On the importance of productive feedback

We synthesize a lot of information on a daily basis. Your brain wordlessly interprets thousands of signs and sights, facial expressions, sounds, and smells (for better or worse) at any given moment of any given day. We take a lot for granted in those non-verbal observations. Well-worn cognitive shortcuts help us make sense of the world around us, solve problems and make decisions.

I have the grand privilege and responsibility of reviewing every piece of work that walks out the door at Idea Collective. When you meet with us, I get to interpret and translate your feedback on our work into actionable next steps. I have to play Devil’s Advocate a lot in the studio. Sometimes I get to break a tie and sometimes I have to broker a compromise.

Sometimes, in the quest for explicit understanding, it’s my job to ask questions that may seem dumb. Not because I’m actually dumb, but because I’ve made a habit of digging into the things we take for granted. I’m not too proud to ask a question that forces you to spell something out for me. The reason is this: I have to understand every grain of what you’re telling me so that I can then explain it to other people who have to adjust and adapt based on your preferences. I can imagine it can occasionally be frustrating. After all, isn’t what we all want to have somebody magically intuit for us exactly what we want, then do it flawlessly, without having to explain it or be asked? When was the last time that worked out for any of us?

Here are some tips you can use to communicate your wants more effectively, saving yourself and your creative partner countless hours of failed mind reading and head scratching.

  • Frame your feedback as challenges to solve, vs a prescription. I.e. “The red type used on this comment card is hard for me to read- can you explore some alternative options?” I’ll even take “can you explore some alternative options in the blue or green family.” When you ask us to put specific graphic elements in specific places, or switch out the perfect yellow we scrutinized over for a specific green, you’re not being helpful. You’re being prescriptive. You get attached to the idea as you’ve specifically grown it in your brain, and close the door on smart solutions that may actually be better than what you had envisioned.
  • Use clear language, and tell us about your goals. “I don’t know” isn’t going to get you closer to what you want. We hear requests for “fun” a lot. What’s “fun” for you? Is it bourbon or a milkshake? Riding a motorcycle or a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle? Using direct phrases like “I’d like to see an iteration that uses a brighter color palette,” or “I want to convey a more serious tone in this section of the website by providing case studies and statistics,” that tell us about the end result you’re after is a great jumping off point. And if you’re having difficulty verbalizing what it is that you mean, and even if you’re not, for that matter…
  • Send reference images. Send us an ad, a list of brands you admire, an infographic or data visualization that gets it right, movie posters you think are eye catching, the brochure of a competitor or a product catalog and tell us what these images are doing well. How do they make you feel? What do they make you think of? What made it significant enough to you to make it memorable?
  • Designate one point of contact to compile feedback. The less sources pulling us in multiple directions, the better. It’s faster, too. And hey, I bet you get a lot of email. Your creative partner probably gets a lot of email too. Why not take the extra step to ensure your notes don’t get lost, don’t conflict with what someone else may have already commented on, and that your whole team is on the same page regarding the direction forward? The best way to do that is to put someone in charge of this critical task. Let that person aggregate the info and ship it off to your creative partner by the deadline you’ve mutually agreed on.
  • Get critical stakeholder input before compiling feedback. This forces you to get together at a team and resolve any conflicting opinions before you give us your thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll referee for you if you think that’s a more valuable use of my time than say, moving your project forward and creating actual value for your company (cough, cough). If one person’s opinion counts for a significant portion of the vote, and you don’t tap that person for feedback, guess what happens? Nine times out of ten we lose a round and we wind up going backwards. It’s the kiss of death for progress and productivity. To boot, the left-out party typically feels even less a part of the process, which can spell trouble for consensus building and meeting critical deadlines.
  • Tell us if a specific experience or preference impacts your worldview. If you ate so much strawberry ice cream in the summer of 1998 that you can’t possibly stomach the sight of pink, tell us. This is an oversimplification of what I mean, of course. But if your CEO is a grammar freak and insists you abide by a specific style guide, tell us. If it’s your preference to keep copy to a minimum wherever possible, tell us (and then call me, because I want to buy you a drink). If you think that something very critical about your brand is being, or could be, misinterpreted, tell us.
  • Remember, you’re paying for expert advice. You’ve selected your partner for their expertise in a specific area. Unless you’re an architect or a builder, would you tell a construction crew how to build your house? Let us use our experience to make you something great: an identity, brand guidelines, packaging for your product, a uniform spec, signage, you name it. We’ve probably done it before. And if we haven’t, we’ll figure it out or we’ll tell you when we’re out of our depth and recommend a supplementary resource to help solve your problem.

We’re in the business of the respectful exchange of ideas. Save yourself time and money by entrusting your creative partner with the task you sought them out for. Arm them with the tools to get it right: your direct, honest feedback and enough background info on your preferences to show you creative that gets you excited about building a beautiful, cohesive brand together. Trust the process and enjoy the ride.