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Objective feedback for creative work: why it is so important?

When I look up the images and graphics that represent the word “feedback” here is what comes up, typically.

Look closely. What does this tell us about our mental associations of the word “feedback”? (Scrutiny? Evaluation? Judgement? Rating? Negative remarks? Praise? Advice? Conversation? Review? Validation? Or something else?). Do they represent subjective evaluation or objective assessment?

In my own creative journey as a food photographer, I have felt, from time to time, a strong need for in-depth, objective feedback on my work. Since my educational background is purely technology-related, I did not have the opportunity to go through the rigorous feedback processes that are a part of arts-related curricula. So from time to time, I felt a keen gap in my understanding of my own craft, its strengths and weaknesses. I needed a fresh pair of eyes to look at my images and tell me what they saw – where was I, in the context of my work? Were there skill gaps? Did they detect any patterns? Were there technical strengths? Did my work have emotional impact? What about the technical aspects? I figured the answers to these questions would help me chalk out a roadmap for my creative practice and progress. So I asked a few people I knew from social media for feedback on my work.

The responses I received were eye-opening. I had not clearly “defined” the parameters of my requirement, I had simply asked for feedback, expecting my fellow-creatives to know and resonate with what I needed. But perhaps because our connection was via social media, they seemingly made (incorrect) assumptions about my motivations and framed their feedback responses in that context. As a result, all of the feedback I received was in the context of social media (for example how my feed lacked cohesiveness, or how important it was to choose a niche so that I could garner more followers and so on) and none in the absolute context of my skill or craft. Because the feedback was so subjective, and based on their idea of success (which was different from mine), I felt unable to apply any of it to my own work or process, even though they may have worked brilliantly for someone else with different goals.

The whole experience led to some powerful insights on how feedback could be tailored into a more useful and powerful process for myself and others. Since then, I have been able to effectively apply these insights and fine-tune my own process as a feedback provider for fellow photographers and creatives.

Types of feedback: Subjective Vs Objective Feedback

In my experience, Feedback can be of two kinds. The first is related to the “market appeal” and includes aspects like trends, demands, niche, market gaps, social media algorithms, promotions, visibility, personal relatability and so forth. This kind of feedback is subjective and depends on individual worldview and definition of “success”. The feedback usually falls within the framework of “right” and “wrong” ways to achieve this definition of success.

Take the example of a “dark and moody” image. You may not “like” a dark and moody style of photography so you may never like or “follow” that kind of work or artist. To that extent it would stay subjective. But the fact that it is a dark and moody photograph is not ambiguous or dependent on individual preference. It’s a fact. A category. And that can stay totally objective.

The second kind of Feedback is related to the technicality of the craft itself. It is objective in nature. For example, in my case as a food photographer, it would include topics like lighting, composition, subject, storytelling, emotional impact, styling and post processing. These topics can soon become subjective as well, but only if imposed with personal preference of the feedback provider. Otherwise, in general, these topics can easily be discussed, assessed and categorised objectively. They do not label any approach as right or wrong and take a more balanced approach to the parameters of the craft.

If a fellow photographer asked you for feedback on their work, you might recognize that their work is mostly dark and moody and see it as a pattern, without having to tell them your own personal preference. You are simply validating a pattern and so all your feedback can remain within the realm of that pattern. You could help them see the gaps as related to dark photography and how to make it more effective technically. You would never need to impose your own preference on them. This is “objective” feedback.

How is objective feedback beneficial for creative work?

So what is the problem with the first kind of feedback, you might ask. Isn’t it useful to know what might work better for us in the practical world? Of course. But here is the problem. Subjective feedback is only useful when it comes from people whose worldview matches ours. It needs to come from people who are ahead of us in our journey, but towards the “same” destination. Otherwise, it’s like finding the shortest, most optimal route, to get to a place we never even intended to go.

Most people are happy to provide subjective feedback – based on their own experience and worldview. But not all of us can receive that and filter out the bits that can be effectively applied to our own context. So it can get very confusing. Especially when feedback comes from someone that you see as a “success” out in the world. Such mismatched inputs can very easily trigger unhealthy negativity and much self-doubt.

On the other hand, objective feedback is always useful. Since it stays clear of labels like “right and wrong” it works well within the framework of the craft. It simply looks for gaps in what you are aiming for and what you are actually producing and then provides helpful insights on how to close the gap. That’s the power of objective feedback in creative work. It’s like the little red pin on the map. Before you find your route, you must locate your current position. It’s where you must begin, at every stage of your creative journey.

Both kinds of feedback have their own value and purpose of course. But I find that we usually ignore the importance and power of objective feedback. We become increasingly dependent on subjective opinions for our success, even when these opinions don’t work for us.

