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Productivity

How to Deal with Crushing Feedback on Your Creative Work

Criticism can sting. Avoid becoming defensive and instead give a measured response to ensure a productive conversation.


Sarah is a web designer who’s been burning the midnight oil to create a site for a new client. It’s a high-profile job for a big brand, with the promise of more to follow, so she sees it as a fantastic opportunity.

It’s been a tough week but when she looks at the finished work she feels it has been worth it – it gives her that tingling feeling she gets when she’s done something special. She can’t wait to show it to the client.

The moment of truth arrives, when the client delivers his verdict:

“Well, I have to say I expected something better than that.”

Sarah is crushed. For a moment, she almost starts defending the work and explaining the thinking behind it. But instead, she takes a deep breath and asks a question.

“What is it you’re not happy about?”

For the next fifteen minutes she does nothing but ask and listen intently, taking detailed notes and checking that she has understood his concerns.

Eventually, she narrows it down to one specific aspect of the design. When she realizes why he’s disappointed, she breathes a sigh of relief – it’s a relatively trivial point, and easy to change without compromising her design.

“If I can fix this for you, will you be happy to sign the project off?”

“Sure, if you can change that before my presentation tomorrow afternoon.”

She almost starts defending the work and explaining the thinking behind it. But instead, she takes a deep breath and asks a question.
Chances are you’ve been in Sarah’s shoes: you produce work you’re really proud of, then someone with none of your professional skill, knowledge, or expertise judges it in an instant – often based on vague or subjective criteria. They don’t know much about art but they know what they don’t like.

And as long as they are your client (or your boss) you have to work with them, to help them articulate their response to your work, and find a way to move the project forward.

Which is easier said than done when your work is being judged or dismissed – it’s only natural for the criticism to sting. So here are some tips on dealing with this kind of crushing feedback on your work.

1. Take a deep breath – and focus on getting what you want

Sarah could have got defensive at the client’s first response, but she bit her tongue and took a different approach – because she knew from experience it was her best chance of getting a positive outcome.

Don’t react defensively – or aggressively – no matter how hurt, disappointed, or annoyed you feel. Start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of your goal.

2. Clarify the feedback

Before you explain, defend or offer to fix your work, it’s essential that you understand exactly what the other person doesnt like about it. This is not easy, given that they may not express their initial reaction very clearly or constructively.

Here are some of the common traits of unhelpful feedback:

  • Vague—they dismiss your work in general terms (‘awful,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘no good’, ‘disappointing’) without specifying what criteria the judgment is based on.
  • No examples—they fail to back up their judgment with specific examples.
  • Exaggerated—sweeping, black-and-white judgments, with no acknowledgment of fine grades of quality, or alternative points of view.
  • Disrespectful—they may be rude or aggressive.

Before you can have any meaningful discussion, you need to clarify what they are talking about. You can do this by asking questions:

  • “What exactly don’t you like?”
  • “Can you give me an example?”
  • “Can you point to the bit you don’t like?”
  • “Is it the font itself or the size of the text that’s the problem?”
  • “Are you saying you don’t like the story, or the way it’s being told?”

At this stage your goal is to understand (and help them to articulate) their criteria for judgment, and how exactly (in their opinion) the work fails to meet these criteria. You are not agreeing with them, just clarifying what they mean.

3. Ask solution-focused questions

The next step is to move the conversation forward to a positive conclusion: either (a) getting the work accepted in its current form or (b) agreeing on what needs changing. Solution-focused questions are powerful tools for doing this.

To ask a solution-focused question, describe a potential solution and ask whether it would be acceptable to the other person. For example, to get a piece of work accepted in its current form, you might ask:

“I know you don’t like the look of it, but if I can show you evidence that your customers prefer it this way, will you sign it off?”

Or to agree what needs changing you could ask:

“So if I change the colors and add the new headline, you’ll be happy?”

Your goal is to leave the room with a clearly agreed upon next step towards a solution. They may still be skeptical or unsure, but at least you know what you need to do to get the work accepted.

Over to You…

How do you deal with crushing feedback on your creative work?

Comments (54)
  • richard@moneygraffiti.com

    I was presenting an ad campaign concept to a client who disliked the idea
    and kept saying, “It’s sh*t, Richard; it’s sh*t.” After a while I snapped back,
    “Dan, to an *sshole, everything looks like sh*t.” Not the classiest nor most tactful of rejoinders but immensely gratifying. I am proud of myself to this day.

  • Erik Tyler

    I’ve developed a detailed yet engaging questionnaire that clients MUST fill out completely before I begin work. If they don’t want to invest in filling this out, I just tell them up front that the questionnaire is the best way I’ve found to keep project costs to a minimum and that I’ll be happy to give them as much time as they need; but that I must have the questionnaire completed in order to begin work. Since doing this, I have had virtually no problems with client dissatisfaction.

    A couple more things. One, a commissioned artist of any kind usually has to accept that the person hiring you may have terrible – yet clear – tastes. I used to struggle with trying to convince people that the design they want is gaudy, outdated, etc. Now? If they filled out my questionnaire and they want a hundred hot pink forks in a circle as their logo – I can do that. Do I use such work as examples to other clients? Nope. But I’ve learned that you sometimes have to design around bad taste and not your own.

