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How to Facilitate Better Feedback in the Creative Review Process

[fa icon="calendar"] 5/24/18 6:40 PM / by Hassaan Bey

Managing feedback is a crucial project management skill. While feedback is vital to virtually every aspect of a business from a marketing campaign to operational adjustments, creative feedback is particularly difficult to nail down. This mostly stems from the fact that while stakeholders have the power to approve or reject a creative endeavor, they rarely are creative professionals.


The Importance of Feedback In The Creative Process

The right kind of creative feedback drives content development, keeps the team moving forward toward established goals, improves on previous ideas, encourages collaboration, and contributes to a successful completion of the project.

The wrong kind of feedback leads to confusion, frustration, delays, deteriorating moral, lower quality of work, and ultimately lost revenue.

While creative feedback is the lifeblood of a polished project, people still shy away from it. Professionals tend to have a negative reaction to feedback, especially around creative work. As a result of one study shared by Harvard Business Review examined feedback across seven companies and 11,471 days of creative work, researchers found two striking patterns:

  • Getting feedback was incredibly rare, indicating that people seemed to avoid it
  • When people did receive feedback, it generally left a negative emotional residue

It’s surprising how difficult it can be to get good creative feedback when you consider that stakeholders tend to share the same goal.

It’s not always a bad client that’s the cause of the bottleneck in the creative feedback process. While some stakeholders struggle with giving good feedback, it’s also up to the creative team to request feedback the right way.

"While stakeholders can struggle with giving good feedback, it’s also up to the creative team to request feedback the right way."

In the early days of our agency one of the video projects we worked on was for a major client releasing a global service. Our team shot on location, and whenever we checked in with the client we were reassured that we were doing just fine and to just follow our brand’s style (which is what attracted them in the first place). Great.

We wrapped up the shoot, came home, crushed through terabytes of footage, and eventually sent over our first draft of the video.

It was unanimously rejected by the client.

They hated it despite their reassurance on set that it was the kind of video they wanted. That was the start of the most painful review & approval process we’d ever experienced.

There were two huge problems with the structure of feedback there.

  1. The client had no idea what they wanted, but they didn’t realize it until we were into the review process.
  2. We failed to extract the right kind of feedback when asking for it on site.

While we did ask for feedback on whether we were capturing the right material, if we had enough shots, etc., the feedback we got back was very different.

We were praised for practical things like showing up on time, being present when expected to be, accounting for and avoiding logistical setbacks; any creative feedback on our approach to the content itself was always vague and indecisive.

The fault was our own as much as it was the client’s, and it could have all been avoided if we made a more strategic effort to request the right kind of feedback and set expectations with the client as part of the creative process.

In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to request the right kind of feedback, who to ask, how to maintain control of the feedback through the project, and how to manage feedback as it comes in.

Because we wouldn’t wish on anyone the lessons we had to learn firsthand.

How To Request Creative Feedback The Right Way

Anything you and your team produce will need to be reviewed and eventually approved. Knowing the right way to ask steers feedback in the right direction so you’re getting the feedback you want rather than vague, subjective, or even unrelated comments.

Getting quality feedback starts with what, who, and when.

Know What To Ask

When requesting feedback on a project, the most important thing is to give context to your request. Vague questions like “how do you think it’s going?” won’t get you the kind of feedback you really need or even want.

Let them know what you know you’re doing right and ask about what you think you could be doing better. If you’re putting a rough version of a deliverable up for review, establish what aspects are up for review and what aspects aren’t. That way, you won’t have someone tell you that the sample copy needs to be replaced when you’re looking for feedback on the content’s design.

The more specific you are in your feedback request, the more actionable the feedback you get back will be. A good tactic is to use the initial creative brief to structure your feedback request. If you already have a concrete list of what the client is expecting, use that list to make sure your content is meeting their expectations and to identify specific areas of improvement.

Ask the right questions and you’ll get the right feedback.

"The more specific you are in your feedback request, the more actionable the feedback will be."

Know Who To Ask

Not every stakeholder needs to be involved in every single round of reviews, just as they aren’t involved in each step of the content’s creation. This is a point you’ll see mentioned more than once because it is critical to getting unidirectional feedback.

Having a committee of decision makers involved in each stage of the review process will lead to conflicting opinions, micromanaging, and any other approval monkey-wrench you can think of. Instead, involve only the most relevant stakeholders only when they’re needed: have branding take a look when reviewing the overall message, and wait until you’ve decided on copy before getting legal involved.

When it’s time to get final approval from leadership, it will be more polished and more likely to be approved.

Know What To Ask

It might be intimidating to cut down on an executive’s involvement in the review process, but a good way to formally limit the number of stakeholders needed is to segment the review process. If you hold everything until the next big roundtable/board presentation you’ll have an orchestra of questions, suggestions, opposition, confusion, and frustration.

