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Dealing with Difficult Feedback: The Creative’s Toolkit

Handling difficult creative feedback - a toolkit for creative teams - Punchlist blog

Creative teams often have a familial vibe. This is unsurprising, as we often spend more time working together than we do with our loved ones. We toil together, learn together, grow together, and even eat dinner together as we dedicate long hours to major projects, pitches and launches. This family dynamic really manifests itself when members of the creative team receive difficult feedback on a project. 

It doesn’t matter if a certain graphic designer and copywriter have a strained relationship. The moment that one of them gets hit by criticism from a client or stakeholder, they’ll bond together like a pair of siblings who, though they might squabble at home, will stand up for each other if a bully strikes on the playground.

This solidarity is admirable. But it can also cause unnecessary stress in an organization, when ultimately you’re all working toward the same goal. It’s important to handle difficult feedback diplomatically, and not be too quick to dismiss something just because you may disagree. 

The Dilemma of Difficult Feedback

There’s nothing wrong with criticism. Even when it’s prickly, it can illuminate and inspire. Most creatives develop elephant-like skin over the course of their careers so they can take the heat better than other professionals.

What’s difficult is when unconstructive criticism bombs in when you weren’t expecting it. Does this scenario sound familiar? You thought the project was going great and everyone was in alignment, heading in the right direction together. The resulting tailwinds were helping you come up with killer ideas, and the finish line seemed closer than ever.

Then the feedback hits the fan. It might suddenly come from a teammate who’s been part of the process all along, as though they just realized they have issues with where the project’s headed. Or it could be an ancillary player or stakeholder who decided to check in on things just before the project reached conclusion.

It’s particularly hard to accept such criticism when it’s a forceful opinion unrelated to the professional principles you leaned on throughout the creation process. Rather than a peer speaking your common language and finding opportunities for improvement, this type of feedback may initially feel like it’s coming from a person who lacks expertise and is relying on seemingly arbitrary reactions.

Regardless of the source, you may find yourself battling emotions ranging from personal dejection to rage. 

Let’s look at six proven strategies for designers, copywriters, project managers, creative directors, and anyone else involved in the creative work, so you can overcome the difficult feedback and get your project back on track.

  1. Take Time to Decompress

Your initial reaction to an unanticipated barrage of feedback depends on your personality. You might crumple into a ball or begin blaming others for what happened. Others of us might even prepare to strike back at the individual with our own choice words.

But stop for a moment. Your first reaction will not be your best one.

This is not to say that you’ll enter a state of bliss during this pause. It’s okay for reactions to roil inside you as you process the difficult feedback. What matters is that you’re keeping these emotions to yourself for the moment (and maybe sharing them with your creative partners).

If needed, draft a message to yourself to get the emotional reaction out of your head. Abraham Lincoln famously wrote these “hot letters” and stuffed them in a specific drawer, hoping to never send them. Then once you get it out of your system, you can think through a more logical response. 

  1. Reassess the Feedback

Now that your knee-jerk reactions have come and gone, you’ll be closer to discerning the true meaning of the feedback. Perhaps you initially misinterpreted some of it. Upon further review, you may even notice that the issue is more with the phrasing of the feedback than its actual content.

It’s helpful at this stage to remind yourself that whatever the message of the feedback, it’s related to the project and not you personally. Creatives are a passionate bunch, and our work can feel like an extension of ourselves, but a healthy separation must exist if we’re to productively communicate with others.

Renowned creative director Alex Bogusky, formerly of CP+B, once spoke of an exercise where his team would put the work on the floor when presenting internally for feedback. This literal separation helps to handle any critique without getting defensive, as the creator no longer feels like it’s an extension of their being – it’s just the work. 

Don’t be surprised if some wisdom bubbles to the surface as you reassess the feedback, either. While the timing or delivery of the feedback might have felt off, you’ll be a better creative if you can empathize and think critically about the comments.

  1. Assume Positive Intent

As a member of the creative team, you’ll have insight into nearly all the collective work that’s gone into a project. This proximity helps you understand the thinking behind decisions and the genius behind the ideas. 

What you don’t have is insight into how and why the problematic feedback originated. Most likely, that person just wanted to help.

Put yourself in their shoes. Whether it’s the client or another stakeholder on the team, they are likely juggling a million things, just like you. Ultimately you’re all working toward the same outcome. 

