After more than a decade in AAA game development, billion-dollar franchises and award-winning titles, I am taking a beat to explore what else is out there. This has afforded me a moment to reflect on my journey and the things I've learned along the way. So, with time on my hands, I thought I would share some of the bits I've found most useful.
When it comes to the process of giving and receiving creative feedback, we tend to put the responsibility on the receiver to develop a tough skin and to not take remarks personally.
It's not that feedback is intentionally harsh or personal, but it can come across as such due to tight deadlines, personality type mixes, or a noble drive to bring out the best in people. It's understandable and the truth is that feedback is so valuable that obtaining it is worth the price of a suboptimal process. It is only through feedback that we can improve our designs and stretch our art beyond the limits of our own perspective.
That said, it's in the best interest of productivity and general human decency that everyone involved in the process work to ensure feedback is effective, respectful and empowering.
We want Creatives to invest their hearts and souls into bringing to life the vision of our projects. This is what makes designs sing and art transcendent.
It is incongruent then in one moment to encourage Creatives to bring out the treasures of their heart and then ask them to toughen up as we hit it with sticks.
So how do we navigate this delicate balance between honest feedback and creative expression while keeping everyone heading in the same direction?
Below are a couple techniques I've learned to help cultivate a positive creative culture throughout the often-challenging process of feedback.
As the age-old adage goes, give a man to fish and he'll eat... teach a man to fish and he'll learn to clean and gut it himself.
The best feedback is that which inspires a Creative to take ownership over the issue, process or resulting deliverable.
This doesn't mean they should have free reign to do whatever they like, but rather they are involved in the feedback process to the point that many of the resulting action items are of their own devising.
The greater the sense of ownership a Creative has towards an idea, strategy or solution the more engaged they are to see it succeed.
Provoke by Asking Questions.
Properly phrased, questions are an excellent means of guiding a Creative into ownership.
Rather the explicitly identifying issues or prescribing solutions, we can use questions to engage a Creative in the problem spotting and solving process. Through conversation, we can bring them into the place of self-identifying the issues or solutions we are already seeing.
We might start a feedback session by asking something open ended like ‘What more would we want to do with this?'. Perhaps they've already identified the issue and we can celebrate their forethought. If not, we can nudge them with a leading question such as ‘Hmm... how do we see the player managing this?'. Keep things tactful and both parties will work together to make the Creative's latest the best it can be.
Provoke by Begging the Question.
The goal here is to get a Creative to engage in the feedback process, offering their own thoughts and assessments of the product.
If questions are not working, sometimes silence can elicit a response. For example, I might start a sentence and then trail as if mid thought. Something like ‘oh, that over here, it's making me think....'. Often this is enough to engage a Creative. Perhaps they ask a clarifying question or attempt to finish the sentence. In either case you now have the conversation ball rolling and can kick it back and forth.
Provoke by Not Having Answers.
A Creative is a lot like a Player in that they both typically take the path of least resistance. If we condition a Creative to expect us to always provide an answer, they are less likely to try to identify issues before bringing it for feedback. Similarly, if we always have a critique, they may choose to leave a few rough edges for us to call out rather than taking something to completion.
Both cases can cut the Creative out of the conversation, decreasing their personal stake in seeing the situations addressed.
If we have a solution in mind, often the best results come from inviting the Creative into our thought process. By doing this they can arrive at the desired conclusion on their own. Often this extra effort of bringing the Creative into our perspective results in them discovering a more effective solution then the one we initially had in mind.
Overall using the feedback process to instill a sense of ownership may lengthen the initial feedback process. However, this early investment pays for itself in higher quality output from Creatives who are better equipped and motivated to self-evaluate their own work moving forward.
We as humans communicate seemingly incessantly. The words we speak, our tone of voice, even what we don't say can often say so much.
Ultimately all this communication is communicating something.
One way to improve the feedback process is to be aware of our unintentional communication and channel those towards a single, cohesive message.
Choose Our Words.
Our word choices can set the tone for the entire feedback process. For example, sending invites to for an ‘Art Critique' meeting can set recipients on the defensive. Encouraging Creatives to come prepared to passionately defend their choices. Intentionally using more neutral terms, such as ‘Design Sync' can lessen this affect.
Selectively using pronouns like ‘you', ‘we' and ‘they' can allow us to focus praise and dissipate negatives. As a general guideline if it's something good, use ‘you', such as ‘you did a great job here'. If it's an opportunity to improve use ‘we', as in ‘we could explore this'. If you need an antagonist use ‘they'. Overall, our choices should express to a Creative that they supported and valued.
Finally, as any decent marriage counselor will tell you, avoid broad terms such as ‘always' and ‘never'. Even if such terms feel accurate, they rarely improve a situation. Often shutting off one side of the conversation, rather than fostering understanding.
Choose our Communication Cues.
In my case, I discovered communication cues during my first stint as a Level Design Lead. The project was in a tight spot, and I soon realized there was a large vein above my right eyebrow that would visibly pulse anytime someone would even think of increasing scope.
While it became a running gag that ‘The Vein' turned the project around, this not-so-subtle communication cue limited my ability to communicate feedback in a useful manner, betraying my otherwise calm demeanor.
Other cues can include eye rolls, head shakes, frowns, distracted glances and so on. Becoming aware of our tendencies can allow us to stop them before they communicate more than we want in a particular moment.
As mastering these communication cues can take time, it might be useful to find ways to limit their impact. For example, choosing a seat that looks away from high traffic areas, or in the case of an attention seeking vein like my own, try wearing a hat.
Choose our Emotional State.
Emotions can inspire us to make choices in a moment that will impact a lifetime... getting married, making a baby, or raising our voice at an intern.
If for example, we just come out of a particularly tense meeting with corporate, now is not the time to roll up on a Creative to review their latest efforts.
Feedback is so valuable that it is worth delaying to ensure we're in the proper frame of mind to give it effectively.
If it absolutely can't wait, we need to be aware of our current emotional state. This will help us to not inadvertently transfer these emotions into the next situation, negatively impacting the feedback process.
In a perfect world, feedback would always leave recipients feeling excited to improve their work, reaffirmed as the best person for this task, and fully supported.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always go so smoothly.
In fact, most of these techniques I learned by doing the exact opposite so often it felt normal. That is until the process would grind to a screeching halt. Those moments of breakdown and subsequent rebuilding taught me much of what it takes to foster a creative community.
The overall goal here is to intentionally work towards improving the experience and results of everyone involved.
In the meantime, I found proactively encouraging Creatives, while owning my mistakes would help to insulate the team from the potential negative effects as I learned how to deliver more empowering feedback.
These techniques are based on my own experience; use what works, toss what doesn't, and share your own learnings in the comments below.