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The Art of Feedback

On vulnerability, kindness, and feedback as the ultimate pathway to creative and emotional growth

Illustration: Celine Ka Wing lau

The creative industry is special in many ways, and there’s plenty which sets it apart. Some of its uniqueness is great - like having transferable creative skills which allow you to slip into new disciplines quite easily, for example. But sometimes, being part of this covetable industry comes at a price. The price of constant criticism.  


When we enroll ourselves in art school, we are so excited. We are about to follow our passion and lifelong dream of becoming creatives. We think about all the things we’ll learn, the skills we’ll acquire, the friends we’ll make and most importantly - the creative work and the art we’ll produce under our hands. What most of us fail to realize though, is the fact we are about to submit ourselves to a lifelong position of being under criticism, as we receive feedback for everything we put out there - in school, and way beyond. 


Learning how to give and receive feedback is an artform we develop from the moment we begin our professional journey, and keep refining and reflecting on throughout our lives. It is in the feedback process where we tap into so much of what we put into our work - not just the designs, ideas and craft, but the emotions and vulnerability too. 


To understand this artform better, we sat for an in-depth conversation with two of Wix Playground Academy's leaders - Michal Zur, manager of WPA, and Dafna Sharabi - the WPA’s academic consultant and content curator. Between the two of them, Michal and Dafna have years of experience navigating feedback sessions, and they share valuable thoughts and reflections on this delicate yet so important part of creative work.   


What do you think makes feedback a crucial part in a creative process? 


Michal: “Feedback is a priceless tool that helps us all - regardless of experience - to open our eyes beyond what we believe is right, it gets us out of our own head. When we’re in the process of creating, we are in our creative bubble, an echo-chamber that holds only our own specific view. When we show our work to someone else and hear their feedback, it allows us to better understand how our creation is received in the eyes of a different person. It’s sort of like user-testing for both the technical side of the design as well as the conceptual.” 


Dafna: “Feedback sessions are a crucial part of the learning process, as well as a place to understand how designers feel and what’s going on for them. It’s also when you can teach and introduce new ways of doing things. So it’s an important aspect of our development as creatives.” 


You’re describing two different types of feedback basically - a creative one and a more developmental one. Is there a difference in the way these are approached? 


Dafna: “A lot of it depends on different management styles as well as who is on the receiving end. With senior designers, feedback tends to be more specific and technical, directed only at the work itself. When younger or less-experienced designers are concerned, there is more room to teach and share knowledge. In the Playground Academy for example, our mentors share a lot from their experience and provide the students with methods and new ways of looking at things as part of their mentorship.” 


Let’s talk about creative feedback, when you’re sharing thoughts on a project. What are your goals in these sessions? 


Michal: “It’s about helping the person in front of me get to the best possible result - for them and for their project. It has nothing to do with me, my personal taste or my personal take on it. The feedback is there to help them advance to where they aspire to be and achieve that. My personal preferences about what I consider pretty or aesthetic or cool are not part of the conversation. Taste is dynamic and ever-changing, so it can't be regarded as a bar to decide what’s good or not. Of course there are elements in design which can be discussed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but the bottom line is always the designer and their work and goal.”


Are there any specific principles you follow when giving feedback? 


Dafna: “The sandwich method is something we always implement - start and finish your feedback with something good and positive. The more challenging bits go in between.”


Michal: “Creatives are usually highly self-critical people anyway, and so we tend to remember only the bad things that were said to us, so it’s important to finish on a high note so they can lean into those positive energies. Feedback can be an emotionally challenging experience for a lot of people, and you want to be able to get through to them even during a tense feedback session and provide the help they need. You want to maintain a positive attitude to lift their creative spirit.” 


Dafna: “it’s not even so much about the method itself, but about an important message you’re conveying about a creative process: that even when there are things to improve and work on, the spirit of creativity should not be affected and should maintain a force of forward thinking, a positive momentum. You want to keep the spirit of learning and growth.” 


What’s your take on being very strict during feedback; do you believe the good of the project is above all and you can allow yourself to be harsh in order to get the best results? 


Michal: “The arrival of social networks into the creative scene changed the perception of ‘strict feedback’. In the past, there used to be only one way of doing things - usually you’d be educated and criticized while studying, and so you’d measure yourself and your success only in accordance to how well you did in school or in your first jobs. But nowadays, there are so many more ways to make yourself known and reach audiences who love what you do and give feedback online and that’s a whole new way of looking at success. So I think that strictness softened a little bit. Young creatives are aware of the fact that no matter what feedback they are getting in one place, someone else online might say the complete opposite. They know that in today’s world the definition of what’s good or bad and right or wrong is much more complex than it used to be. The idea of success is very different from what it used to be, and that helps mitigate the harshness of one specific negative feedback you might receive.” 


Dafna: “It's very individual. Some people respond very well even to harsh feedback, and are able to maintain that spirit of learning and knowing they are within the bounds of an educational process. For others, it can be quite destructive, and could potentially break their spirit.”  


Is it part of your job to identify the personalities in front of you? Who is more prone to be sensitive to feedback? 


Both: “Absolutely!” 


Michal: “A lot of the time you end up giving the more strict feedback to those who can take it. Maturity plays a big part in this. Looking back at myself as a young student I can see I didn’t always have the necessary maturity and took things too personally. Obviously feedback shouldn’t be destructive, but the person on the receiving end should also keep that open heart and an understanding that the feedback is there to help them grow and open their eyes to things they might not be aware of. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially when you’re young.” 

