Artistic Feedback: 4 Rules for Constructive Criticism

Artistic Feedback: 4 Rules for Constructive Criticism

It used to be a daily occurrence at the Federalist Society, where we produce about two short videos a week on legal and public policy topics, that the choice of music for a particular video got picked on. The artistic feedback went something like this:

Reviewer Reggie: “I don’t like the music.”
Me: “Why?”
Reviewer Reggie: “I just don’t like it.”

Helpful, right?

If I tried to dig in, I would get only a slightly more useful examination:

Me: “So you have no idea why you don’t like it?”
Reviewer Reggie: “It just doesn’t go with the video.”

Great. -_-

Of course, this kind of criticism went beyond music to colors, typography, animation, editing, copywriting, etc. Video review sessions turned into a bizarro-Facebook, where dislikes abounded but no one knew how to fix the hate. We would change the offending material, but new dislikes would surface in subsequent rounds.

Finally, we decided to step off the unmerry-go-round and implemented four rules for artistic feedback. These aren’t comprehensive, of course. In fact, I’m interested to know how you make the artistic feedback process more productive, interesting, and efficient. Shoot me at tweet @DanielTRichards and share your insights.

Here’s what we implemented…

Rule #1 – Have a Reason

This might seem obvious, but every criticism should have a reason. It’s not good enough to suggest a change. The writers, editors, animators, producers, etc. all worked hard on the content under review. They’re professionals, and they deserve a reason for changing their work.

Avoid at all costs “…because I don’t like it.” That’s not a reason, and it has the wrong focus. What we’re trying to accomplish with our feedback is to make the experience better for the audience—not the critic.

Acting without audience-focused reason leads to arbitrary changes. What eventually happens is that changes made in early rounds are changed backed in subsequent rounds or when new people review the work. It’s a maddening circle. At least if you have a reason, you have something to evaluate if you’re so inclined. You have something to check against reality.

So what is a reason in this context? A reason is a conclusion that follows from evidence. In artistic feedback, the evidence doesn’t have to be peer-reviewed science—although it could be. Evidence for this purpose is a collection of facts that relate to what you’re doing, and it can come from a plethora of angles. Let’s concretize this process by looking at a few appeals that frequently come up…

Appeal to the Purpose

What is the purpose of the art you’re creating? What are you trying to do with it? In a Federalist Society video, for instance, we’re trying to communicate specific ideas about the law. So good criticism might look like this:

Moviemaker Matt: “We should reduce the number of U.S. Capitol shots in the alcohol documentary.”
Me: “Why?”
Moviemaker Matt: “Because the purpose of the video is to explain how state regulations affect the industry. We don’t want to confuse that point with lots of Capitol footage. People will think it’s primarily a federal issue.”

By appealing to the purpose, Matt provided clear evidence for why an artistic choice needed to be changed. Always keep the purpose in mind when critiquing art.

Appeal to the Brand

Brand considerations are significant when considering artistic changes. If you have defined colors, typefaces, logos, etc., then why not use them?

Astute Alex: “We shouldn’t use purple for the background.”
Me: “Why?”
Astute Alex: “Because dark blue is one of our brand colors, and it would work equally well with that white text.”

Of course!

Appeal to Realism/Abstraction

When critiquing art, one reason to make changes is if the visuals should more or less represent reality.

Insightful Samantha: “We should design a new casino scene for the Christie v. NCAA video.”
Me: “Why?”
Insightful Samantha: “Because the case actually deals with sports betting and not with slots, cards, dice, etc. We don’t want to confuse people.”

In other instances, it might make sense to create an abstraction for the purpose of communication.

Detailed Daniel: “Why should make the wedding cake in our Masterpiece Cakeshop video look more like a generic cake.”
My team: “Why?”
Detailed Daniel: “Because the actual cake is controversially decorated and confuses the issue. It would be ideal if people focused less on the cake itself and more on the law. Making it generic will help.”

Appeal to Science

Reasons for artistic changes may very well come down to hard science!

Artistic Anna: “We should change one of the blues in this scene to white.”
Me: “Why?”
Artistic Anna: “Because some of our older viewers might have trouble distinguishing between the two shades. As we get older, it gets more difficult to differentiate between similar colors.”

Appeal to Persuasion

One of the more difficult elements of artistic feedback is deciding if certain elements are more or less persuasive—assuming that the purpose of what you’re creating is to persuade. There’s a lot to be said on the topic of persuasion, but for now, what’s important to note is that appeals to persuasion must be evidence-based and not assertions. A bad example:

Reviewer Reggie: “We should change the character in this scene to a woman.”
Me: “Why?”
Reviewer Reggie: “Because female characters are more sympathetic. People will be more likely to accept this argument if it comes from a female.”

Is that true? How can we know? In what context? There are too many questions and assumptions to consider this a genuine appeal to persuasion. On the other hand…

Justified Jenny: “We should make the setting of this animation the founding era in American history.”
Me: “Why?”
Justified Jenny: “Because the social media metrics show that our audiences respond particularly well to the Founding Fathers and all things related to that time period. I think they’re more likely to be persuaded if the animation is stylized after 1789 Philadelphia.”

