7 Tips for Friendlier Creative Criticism

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Years ago, I worked for a guy—very briefly, I’ll add—who insisted on what he called “target practice” whenever our creative team gathered to share ideas. One person would present an idea, and the rest of us were expected to take wild shots at every statement made by the presenter.

The manager assumed his shoot-to-kill technique would build stronger creatives with stronger ideas—but instead we quickly learned to keep ideas to ourselves or render them so colorless and harmless there was little at which to take aim.

Image from Getty | CSA Images/Printstock Collection

Your team probably doesn’t have this guy’s guns-ablazing approach to creative criticism, but take a moment to consider how ideas actually are shared and examined in your workplace.

Is idea-sharing a positive, free-flowing and focused experience? Or do team critiques too often become a war of words, careening off topic and veering toward carnage?

An informal, uninhibited work environment is great for creativity’s sake, but totally unstructured feedback on ideas usually results in fear, fights and even failure. If your team members struggle with presenting and probing each other’s ideas, try putting a critique method in place.

Here’s a template for active yet affable creative criticism:

How Creatives Can Critique Each Other Without Choking Each Other:

1. Tee up.

Presenter lays the groundwork for revealing her or his idea by restating the problem that needs to be solved, along with previously determined goals and objectives.

The presenter explains why the idea needs to be considered; Step 2 deals with what the idea is and how it solves the problem.

[Related: Achieving Feng Shui in Design—and Within the Creative Team Question What You’re Doing: 3 Tips for Your In-House Team]

2. Put up.

Presenter provides a succinct, insightful overview of the idea, using the creative brief and brand elements as foundation. Focus on purpose, audience, aesthetics and attributes, along with potential issues and obstacles.

The presenter explains the idea in her or his own way, of course, but stays firmly planted in the idea and how it solves the problem.

3. Shut up.

While overviewing the idea, presenter has the privilege of sharing without interruptions, questions or comments. Team members remain quiet and avoid any eye rolls, sneers and other body language signaling resistance or rejection. They simply listen, taking notes and making lists of questions, concerns and suggestions.

4. Ask up.

When the presenter ends, questions begin. Just questions—no comments please. Here’s the opportunity for team members to clear up any confusion they have about the idea, drill deeper into specifics and move past any assumptions they’ve made along the way.

The best questions are open-ended ones requiring an explanation rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” Ideal questions usually begin with the W’s: Why, Who, What, When, Where. Effective answers best begin with “Because…”

5. Open up.

Once questions are answered, the floor opens for comments and conversation. The presenter, a key decision maker or another person sets a time limit for this segment and helps facilitate discussion.

Keep feedback on-topic, specific and constructive. Avoid personal attacks—focus on the idea, not on the presenter. Solutions and suggestions should accompany criticism.

6. Measure up.

Next, the group checks the idea against benchmarks not already covered, making certain it meets goals and is in keeping with the voice and style of the brand.

7. Wrap up.

After discussions, presenter gathers all agreed-upon recommendations. Actions and timelines are determined before session adjourns.

Every creative group has different chemistry and composition, of course, so modify and massage this method to fit your culture. Try various approaches, tweaking as you go. Your goal is an environment where ideas are expressed and examined with clarity and conviction—along with a healthy dose of civility!

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