The importance of objective Feedback in a noisy world

Creativity is a facet of self expression. But this self expression does not happen in vacuum. It happens in a world which accepts or rejects our expression via words or subtle actions. And we end up absorbing all these micro-signals, frequently altering our course to match the world’s expectations. This approach is necessary at times to stay connected to the world we live in, but most times, it does more harm than good. It drags us away from our real selves, and leaves us senselessly exerting brute force against our own grain. In the long run, this confused behaviour affects our wellbeing and creativity.

Objective feedback lets you find your own voice and choose your choir before drowning you out in an orchestra of subjective voices and opinions. Those can come later, when you know how to use it to your advantage.

How does social media affect objectivity?

Imagine this scenario. You’ve just posted an image on your favourite social media platform. And before you did, you thought you did a good job, and were fairly satisfied with your image. And now you wait. The likes and the comments aren’t coming fast enough. The day drags on and you are refreshing your feed repeatedly and your spirits are flagging. What happens next? Your “satisfaction” which was alive and well, suddenly drops dead. Your work comes under the painful scrutiny of your own negative gaze. You second guess every single technical choice you made that caused this “catastrophe”. How did the image miss the mark? Was it the lighting? Subject?? Ah, the composition! It’s no good. Am I cut out for this at all? Sound familiar? 🙂

Now imagine this scenario! You’ve just posted an image. You didn’t think it was your best work. But this time, you are pleasantly surprised. The likes and comments come pouring in…perhaps even within the “golden hour” of the algorithm! The god of algorithm has injected you with the miracle drug of traction and suddenly, you’re experiencing “confidence“. You’re now making wild connections between the technical aspects of the image and the audience response. Nice. But what happens to your understanding of your own image this upswing?

And between these two equally and wildly opposite states of mind, what happens to your sense of wellbeing?

It is very hard to maintain a clear mental separation between popularity and creative skill/choices. This is why we need objective feedback to help us stay grounded, no matter what the social media response is.

How online communities affect objectivity: the down side of generic positivity

We live in a world where most of our business and work is conducted online. Since negativity from strangers invokes mind-numbing terror in most of us, we have now evolved into a more mindful and conscious community where we try our best to be mutually supportive. But somewhere in the process, we are beginning to lose “real and objective” responses which are grounded in reality and meritocracy.

The problem with creating and belonging to communities that provide us generically positive and comforting response is this. It gets increasingly hard to tell apart really positive responses from the encouraging responses. While such communities help us manage ourselves in an increasingly negative and isolating world, we cannot depend on them for an objective evaluation of our craft. We need a different and more personalised process to keep us grounded. Otherwise our need for validation can drag us down a bottomless pit. The more we get, the more we seek.

Feedback for creative work: Why or how is it different from feedback in conventional full-time jobs?

Prior to my current life as a food photographer/writer/mentor, I had a corporate career in Technology. Through those years, my role required me to provide and/or receive feedback countless times, as a part of the employee performance review process. The process there however, was directly connected to performance rating, which in turn was directly connected to salary revisions. So although they were called “feedback” sessions, they were really more of a “rating“.

In creative work however, feedback is not a mandatory process. It is a conscious choice. And because creative work is so closely tied to our identity and sense of self, most of us don’t seem to wield this choice effectively, if at all we do. Seeking 1-on-1 feedback becomes a difficult and avoidable chore for most of us. The process requires us to be open and willing to grow. While most creatives understand this, we are to reluctant to put our work up for formal review. Why does this happen?

Why are we so scared of feedback?

As I see it, there are two possible reasons:

  1. It is so hard to be objective. We bruise easy! We are so closely identified with our creative work that we tend to take feedback on our work as feedback on ourselves.
  2. Someone hurt us in the past with their ill-considered feedback. In the past, we may have been victims of insensitive feedback from people who inadvertently clipped our wings before we could learn to fly. So, we wrongly associate the problem of the person with the whole process. And so instead of finding better and helpful feedback providers we avoid the whole process.

If we understand this and find the right feedback providers, we could grow our wings back and learn to fly.

What is feedback?

Feedback is a mirror.

In an ideal case, it is a distortion-free mirror that can show you exactly where you are in your journey(craft). It does not label or judge anything as good or bad. It only sees where you are, and maybe point out the possible pitfalls in your journey. It might also offer a reality-check on what you are doing and what you “think” you are doing. In competent hands, this process can be extremely helpful. It helps you get fresh new ideas. It helps you grow.

Every now and then, as creatives, we must learn the skill of standing back and looking at our own work without the emotional baggage. It’s the way to growth. Periodically putting ourselves in front of an empathetic and informed audience of one person (feedback provider) can be very helpful in developing this sense of objectivity towards our creative output.

Over time, if we are able to use this process well, we might even develop a solid sense of our own work – the strong as well the weak areas. We could become self sufficient and objective and even develop a robust confidence which does not shake in its boots every time someone thinks our work missed its mark.