Even if you’re not convinced by this appeal, it’s a reason. It’s not arbitrary. It’s based on evidence. It takes the audience into consideration. Nonetheless, rational people can disagree, which leads me to the next rule.

Rule #2 – Have a Decider

No matter how strong the reasons, you’ll inevitably find points of disagreement among team members. This is natural and should be encouraged. Insisting on unanimous agreement is both a waste of time and potentially harmful to your team culture.

Everyone who’s involved in the artistic feedback process should have their criticism heard, considered, and accepted or rejected. The question is, “By what process?”

Who Gets to Decide?

First and foremost, you must decide who gets the final say. No meaningful creation gets done by committee. If you don’t decide on who gets to decide, it’ll be whoever speaks last or whoever speaks most forcefully. Neither is a particularly good method for choosing which critique to accept or reject.

[SIDENOTE: At the Federalist Society, every video series we create has a head producer, and that’s not always me. In fact, it’s rarely me. Of course, in my capacity as manager, it’s my responsibility to make sure that no decisions get made that will fatally affect the product or brand, but those situations rarely occur with a team giving reasonable feedback. There may be times when I strongly disagree with an artistic change, but as long as that change is reasonable and non-fatal, I let it proceed. This builds trust and a strong sense of responsibility among the producers.]

The person who gets to decide should be the person with the most responsibility for the project. There should be stakes. This doesn’t mean he can’t delegate certain responsibilities, but it means that, ultimately, the responsibility for the decisions falls on him.

An important note about the decider’s behavior: The decider should critique last. Why? Because people have a tendency to agree with the person in charge. It’s also a way to demonstrate that everyone’s feedback is welcome and encouraged.

Other Clear Roles

Whoever has decision rights should make it clear to feedback participants what their role is. For instance, are we reviewing for story? For brand considerations? Just for spelling and grammar? Everything? Having a checklist of things to review and delegating certain elements is a good method for both reviewing “everything” and making sure that reviewers aren’t missing the tree for the forest (or vice versa).

Accepting/Rejecting Feedback

It’s important that everyone participating in the artistic feedback process gets a genuine opportunity to participate. For this reason, we often separate decision rights from who’s running the review. That way, one person can make sure all voices are heard, and the decider can focus on collecting, analyzing, and integrating all the feedback.

The person deciding doesn’t have to decide at that moment to accept or reject a change, but they should have a mechanism for recording all the notes and a method for choosing which to implement. Nothing is more frustrating than giving a reasoned critique in one round, not seeing it changed in the next, and having the decider show no record of the critique or have no idea why it wasn’t incorporated.

If feedback isn’t accepted, that’s fine! But the person deciding should have a reason why it wasn’t accepted (if asked).

Rule #3 – Take Initiative

Sometimes it’s difficult to express a clear reason for why something should change. In most cases, this means the person making the critique hasn’t thought about it enough. It’s fine to ask that person to table the critique, think it over, and come back later with a reason or a change of heart.

But in some cases, expressing a reason is hard because we’re not well-equipped with language that can convey what we mean. Decisions about music most often fall into this category. Music speaks so directly to our “sense of life” that it can sometimes be difficult to talk about in terms of reasons and conclusions. It’s tempting to let these “sense of life” critiques slip by without consideration, but we’ve found a different way to handle them.

Specific Samantha: “This music makes me cringe.”
Me: “Why?”
Specific Samantha: “I’m not sure, but whatever the reason, let me find three tracks that I think fit better with the video.”

Taking initiative to provide additional creative material is a good way to resolve these types of conflicts. Providing options allows the person critiquing and the decider to actively compare elements. It’s usually only through comparison that “sense of life” critiques can be resolved.

This doesn’t mean, however, that initiative is a substitute for reasons. Indeed, it’s best when they’re combined.

Musical Matt: “Of these three tracks, I like track three the best.”
Me: “Why?”
Musical Matt: “Because the interview subject speaks a bit slow, and this track is upbeat. If we go with anything slower, it might seem like the video is dragging.”

Even with options and reasons, though, it can be difficult for the decision-maker to make up her mind. That’s when the final rule comes into play.

Rule #4 – Move On

Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

Don’t chase a Platonic form of your product. Always keep in mind that there are multiple correct ways of doing something—especially art—and that any particular project is one person’s vision, not the singular end-all-be-all version of whatever it is you’re creating.

::deep breath::

Could we do another round of feedback on the animation? Of course. Would it make it better? Perhaps so. But what’s the cost/benefit of doing so if we’re already four rounds over our agreement with the animator? How much better will the video be if we change the typography one more time?

Creative endeavors are endless, so it’s essential that you create boundaries for artistic feedback—deadlines, budgets, specific rounds of revision, etc. Make decisions, move on, and don’t second-guess yourself on artistic matters unless presented with overwhelming evidence.

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So there they are—our four rules for artistic feedback. What do you think? What can we improve? Tweet @DanielTRichards and let me know. Thanks for reading! If you found this post valuable, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared with your friends and colleagues.