Embrace a “one team, one goal” mentality. You can disagree with components of the feedback, but at least be willing to give the person credit for caring about the quality of the project as much as you do.

When in doubt, have a verbal conversation about it, or ask them to record a video explaining the nuance, so that text feedback doesn’t get misinterpreted. 

  1. Seek Constructive Clarity

It’s imperative that you understand the feedback completely before taking any actions. Simply “having the gist of it” often leads to confusion and more substantial delays.

Perhaps the feedback you received was vague or overly complex. This is common when stakeholders who don’t fluently speak “creative” try to weigh in on things.

You can push past these frustrating breakdowns in communication by asking for examples and trying to find common ground, rather than defensively digging deeper into your creative vernacular. Seek mutual solutions.

Help them help you. Ask followup questions to get clear on the feedback, and the reasons why they’re requesting these changes. During this conversation you may even be able to defend certain decisions, because now you’ve moved the discussion from a yes-or-no “I don’t like that” to a more nuanced workshopping session.

  1. Allow Yourself to Disagree

We’re all wrong from time to time. So if you’ve pondered the feedback, sought clarity, and still feel it’s off-base, you’re probably right. In fact, it might be so off-base that it belongs in one of those blog posts dedicated to “client feedback horror stories.”

But if the deliverer of this clunky feedback is a decision-maker, you can’t simply toss their opinions in the trash and proceed as though they’d never spoken up. You’ll need to brush up on your diplomacy skills and find some common ground.

For example, let’s say difficult feedback comes to a copywriter from a client who liked the headline of an ad but had issues with the body copy. The copywriter could emphasize the strength of the headline, which both parties agree upon, and then show how it is paid off by the current body copy. The client might still have concerns with aspects of the copy, but at least the copywriter would be on more solid ground as they state their case and address those concerns.

  1. Pick Your Battles

In the grand scheme of things, is this the hill to die on? We’ve all had those moments where we want to defend the creative work, because of the long hours and passion that went into it. However, if you zoom out and realize that a client relationship is a strategic game of chess, not checkers, there may be a better use of your brainpower.

It helps to consider the overall priority level and impact of each project. Does it make sense to go toe-to-toe with your client or teammate over a small print piece that’s distributed to 100 event guests? Or should you save your conviction for the big website launch which will be seen by a million eyeballs?

Think about the potential impact, reach, and end outcome of a given project. You may consider letting the small fish go, so you can win together in the long run. 

Laying the Foundation for Better Feedback

The strategies listed above form a dependable toolkit that you can use when unexpected or difficult feedback comes your way. But let’s now consider the proactive strategies that can help reduce these frustrating moments moving forward.

A fascinating study shared in the Harvard Business Review found that creatives respond better to feedback and achieve better results when a couple of crucial things consistently occur.

  • Seek feedback out of curiosity, not just to confirm what you already think.

You can establish a healthier culture of feedback on your team by asking open-ended questions and signaling that you’re willing to consider the opinions of others. Start by avoiding self-promoting questions like, “This typeface is working really well for the headline, right?” Instead, ask more vulnerable questions like, “How do you think I could take this to the next level?”

When your team demonstrates an openness to feedback, it’ll tend to come earlier in the project and in more constructive forms. People won’t feel the need to bottle up their opinions until they erupt at the eleventh hour and cause bigger issues.

  • Deliver subjective feedback which allows for possibilities.

Few things are concrete within the ethereal world of creative development. So feedback that comes down as edicts from on high will inevitably feel draconian. You can personally avoid this problem when delivering feedback by expressing your words like potential ideas.

Avoid saying something absolute like, “This photo you’ve chosen doesn’t represent the tone of the campaign at all.” Instead, you could say, “I’m wondering how well this photo matches the campaign’s tone. Is there another one that might resonate more?”

When your team seeks feedback proactively and shares it imaginatively, fewer roadblocks and surprises will pop up. Yes, just like communication among family members, it will still be awkward at times to share your feelings or hear someone’s concerns with your work. But an open exchange of ideas will always lead to smoother processes and better results.

Grant Olsen

Grant Olsen

Grant Olsen is a creative director who has been writing about entrepreneurship, team building, and creative development since 2008. His work is featured on Entrepreneur.com, Foundr.com, and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of "Rhino Trouble," a bestselling children’s book.
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