Don’t tell me what to do

POSTED BY on Apr 12, 2016

Feedback is a critical part of creating great work. Whether in a critique or close collaboration or a presentation, creative people are constantly receiving and processing feedback that could make their work better. Or ruin it.

Creative professionals are trained from their first day at school or their first day on the job to hear, understand and respond to criticism. We are all taught that our work can be better. We don’t take it personally (most of us). So we are always asking, “What do you think?”

Where the input process breaks down is when anyone (a creative director, a boss, a client, a friend) starts to tell the designer what to do. “Make the logo bigger.” “I don’t like orange; I like red.” “Serif type is easier to read.” Input expressed in that way turns off the creative side of the brain and turns on the logical side. That leads to a series of responses: Defense. Offense. Surrender.

When creative people surrender and simply do what someone says to do, they turn into robots that can only do as instructed. They no longer think about how best to solve the issue in new and interesting ways. They lose ownership and responsibility of the final deliverable. And they certainly don’t enjoy what they are doing.

David Marquet said, “If you want people to think, give them intent – not instruction.” I think he was talking about leadership, but he easily could have been talking about the creative process. Tell a creative what to do and they turn into a set of hands. The work will be as good as you can make it. And if you were able to make it so great, why didn’t you do it in the first place?

None of this means you shouldn’t give feedback. Give LOTS of feedback. What’s working and what’s not? What feels good and what’s uncomfortable? What answers the brief and what is off brand? Part of a creative professional’s job is to ask the right questions and get the right input. So we should ask lots of questions to make sure we hear you right.

You don’t need to solve the problem. You may or may not know why something doesn’t feel good, but the ways in which you talk about it – and the spaces in between the words you use – often reveal why it’s off and build the foundation to discover the solution. Bottom line, it’s not about what’s wrong. It is about creating the space to discover what’s right.


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Mike Gray

Jun 14, 2016 at 8:28am

This is perfectly written.

I wish someone would have sat me down 35 years ago and really made me understand and internalize this. How to communicate, not just what to say, is so important in a creative business and in life.

I also love the David Marquet quote. I'm going to steal it.