Segment the project into milestones with those key stakeholders you identify. Not everybody who needs to review has the power to approve, and not everybody who has approval power needs to be involved in the earlier stages of the review process.

Set Expectations For Creative Feedback

With this approach you can set the expectation for creative feedback as part of your planning/agreement/contract where deliverables and milestones are defined. It doesn’t need to be in explicit legalese, but you should clearly set the expectations for how creative feedback takes place.

Items you may want to touch on include:

  • Which teams are involved in review sessions for each stage
  • How deliverables are presented
  • What tools (like Slope) are used for feedback
  • How often feedback is expected
  • Deadlines for when feedback must be given
  • Who is responsible for deliverables as well as which stakeholders are accountable for review and for approval.

This is an ideal opportunity for stakeholders to understand how adhering to the review and approval process will positively impact the success of the project.

Embrace Quick And Early Creative Feedback

One key point to remember when establishing expectations: feedback should be obtained early on and often. Early feedback is the stuff that feeds successful design - just be strategic about who is involved.

Course correction is so much easier during the early phases such as with low-fidelity mocks compared to a project that is 1/3 completed with months of production and design hours already allocated.

Early and frequent feedback not only ensures a swift build-measure-learn cycle between presentations, it also greatly reduces the time needed for design presentation. Just remember to be careful about who gets asked for feedback when, which can be predetermined during the project’s planning phase.

Managing Creative Feedback Sessions

Communication is a necessary skill in both creative and project management. When you’re setting up a milestone presentation to gather feedback you’re not presenting your design for the purpose of validation or to feel good about what you made.

The presentation is about the completed work and if course corrections are needed while keeping the goals of the project in mind.

It’s easy for a design presentation to get off track if you don’t structure presentations properly and communicate effectively. Keep these in mind when setting up and managing your design presentation.

Define The Pace Of The Presentation

Set the pace by segmenting your presentation into key elements that need to be discussed. In each segment the discussion should be focused. If questions are posed about other elements, return the discussion to the segment you’re in.

It’s far too easy to tumble down a rabbit hole trying to discuss everything all at once.  

Manage the pace of the presentation by thoroughly discussing feedback and emptying the thought bucket on a specific topic or design element before moving on. This can reduce and even eliminate backtracking once you’ve moved on to another segment of the presentation.

"Whenever eliciting creative feedback with a client or stakeholder, it is your responsibility to steer the flow of the conversation."

Focus On The Problem And The Solution To That Problem

This is where communication becomes very important. When presenting the design restate the original problem to stakeholders. Show them where the solution came from and what problem your design is solving or addressing.

Depending on the stage of design and development draw from any data you have to support your decision. For example, a UX mock should be tested with usability tools to demonstrate improved user experience and positive response.

Keep Options Limited

Always limit what you show when presenting designs, even when dealing with earlier versions. The more options you provide the harder it will be to solicit feedback. For example, if a client were presented with 3 logo mockups they could more easily provide feedback on which elements stand out and which design is closest to their expectations/needs.

Give the same client a dozen logo mockups and they’re likely to switch into an emotional discussion revolving around personal preference.

With the limited options you present continue to focus on the ‘why’. What makes them different and how each addresses the original problem.

Steer the Creative Feedback’s Flow

We ran into trouble with that project early on because we didn’t take the lead on feedback. Whenever eliciting creative feedback with a client or stakeholder, it is your responsibility to steer the flow of the conversation.

Fail to do this and the discussion will quickly derail. If you’re lucky it’s like sipping from a firehose. At worst, you get vague and useless feedback.

Avoid that by clarifying everything.

Keep Asking Questions

Asking the right questions pushes the dialogue deeper into collaboration, which is vital to getting good feedback. That’s where ideas spark. In a 2016 talk, ‘Inspiring Creativity in the Workplace,’ Matthew Luhn shared his insights into how Pixar inspires creativity: “It's okay to ask questions,” said Luhn. “From entertainment to technology, the great creators that have existed are the ones that have taken chances and questioned the way things are."

For every negative response or change requested you should ask why. Keep asking why because your reviewers aren’t always design professionals.

They may lack the language to precisely communicate why something isn’t right, why an element doesn’t belong, or why they want it to change.

The right questions can turn a one-sided critique into the perfect dialogue. Be persistent in getting down to the ‘why’ behind both the feedback in question and the creative decisions that need to be made in order to address said feedback.

The Loudest Voice In The Room

This situation can happen in a lot of review sessions. There’s often one individual who is passionate, louder, and more outspoken than others. Be mindful of that stakeholder when presenting. Don’t discount what they have to say but steer the discussion and ask questions around the room for additional input.

The quiet people may not want to appear argumentative or say the wrong thing. Their intentions are good (we can respect self-preservation in the corporate world) but the unintended impact is a missed opportunity for feedback that could be beneficial.

