Over the past two months, I’ve been getting tons of feedback from colleagues, former students, and friends on my project. I started the feedback process very early on, when I was only 30% done. This was crucial because other people caught some major problems early on that I would never have seen had I waited until I was finished. In doing so, I’m grateful to have saved myself countless hours of grief and backtracking. 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 to 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.
The feedback process for this project has been very startling, which surprised me given that having my work critiqued is about as natural as breathing. What has been different is the immense range of diverse reactions that I’ve gotten. With past studio projects, I got a range of reactions to the artwork, but most of the opinions were approximately in the same area and seemed to eventually reach a general consensus about how the artwork would be received by most people.
Not with this project. Every single person I’ve showed the project could not have reacted more differently. The contrast of different reactions has been so great that for the first time in a long time, I 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 the 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. Even today, I feel like there are many comments I got a month ago that I’m just starting to fully understand.
Having too much feedback is a good problem to have, but that doesn’t make sorting through it any easier!