Finding the “Why” Behind Your Creative Feedback

Creative Feedback Creative Agency Design

“It’s not quite right.”

“Make this graph bigger!”

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Let’s take out this illustration and use this photo.”

“This is close, but it needs … more.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar? Maybe your boss has given you creative feedback like this. It could have been about a report you’re in charge of, or a presentation you created. When you heard these things, it’s likely that you either weren’t sure how to proceed (in the case of vague requests), or were unsure that the given direction was the right way to go (in the case of very specific, prescriptive ones).

Some of the pieces of feedback quoted above are vague, while others are pretty specific. Yet any of these types of feedback could result in multiple rounds of edits to “get it right.” Why?

Giving feedback isn’t so much a process of delivering thoughts and expecting results as it is an opportunity for each party — client and vendor — to learn more about what the other is striving to achieve with the project. That’s because in creative feedback, as in all language, unexplained phrases can be open to interpretation.

Think of a song lyric you felt connected to, only to discover that the songwriter originally meant something very different from your interpretation of the lyric. Or maybe you sent or received a text or email that was misinterpreted at first, until the sender had a chance to give more context.

So much can be open to interpretation — or misinterpretation. Because of that, a solid visual communication partner will do their best to carefully review your feedback. They will ask questions, dive deeper, and ask “why?” Once they feel confident of what you mean and why you’re making each request, the project can proceed with more certainty on both sides. Thorough conversations should reduce the rounds of revisions needed to finalize the piece.

In case you’re ever in the position of providing design feedback to a colleague or vendor, we’ve compiled some examples of feedback that can be challenging to interpret. For each, there are a few ideas of what related phrases give your vendor more to work with. Just remember — for any type of creative feedback, the more context, the better.

Oversimplified Feedback

You’re trying to communicate something specific, but you might not know what it actually is. In this case, it’s easy to either fall back on clichés or use words that are fairly ambiguous. This type of feedback can mean different things to different people.

You say:
“I want it to flow.”

Possible translations:

  • “I want the design to be a series of connected scenes.”
  • “I don’t want a modular layout.”
  • “I want more illustration than icons, text, or data visualization.”

“Flow” is fairly subjective. However, one meaning we often find is that the client is hoping for a highly illustrative, scene-based approach. That’s compared to a design with full-width breaks between sections, which is more modular. Designs based on background scenes like this infographic we created for Fortune Brands can be a very effective mode of visual storytelling for the right content.

This approach doesn’t fit for all stories, though! Be sure to discuss this preference with your visual communication partner well ahead of time if you’ve got your heart set on it. The copy and even the topic need to be tailored specifically to fit this approach. Because of that, it’s not a decision that can be made midway through a project — at least, not without going back to the content phase.
You say:
“I want a clean design” or “I want a simple design.”
Possible translations:

  • “I like thin stroke weights on illustrations and icons.”
  • “I’m envisioning silhouettes versus line art.”
  • “I like white space/negative space.”
  • “I like limited color palettes.”
  • “I’m on a tight timeline so I think clean/simple will be quick.”

Any of the above translations could mean clean or simple to you. However, one of these reflects a misconception: the idea that clean or simple design is easy or quick to produce. On the contrary, keeping something simple means stripping down to the essentials. That process of elimination can be far more complex than including everything that comes to mind.

Detailed Feedback

While vague or unclear feedback may result in several rounds of revisions, the opposite also presents challenges. Feedback that is highly specific and mentions exact details can still be confusing if the person giving that feedback doesn’t explain why.

This is not to say that a reviewer’s specific feedback is wrong or unwelcome in any way. It’s simply that, when your designer knows the reasoning behind your request — what we call the “why” — he or she can then recommend the best course of action.

The following possible translations may allow your designer a bit more room to breathe. However, don’t forget to provide context on why your creative feedback was phrased the way it was.

You say: “Make this piece bigger” or “Can we make this part a different color?”

Possible translation: “This is a key piece of the story — we want to make sure it stands out.”

Without knowing why a client wants to make something bigger or a different color, it’s hard for a designer to determine whether that’s the right approach. When these kinds of requests are made for a specific element or section, it often means that that element or section is one of the most important parts of the content for the client, and they want to see it stand out. Knowing that reasoning helps a designer to recommend the best way to highlight that content.

In fact, explaining the “why” frees you from having to recommend any solution at all. Instead, it’s now up to your visual communication partner to recommend how to fix the problem you’re seeing based on their expertise.

You say: “Let’s use photos instead of illustrations.”

Possible translations:

  • “I want a sophisticated look.”
  • “I think that photos will work better in business-professional contexts.”

Some clients worry that illustrations will automatically look cartoony. But with a nearly endless array of illustration styles, font choices, and color palettes to choose from, that’s far from the case. There are certainly a number of great reasons to use photography. Showing an exact product or discussing a specific person are scenarios that may lend themselves to photos. However, most goals can be achieved with illustration as well. Make sure to fully explore your options.

You say: “Change this from orange to purple” or “I’d like this elephant to be a cat instead.”

Possible translation: Almost anything.

At first glance, these specific pieces of creative feedback are extremely straightforward. Just make the elephant a cat and then the reviewer will be happy! But again — why? Is the elephant becoming a cat because the reviewer’s boss is afraid of elephants, or because the cat represents a new key brand element?

Upon hearing the former reason, the designer can explain why a cat wouldn’t accomplish the same goal and develop a compromise. But upon hearing the latter reason, the designer will likely agree that the change is appropriate.

Across all types of feedback, vague or specific, there’s one important thing to keep in mind. Except for internal-facing work, visual content isn’t usually being designed for the people who are reviewing its drafts — employees and executives at the company soliciting the work. Instead, it’s being designed for target customers, donors, users, etc.

Because of this, the personal opinion of the reviewers isn’t always the best measure of success. That’s why you may hear your visual communication partner offer suggestions that don’t precisely match your requests. They’re focusing on your goals, your audience, and your project’s success above all.

If you provide or review feedback in your organization, we hope these tips are helpful for moving past misalignment and reaching success!

Lucy Todd

Author Lucy Todd

Lucy Todd is the Chief Process Officer at Killer Visual Strategies. She is a Seattle native and Western Washington University graduate. Her degree in Creative Writing and her customer service background both inform her work daily. A Killer employee since 2011 and executive since 2014, Lucy has researched for, written, and/or project-managed over 4,000 projects for the company, affording her key insight into our processes and projects. This experience is invaluable in allowing her to lead and empower Killer’s content and project management teams to success. Lucy enjoys managing the day-to-day at the office, offering a unique perspective when a team or colleague feels stuck, and learning from her peers and clients each day.

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