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Offering Criticism to Creative Professionals

By Eric Strong

If you have spent any time around creative people you know that they can be overly sensitive at times. This is because they poor their heart and soul into everything they do. Art is not a product of the intellect, but rather of the heart. To criticize a product of their heart is to criticize them on a personal level.

This is not to say that you can never interject your opinion into their work or give open and honest criticism. It is to say that when you do so, you should be careful because they may take it personally.

I remember, as a young artist, taking my portfolio around New York City to different editors and art directors and dreading every minute of it. I could only do a few at a time because the rejection was too much. It was very much like asking a girl to dance only to have her turn me down. It took me several days before I could bring myself to hop on the train and head back to the city to face more rejection. I specifically remember thinking, “if I don’t try I can’t be rejected.”

If you are not careful your creative person will stop trying because of repeated rejection they receive from you. They will start pulling back from their work and create a barrier to “protect” themselves from the pain of being rejected.

So what can you do?

Obviously you have to have a say in your company. As their supervisor it is your job to direct them in the way that best suits the team and unifies them under the vision and direction of the company. We can have creative types getting away with murder or shabby work because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.

1. Wait For The Right Time

First of all, only give criticism when they are ready for you to do so. The worst thing you can do is point out their mistakes before they are done. Imagine walking through a house in the middle of construction and telling the contractor that the drywall is missing. He’d probably hit you over the head with his hammer. You can give creative people tough criticism and they will even ask for it, when they are ready.

2. Learn To Take Pitches

You want your Creatives to be constantly thinking about new ideas and creative ways to do routine things, after all that’s why you hired them. You wanted them to make a bar of soap exciting and appealing to a generation surrounded by 3D televisions and sports cars. The last thing you want is for them to stop feeding you fresh ideas to you.

In order to keep the ideas coming, you must learn to take pitches. A baseball player can’t hit a home run unless the pitcher throws the ball. Not every idea that you are given will be a good one. You don’t know if the pitcher is going to throw a strike or a ball until the baseball leaves his hand. But you have to be ready to swing either way. That means that you should treat even the bad ideas like they are good ones but it doesn’t mean you should use them.

Rest assured that they thought it was a good idea when they brought it up or you would have never heard it. It took a lot of guts for them to pitch you their idea. So at the very least try and at least thank them for their effort. You may want to write their idea down, have them write up a proposal or ask them some clarifying questions.

Maybe their idea wasn’t the write one, but perhaps it wasn’t a complete loose either. Chances are they were trying to come up with a solution for a problem that needed fixing. Look for the reason behind their idea. Why did they think this was a good idea? What problem were they trying to solve?

For example, a person pitches you the idea of eliminating all online sales from your website. That is probably a bad idea, but by asking some clarifying questions you discovered they were trying to get customers to call in to your company so they could have more personal service. Now that you know the problem behind their idea you can begin to think of others ways to bring back personal service to your company.

3. Give Criticism In Stages

You may also want to give your criticism in stages. You don’t have to tell them everything that is wrong all at once. It may soften the blow if you save you critiques, especially about work habits, until a scheduled review.

When you do give feedback, be as specific as you can possibly be. In art there are very few real standards. Even basic colors like red can mean slightly different things to different people. There are no rights or wrongs so it is important that you try and explain in detail what you like and what you would like to see changed. It also helps the creative mind if you can explain why you want to see a particular change made. Creatives will be much more willing to change their work if there is a logical reason behind it.