Critiquing Creative Without Bruising Egos: Part 1-Design

PAB2239For anyone who has chosen a creative path in life, criticism starts at an early age. I remember being told to colour inside the lines by my well-intentioned Kindergarten teacher when I presented her with my sloppily-rendered purple and green Bambi drawing. At the Ontario College of Art & Design where I majored in advertising design, criticism was introduced in the form of the student critique. You put your work up on the wall and your well-intentioned classmates tore it to shreds. But it was okay because I, and my fellow students knew that everyone would get a turn at being both the defensive, close-minded protector of the precious creation, and the vicious art critic. And in a strange way it seemed fair. At least we all were speaking the same language and belonged to the same creative tribe. It was supportive in its own way – it was meant to make us better artists and concept developers – and it was meant to teach us how the critique process worked.
But it would have been a lot more useful if it had been accompanied by a lecture about how to offer criticism that is constructive.

Before I get into that, a story: I once worked for a creative director who threw his hairbrush if he didn’t like your concept. And if he didn’t have his hairbrush handy (he DID have a great head of hair) he would verbally savage you until you were left a blubbering puddle of reasons why the layout wasn’t up to snuff. Some CDs rule by fear and others realize that one size fits all ham-fisted approach just doesn’t roll anymore. He obviously fell into the latter. Another CD believed that making you cry (guys too!) was the only way to get his feedback through your thick skull. And those were the good old days of advertising. Creatives invest so much of themselves into the process they can’t help but feel it’s personal. And so, criticism should be sensitive to that. It should be constructive, not destructive. No matter how much we writers, developers, designers etc protest, it is personal at some level. If it isn’t, I would challenge that you haven’t invested enough of yourself in the work.

When a creative team brings me their project, the first thing I try to do is find all the positives. Regardless if it’s an award-winning idea or a piece of merde, I think it’s important to talk about the things that are working. This is fairly easy when you’re looking at a piece of artwork or a layout. When it comes to design principals there are a very loose set of rules and guidelines that contribute to an overall harmony and effectiveness in design. Gentle probing … “did you think of” and “what if you” questions are a respectful way of injecting your point of view regarding elements that you believe aren’t working – or as a way to suggest alternative approaches. Yours are the fresh set of eyes that haven’t been sitting in front of the computer monitor for the past 72 hours … chances are you’ll see things the designer stopped seeing hours ago. But design isn’t a science. It’s subjective. And at a certain point it’s best to make your suggestions and leave the solutions up to the creative person. One thing I aways disliked as a writer and art director was being given a solution as my feedback. I always questioned the imperiality of the creative direction. It felt disrespectful and distrusting of my own ability to solve the problem. So I try very hard not to do it with my own creative department. They’re all smart people. They will figure it out if my feedback is clear. And yes, design and layout is also a conceptual exercise … but this post is getting long, so Part 2 will address concept criticism, even though the two really go hand-in-hand.

1. Praise the overall approach and find the positives
2. Find out what the thinking was behind the design solution
3. Ask what other approaches were taken and why they were rejected
4. Add your own suggestions gently – in the form of questions if necessary
5. If project timelines are short, suggest solutions – but do it such a way as to make it clear that your suggestions are not the only path to take

1. Don’t focus on what’s wrong with it right off the bat
2. Don’t give vague feedback without explanation … saying things like “you’re all around it” doesn’t help the creative person understand why the layout/design isn’t working
3. Snide remarks and bullying aren’t respectful, and they won’t get you the kind of work that furthers anyone’s career
4. Don’t provide solutions unless it’s warranted. Give enough constructive feedback to point them in the right direction, but let them get there by themselves
5. Allow room for failure. No one knocks it out of the park on every project. Some ideas and executions are award-winners, and some are learning experiences – stepping stones to the podium if you will


About Jill Atkinson

From concepts and smart headlines to original content and transmedia storytelling, to television pitch materials, directors treatments, long format writing, blogs and web copy with SEO, I write it all. I'm a writer, copywriter, and a content writer. My job is to help you say it better with ideas and language that get noticed. With copy and content that engages customers and audiences and ideas that make a connection with them. Ideas that generate a response. Materials that can sell a pitch. When you work with me you're working with the big boys: Maclaren, BBDO, Taxi, Sharpe Blackmore and also a great bunch of mid-sized agencies, b2b shops, a national television network (CBC), 15 specialty channels (History Channel, National Geographic, Showcase, Action, IFC, BBC Canada, + many more) and start ups who have taught me everything I know about how to get you noticed, remembered and sold. Or clicked. Or talked about. There are lots of ways to try to sell your products or to sell people on your offer or to engage them in your content and your show. But there is only one way to get it done right and on strategy. My experience is a foot in the door for your brand or your television idea . And no matter the size of your project, my commitment and attention to detail remain the same, big or small and always on deadline. Great conversations have to start somewhere. Give me a call or shoot me an email Check out my work at
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