5 Tips on Critiquing Creatives

I had just returned from my first multi-city speaking engagement. I was 26 years old and thought I had it figured out.

During a break in my Pasadena, CA speaking gig the previous day, I had chatted with a longtime film industry editor, who had seen me show a few original short films and was helpfully offering pointers about my editing style. Although I regrettably didn’t listen to him much, I noted his credentials, and used them when I returned to work with my creative colleagues.

As I walked into our creative space, my (even younger) artist colleague got my attention. He had just finished his first 3D model and was prepping it for inclusion into one of our projects.

Keep in mind that this was 1997. Prior to the release of Jurassic Park three years earlier, computer 3D modeling basically didn’t yet exist in film and video production. Most churches didn’t even have screens, much less staff animators dabbling in 3D. We were a bit ahead of the curve.

If I had been wiser, I would have expressed amazement at his work and at our progress as a team, rather than question the realism of his texture map. Maybe then he wouldn’t have called me a bad name.

Here are five things I have since learned on offering critique to creatives:


1. Create an Environment of Trust.

Sharing the victories and hurts of life creates understanding. When describing my trip, if I had led with my fear at speaking to a large group of leaders rather than name dropping my conversation with the film industry editor, my team would have seen a view of my heart instead of my sunglasses.

Creative collaboration is not glamorous. If you do it right, the results may become glamorous to those on the outside, but the work itself is real and vulnerable.


2. Learn Their Language.

There’s nothing worse to a creative than for a no-clue supervisor to camp out over her shoulder, offering “advice.”

Getting the best results from your co-creators requires an artful approach to critique and encouragement.
One of the first rules of leadership is to learn the language. In my new Creative Director position, I have the first time experience of managing a press operator, so I have invested time in understanding his job. I can’t help him unless I understand his frustrations.

This extends to the creative environment. When working with designers, learn the fundamental rules of design. This doesn’t mean you need to go to art school. But it’s helpful to be able to converse intelligently about font choice, color palette, composition, and other elements of design. With some degree of understanding, you’ll feel freer to reveal the gaps in your knowledge and even as you evaluate ask about terms and technique you don’t know.


3. Talk Through Their Intent.

Of course, mistakes in the creative process happen. But more often, a creative person’s decision is not made by accident or arbitrarily, but with a specific outcome in mind. Find out what they’re thinking. Sometimes, you’ll agree with them and leave it the way you had it. If not, you at least gain in sight to their creative mind, and are able to respond from a place of mutual understanding.


4. Explain Why You Want It That Way.

If you’re the boss, you can dictate whatever result you want. And many creative directors and leaders do. But instead of taking a unilateral approach, explain your thinking. You’re not asking for consensus or giving the creative the final decision; you’re offering him the courtesy of understanding why you are doing what you’re doing. And in the process, you’re showing him respect.


5. Don’t BS. Be Completely Honest.

Don’t blow smoke at a creative, telling her you like something just because you know you’re supposed to say three compliments before you say one critique. Such behavior is totally transparent and it destroys trust.

If you don’t like it, say so. If you don’t know why, say that too. If you know why, they say that. In other words, be honest. In the course of such honesty, you affirm trust and mutual respect. Then your compliments become real and meaningful, not flattery that mocks.


How do you work with creatives?

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).