 

Dafna: “In the Playground Academy we sometimes cherry-pick which person will give feedback to a specific student, based on our understanding of them. For example, we had someone who had quite a fixed mindset when it came to feedback, and wouldn’t really agree to open up to new and different ideas other than their own. So for their feedback we had someone whom they already knew and was friendly with, and was more able to be open and allow for the feedback to sink in rather than reject it.”


Do you consider feedback as a dialogue between you and the designer?


Dafna: “In the beginning there is always more room for dialogue, when we just start discussing the project. Towards the end when you’re geared towards pushing for the finish line, things tend to get less philosophical and more about the nitty-gritty of the details to get a project to its best final result.”   


Michal: “I agree. The start of a project is a moment dedicated to the conceptual process, so an open dialogue is significant. As we progress, things get much more detailed and specific - type size, narrowing a color palette, etc. The nature of the projects also tends to dictate the nature of the feedback. In the Playground Academy we are usually dealing with very personal projects, such as portfolios, and so the conceptual conversation is very important as the project is a reflection of their individuality as creatives.” 


You mentioned earlier that in today’s world there is no longer one truth, or one scale on which to assess ourselves against. How do you navigate that when you feedback someone? 


Michal: “This is where the reasoning comes in. If you can logically explain why you’re saying or suggesting something, it has much more value. You can also introduce things in the form of questions rather than statements. And above all, I always remind myself that I need to check myself as well. In a constantly changing landscape, you need to make sure you’re not just counting on your intuition but that you can back things up with good reasons.” 


Dafna: “Management style plays a big part. Some managers really know what they want and what they’re after and are very direct as to how they want things to be done. Others are more flexible and open to learning themselves.” 


Did it ever happen that you looked at something in a feedback session and had nothing to say?


Michal: “It’s like a muscle you need to work and exercise in order to have it functioning at its best. So sometimes it needs waking up to get to its full potential. It is especially true when I’m required to give feedback to a group of people I don’t know with projects I’m unfamiliar with, like when we go into design schools as guest critics or teachers. It can then take me a few moments to grasp the class, understand who they are and the general level and scope of where my feedback can go. So perhaps the first feedback might be a little bit hesitant.” 


What about projects that are categorically in a bad place? How do you approach this situation, and make sure that what needs to be said is communicated, while keeping a relatively pleasant atmosphere? 


Michal: “In these situations I’ll avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of things and won’t go into details, rather try and discuss the bigger picture. Perhaps take a step back and ask for more inspirations, more sketches, so that next time there will be more to discuss.” 


Dafna: “What I’ll  sometimes do is show examples. If for example I’m reviewing portfolios and really struggle with finding a good basis to talk about, instead of discussing the work, I’ll show that person some really impressive portfolios that I consider to be great, and we’ll have a discussion on that. I’ll steer the conversation towards inspiration and what are examples of good work. It’s a way to let that person understand for themselves what they need to achieve without saying ‘what you’ve done is bad’. You get them to open their mind and see what’s not working.” 


How much is feedback educational? Teaching designers how to approach the creative process? 


Dafna: “It is very much so. This is our chance to show them ways of working that can support their creativity and guide them in their process. How to find inspirations, how to create various options and sketches, and how to work on the different parts of a design. You can also use it in a ‘micro-management’ way, focusing for example on elements of a design we feel needs more work.”  


Can you share a story from your past about a feedback experience - whether positive or negative - that had a profound impact on the way you approach it yourself these days? 


Michal: “When I was a student I received feedback for a project in a way that compared it to another student’s project - which happened to be one of my best friends - and in a public setting, in front of the whole class. I learned you need to pay special attention when you’re giving feedback publicly. It can be very hurtful and we need to take care of who’s in front of us.” 


Dafna: “I definitely have memories from when I was a student, both amazing and awful. That’s the problem about feedback when you’re young: you let these things get to and affect your mood to the most extreme extent. One minute you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in the gutters, all because of what a teacher said. It’s a bummer, I wish it wasn’t this way. 

If both parties involved can learn how to approach this situation as a learning experience, something that is there to help us grow and evolve, it would make things easier. That way we can be in this moment without internalizing it as a criticism about me and who I am, but about a project and a way for me to grow and learn. It’s not personal.” 


When you entered this industry and chose it as students, did you have any idea how vulnerable you’re going to feel? Do you think students today understand this? 


Dafna: “Not at all, I had no idea. And it’s a shame, there is no discourse about this even today.” 


Michal: “I had one teacher who used to get us to give feedback to each other, and that was a great lesson in developing sensitivity to the person we are talking to, because it was our peers and classmates. But that was the exception to the rule - there was hardly any focus on the emotional impact feedback can have on you and like Dafna said it’s a real shame because for some this can have a detrimental effect. People follow their creative passion and end up not being able to sustain themselves and their work because of the emotional aspect and the stress they are under.” 


Dafna: “In the Playground Academy we make a conscious effort to eliminate anything that implies competition. It’s hard in a group, because it’s only natural to compare yourself to others around you who are in a similar process. We emphasize how each person has their own way, with their individual process and time.” 


Can you think of other ways there can be to help students and young designers develop this resilience to feedback and that understanding that their work is separate to them as people? 


Dafna: “I think it’s part of the process of growing into yourself and becoming the creative you end up being. But just bringing this issue to awareness is already a huge step, talking about it is very important. Being aware has the potential to eliminate some of the vulnerability and pain around it - when you know these feelings are only natural you can be more forgiving to yourself and others. We all need to keep in mind that it’s about learning and growth, that’s what we’re here for.”

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