America, you’re brought up believing everything you do is inherently great. Your teachers in art school or advertising / journalism / creative writing probably heaped so much praise on you that you are still picking pieces of it out of cracks and crevices years later. And then you enter the advertising world, where the hardest part of your job is taking feedback – brutal, murderous, sobering (or more likely addiction forming) critiques of the thing you hold most esteemed in your life – your creativity. How will you survive? Here’s how I do it, with tips from other top seasoned creative pros.

I’ve scoured the web and pulled together top recommendations from other creatives, interjected my own tips, and put together a by no means exhaustive list of tips to ease the sting – and better yet, help you actually embrace and grow – from negative feedback in a creative profession. Let’s dive in.

First, change your perspective of feedback.

Do this now. I heard last week that it takes 66 days to change a habit. If you are in the habit of dreading every feedback meeting or every morsel of criticism that is passed your way completely rattles you to your inner core, commit today to a change and practice daily – you’re effectiveness as a creative will be twice as good in just a little over 2 months.

Matt Gartland has a brilliant take on the art and science of positive feedback loops. Matt shows you compelling and very true reasons why you should love and embrace creative feedback. You MUST learn to embrace feedback to succeed in advertising or any other business where you will regularly CREATE for other people for your livelihood. Otherwise, consider a different career path – and I mean that in the most helpful, sincere way.

Then, leave the pity party at the door.

Zug’s laws of creative feedback

1) Making things people love is hard.

2) When we work to make things together, you will hear a lot of “it’s not there yet” from me.

3) “It’s not there yet” is NOT code for “you suck + should be fired + never allowed to procreate”

4) It is not possible for me to say “it’s not there yet” out of anything other than deep gratitude – that you’ve chosen the ass kicking work of birthing “awesome” into the universe is humbling.

12 ways to manage feedback

Francisco Inchauste @ Six Revisions has a great post discussing how feedback CAN be a creativity killer if you don’t deal with it properly. I nodded my head manically in agreement with him over this little gem:

I don’t think there are many other professions where any person off the street thinks they might know better than the actual professional does. I would hesitate to tell a surgeon how she should initiate the first cut, or tell the airplane pilot that I think he should move to another altitude for faster travel. But heck if I haven’t had someone walk past my desk and offer unsolicited tips on how I could improve a design I am working on.

 At any rate, Francisco continues on to offer 12 ways to manage feedback further in the article. Read the whole list – it’s well worth it. My favorite tidbits:

  1. Don’t let having your ideas shot down stifle your creativity. Stay young at heart.
  2. Give your own feedback – but base it in fact. It can’t just be because you “feel” you are right.
  3. Shut up. Listen. Be humble.Nothing will help you grow more in your career than a prolonged exercise in listening. The people you are listening to may not always be right – but the more you listen, the more you will be able to read into what makes them tick, their motivations and challenges, and tap into ways that you can address these things up front in your next presentation to them.

Giving feedback to a creative? Follow these guidelines.

Diana Huff put together a short and spot-on list of effective ways to deliver your feedback to creative people. I like them so much I have half considered sending them to some of my management peers and asking them to coach their employees. Her tips aren’t just helpful to those giving feedback – as a creative, if you know what good feedback sounds like, you can guide your stakeholders in that direction.

For example, Diana advises clients to give high-level, concrete feedback instead of focusing on small details. Remember that many people feel they are adding value by having something to say, and in absence of something really profound to say, they will focus on small things (like the color of a font or a couple words here and there.) Unless the color and copy feedback is coming from your creative director, who is on solid footing to speak about details large and small, steer less creative clients toward feedback around the big picture. I use phrases like “I see there are a few small details you are pointing out that we can improve on. What about the big picture? Are we accomplishing the objectives you defined with this piece?”

Shift into constructive feedback extraction mode

If you get feedback like Diana’s “That sucks” or “that’s ugly” – which you will sometime in your career – don’t take it as a personal assault. Something isn’t resonating with the client, and it’s your job to get to the bottom of it. Use the feedback as an indicator that your stakeholder isn’t as sophisticated in giving feedback and that you will need to shift into constructive feedback extraction mode, asking leading questions (in a completely helpful, accepting tone) to get to the bottom of what the client was expecting.

Need more? Kristina Halvorson gets the last word, as usual.

Right before hitting “publish” I ran into a blog entry from Brain Traffic with a few more amazing tips. Clients say the darndest things dives into some of my most often enountered and frustrating types of feedback, including the not so elusive contradictory feedback (where multiple stakeholders have opposing views), vague feedback, nonsensical feedback, etc. If you won’t take your advice from me, at least take it from the badassiest badass in the land of content strategy.

5 Responses to Top creatives share how they deal with negative feedback
  1. Dianna Huff (@diannahuff) Reply

    Wow Joshua, What a compliment! Thank you — and thank you for including me in your post.

    • Joshua Merritt Reply

      You’re so welcome, Dianna – I see new people to the “creative process” in corporations and agencies suffer from the feedback sting more often than I care to. Truthfully, some people never learn – but it’s really great to find such practical and real tips that I can share with people that may be suffering. Bad feedback should never kill a good creative mind if we can avoid it.

  2. Bryan Zug (@bryanzug) Reply

    Joshua — Thanks so much for the kind words and for pulling together voices on the topic. Really appreciate it.

    • Joshua Merritt Reply

      You bet, Bryan, it’s my pleasure – it was great to be able to turn to so many smart people who have already thought through the topic so comprehensively. Hope to cross paths again soon.

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