Wading Through a Sea of Feedback

Accordion Book Binding Project

I think all artists are constantly craving feedback on their work.  It’s one thing to make the artwork, it’s another thing to test out the work and find out how your audience will react. I just read “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath, and in the book they talk about the “Curse of Knowledge” meaning that you know too much about your project, which affects your ability to evaluate your work objectively.

Speaking of books, I’m currently reading Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” which talks about the strategies they use at Pixar to strike a balance between management and creativity. In the book, there’s a point where he talks about how Pixar director Andrew Stanton says it’s best to “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.”  I’m constantly hounding my students to get feedback in the sketching stage, before they even lift a finger to begin the final artwork.  When you delay feedback and wait until your project is finished, it’s painful to confront problems that could have been so easily prevented within minutes in the early stages. At that point, it’s too late to start over, and there’s nothing you can do to fix those glaring problems.

Sometimes, you really have to work hard to figure out what to listen to. I am always eager and willing to improve my work, but at a certain point, you have to make decisions about what feedback you listen to, and what you tune out.  If you implement every single suggestion you receive, you’ll lose your original voice and focus.

Wading through so much feedback can be very confusing.  When I was a senior at RISD, I remember at one point feeling overwhelmed with the daily critiques in my classes.  I would talk to one professor who would tell me “you’ve got to stop using that red in your paintings”, only to be told by another professor the next day “the red is terrific, you need to use it more!” In previous years, I craved critiques on my artwork and savored every morsel of criticism.  That year,  I just wanted to be left alone and make the work, without stopping every six hours to get feedback. At that time, I found that the constant stream of contradictory feedback had become disruptive to making the artwork.

How do you decide what feedback to use?  I take extensive notes when I ask for feedback, which lets me review my notes later when my head is more clear. The first thing I do is throw out the extreme reactions at both ends: the people who have a negative reaction and are picking at every little thing, and the people who are massaging my ego and spoon feeding me what I want to hear. I weed out comments about minutiae.  While I do believe some small details can sometimes play a critical role, I’m amazed at how much some people can fuss about tiny aspects that really don’t matter. I have to be convinced that changing that tiny detail will have a noticeable change on the viewer’s experience with the project. If the difference is negligible, then I throw it out.

The suggestions I try to concentrate on are the comments that recur in more than one person, and that seem to have the potential to have a positive contribution towards emphasizing the fundamental purpose of a project. Time and distance also helps me reflect more before I make hasty decisions.  My first reaction when I get criticism is to fix problems immediately, but I find that if I make changes the same day I hear the suggestions, those changes just become a knee jerk reaction that haven’t been fully considered.

Having too much feedback is a good problem to have, but that doesn’t make sorting through it any easier!


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3 thoughts on “Wading Through a Sea of Feedback

  1. You have a great attitude towards feedback, and a solid method for filtering it. I was a little surprised, though, when I discovered you were talking about feedback on your art, and not your student’s. I tend to think of feedback as mentoring students new to art, but I guess it can be a lifelong process.

    I’m on the other end of the spectrum in which I don’t seek feedback and am not interested in it, at least not until I’ve finished what I’m working on. Even as a student I preferred to NOT work in the classroom, and did all my best work at home, and then turned it in and got critiqued. Getting feedback while in the process of making something was deadly to me, about the same as trying to write a story with someone looking over my shoulder. It made me too careful and self conscious.

    I suppose every artist has a different relation to feedback and criticism.

  2. Your words here have helped me immensely… As an undergrad Photography Thesis student, I struggle to weed through all of the persnickety comments I receive from my professors. Sometimes I feel like they try to give a range of comments to confuse students more… Although I find it so helpful to hear of all the possible directions my work can go, I find it to be somewhat paralyzing of my creative process at times. I got to a point where I had to consider these decisions in terms of my own growth– not making decisions in hopes of pleasing my mentors…

    Anyways, thanks for sharing. Would you mind if I featured a few of your words on a blog that myself and a few other students run? The blog is Guilford College’s art blog, Hand/Eye.

    Here’s the link to our blog:

    http://guilfordhandeye.com/

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