Engage everyone and they’ll appreciate your effort to involve everyone.

“People like to know that their opinions are being heard and considered,” says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. “Just by asking people in the meeting for their opinion, you’re going to raise their commitment to the issues being discussed.”

Dealing With Negativity And The ‘Well, Actually’ Police

“Well actually…we already tried that/that’s too technically challenging/that doesn’t work for our situation.”

You would be hard pressed to find a project that didn’t get pulled over by the Well, Actually Police (WAP).

While this kind of person can be frustrating because they derail feedback, they shouldn’t be discounted. While their ‘well, actually’ opinions may be dated and based on old ideas and aging infrastructure, they usually have a solid understanding of the business, industry, customer, and product.

That makes their opinion valid and one you should listen to. The key is dig deeper – remember to ask why until you get actionable feedback.

Any kind of negative feedback should be met the same way to avoid letting it change the direction of the presentation.

Keep these things in mind when you’re faced with growing negativity or criticism:

Empathy Always Wins

If stakeholders share what they don’t like in a negative way, try putting on your empahty cap. Ask them to clarify, consider their perspective, and work with it. That’s part of creating a better environment for feedback. Negativity can instill fear and discomfort in others; you can use empathy to disarm a negative situation.

When you create a relaxed environment where they feel like their negative opinion is being accepted and heard stakeholders are more likely to elaborate on their thoughts.

Be Patient With Those Struggling With Change

You may not expect it, but there’s a good chance that you’ll encounter a stakeholder struggling with change.

A study shared by ScienceDirect revealed how people have a very real and tangible preference for things that have been the same for a longer period of time. Unconsciously, they believe that longevity equals goodness and may be resultant to change despite being directly involved in that change!

When a decision maker is resistant and providing vague and negative feedback, don’t press. Instead of restating why your solution is appropriate, hold off on the data and try motivational interviewing.

When you’re trying to motivate stakeholders to provide better feedback, or agree with the rest of the room, information isn’t going to help. They’ve already disagreed with your information. Instead, use questions to reinforce a safe environment where they can explore motivations they already have. They may not immediately come around to agree with you, but you’ll likely get higher quality feedback as a result.

Sometimes, It’s Okay To Ignore

Not every piece of feedback given needs to be addressed. If you’re getting a slew of unjustified or vague negative feedback don’t feel compelled to dig into every point to get clarification or to debate the relation to the problem/solution.

Instead, pick your battles. Note their feedback and move on so you maintain control and can steer the remainder of the session.

Ask Them What They Like

If a stakeholder is hung up on something negative you can try to redirect and change the conversation (and the energy in the room) by asking them what elements of the design they like. Switching them to a positive mindset not only works to drive the forward direction of the presentation it can also provide a morale boost to your team after they just took a hit from the negativity.

Just be careful about letting sandwich criticism distract your team from their goals. When sandwiching negative feedback in with positive feedback it’s easy to have the focus shift to subjective phrase and prescriptive feedback.

Make sure you keep the team focused on the problems, goals, and developing a solution.

Prioritize Feedback

A well-run design review can elicit a LOT of creative feedback. Now comes the difficult part. While all the feedback you take with you should be relevant, not all of the feedback you receive is relevant right now.

You need to prioritize to determine what needs to be addressed first.

Don’t let the prioritization of feedback and design changes be influenced by the subjective thoughts, tunnel vision, or personal preferences of any one stakeholder that happened to lock onto one issue.

Work with your team to validate feedback; target the feedback most aligned with existing goals and will drive the project in that direction. You can do this objectively with clients by reviewing feedback with a priority matrix.

Crazy Egg uses a 2x2 priority matrix when deciding which features and changes deliver more value to customers and to their business.

Take Action Immediately

Your team should immediately start addressing feedback. After the presentation, follow up with stakeholders to confirm the next steps. Tackle changes while they’re fresh in your mind and you have clear memory of the what and the why.

If you wait too long to act and lose momentum you may have to return for clarification. This can open the floor up to (a lot) more dialogue around feedback that has already been addressed.

Over to you

You’re in the driver seat from GO. It’s up to you to steer the creative feedback process. Stakeholders will rely on you to help them transform their thoughts and feelings into actionable feedback. You need that feedback to make your creative projects a success, and it’s up to you to know who to ask, what to ask, and when in order to continue driving the design project toward the established goals.

Use these best practices to get more specific, actionable feedback and increase the efficiency of your creative review and approval process. If you have any tips on increasing the quality of feedback you receive, or have feedback on our tips, be sure to let us know in the comments!


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Hassaan Bey

Written by Hassaan Bey

Hassaan is the Creative Manager at Slope. He's worked with brands on hundreds of campaigns and projects to help tell their story.