    Lastly, if I get a questionnaire back with bad ideas but the client seems to have self-doubt, I’ve found that giving them famous branding references that are “like what I’d recommend” (e.g. McDonald’s, Nike, Audi) is enough to convince them to change things. But I will then revise their questionnaire accordingly and have them approve the changes before I begin work on the design.

  • Charlelie

    Hello Erik,

    While reading your comment I got the confirmation that a questionnaire is one of the powerful ways to clearly collect information on your client needs, as well as give him the rhetoric tool to understand his own taste.

    I am a freelance in Belgium and my clients always have lots of certitudes about everything (political communication) but also a difficulty expressing why they have these certitudes. Part of their jobs is to look very convinced when they express an opinion, and it is not always compatible with a good relation with another professional.

    May I ask you if you would be kind enough to let me look at the questionnaire you developed ? I am trying to develop such a tool but english not being my mother tongue it is always tricky to get a result from a vague question. If you were kind enough to let me have a look, I’ll be very happy to send you my own reflections on that point. Thanks a lot, and if it is not possible, long live your method !
    charlelie[dot]jourdan[at]gmail[dot]com

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  • Heather Jones

    Luckily this doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does I usually work from their feedback and not take it to heart. Our business can be difficult since many of us work with clients out of state, and many times out of the country. To prevent this from happening, I send my clients an extensive questionnaire prior to getting started, as well as encourage them to submit a Pinterest board to me so I can get a sense of what appeals to them visually.

  • John Easton

    My team can be emotionally tied to our direction but Mark you are right; feedback is nothing more than an opportunity to be irreplaceable. Is all in your perspective. “The young man jumps out and sees little or nothing while the old man sits down and sees everything”.

  • Chris

    see = she (sorry, grammar nazi here). I do try breathing deeply…followed by, “seriously?”

  • Arun

    Actually I do noticed it, when I was reading through pocket app. But it remembered me my final year graduation project work, where my professor constantly addressed some silly mistakes on the report consistently

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thank you – fixed!

    And that’s a good response, I may ‘borrow’ it. 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Erik, three excellent points. I like the way you frame the questionnaire – that it’s for their benefit as well as yours.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “Part of their jobs is to look very convinced when they express an opinion” I can see how that easily becomes a problem. 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, it’s very easy to confuse merit and taste. Part of our job is to help clients understand the difference – or at least to understand it ourselves!

  • Mark McGuinness

    I like that quotation, where’s it from?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Pinterest board is a great idea! Could be very helpful re Erik and Ian’s points about client taste.

  • Heather Jones

    It has worked wonders for my business! If you’re interested, take a peek at my article about pinterest + my web design process: http://www.vivalaviolette.com/

  • Geoff Talbot

    I think criticism of your creativity is much like a problem in a marriage.

    Don’t get emotional.

    Not once. Not ever.

    Although so much of who you are is invested, it is always more productive to ask questions and to learn about the perspective of another.

    It might even make your art better. You might fall even more in love with your own creativity.

    Geoff Talbot
    Blogging and Commenting In Seven Sentences

  • Ritesh Singh

    I wrote a fiction on lives and aspirations of lower rung government officials after researching for almost two years on and off; sent the manuscript to several literray agents, publishers…and got one line reply -” doesn’t fit in our framework.”
    I tried asking them…please let me know – why you didn’t like or how it can be improved…no one bothered to reply.
    What I can do in such situations? I believed in my work..and determined to get it published…but some constructive suggestions/criticism would have helped me to focus my energy…but I got no response….

  • John Johnson

    I would imagine once the client is “shut up,” they are lost as a future customer or reference.

  • Lenticular Printing

    I would like to see more details about this topic.

  • Rachel

    Well said Erik – I wish I’d read this six months ago – it would have saved me a lot of heartache.- any specific things you suggest for a questionairre?

  • Lynette Eklund

    Being a free-lance special effects artist in the film industry for a long time now, I learned very early that each client was unique. By reminding myself of this when things got frustrating, I could easily let go emotionally of the critiques from first-time clients by defining the issue as the “educational period”. By listening and learning how that particular client wanted things done, the next time they hired me, I was better able to anticipate their wishes and avoid a lot of trauma down the line.

  • Gigi Griffis

    I’ve had this exact same situation. Except that the project manager was freaking out because the client “hated it.” I said we needed to get the client on the phone and find out what she hated. Turns out it was one specific phrase that she’d asked us to include. As soon as that was gone, she loved it again. So often it’s so simple. Hate rarely means hate for the work. People just want to feel heard. And we just have to have enough confidence in our work to keep from getting defensive.

  • lyrica

    I’m running a mograph company since 2010 and before that I was webdesigner for about 10 years. When I learned one thing then that the small companies and private person with their low to near no budget projects are the most retarded ones shortly before payment, moaning about everything to reduce the upfront negotiated price with unfair argumenting. On the other hand I’ve done lot work with some big companies and none of them yet said “looks shit” – it’s more the opposite, “you’ve done your work, we know, but we would like this or that, even when it cost a bit more”. Even this 2 examples might not be true in every case or with every client but I learned from that it’s not worth dealing with the retarded ones and waste the time. if there is a crushing feedback based on false facts, nowadays i just say “re-read our contract and now: f*ck you,pay me” – til i did this the first time it costed me a lot money, trouble and anger…

    We as creatives are not the subs or slaves of our clients.

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  • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

    🙂

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