The five stages of the creative process.

Search for a definition of the creative process, and you’ll likely find article after post after video after infographic referencing these five stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, evaluation, and verification. In 1926, a social psychologist named Graham Wallas was the first to write about these stages in his book The Art of Thought.

That’s too many.

No disrespect to Mr. Wallas, but breaking the process down that deep feels overly academic. It’s really not that complicated, so we’re going to simplify the process into just two phases: concept and execution.

A quick side note: they’re phases, not stages.

I know, it’s just the third paragraph, and I’m already venturing off-topic. But, I like using “phases” better than “stages” when discussing the creative process. Calling them “stages” feels too permanent—like once you complete one stage, you check it off a to-do list and move on to the next. Calling them “phases” implies an overlapping blending from one to the next. There are no hard edges determining where one ends and the other begins. Sure, it might be semantics, but I think choosing the right words matters. The creative process is not a checklist. It’s amorphic. It can go back and forth and up and down and inside out.

Which phase are we critiquing?

The first step to a good critique is acknowledging which phase of the creative process we are critiquing. Both require a different approach, and each requires different questions.

The concept phase is about the idea. It’s the think big, move fast, no holds barred part of the process. During this phase, we’ll look at thumbnail sketches on napkins, read words sleepily scratched in a notebook, or eventually, maybe even a deck with some sample headlines and visuals.

The execution phase is about the tangible elements. Now we have the idea in place and are critiquing specific copywriting and art direction choices that are supposed to communicate that idea.

Five questions for critiquing the concept phase:

  1. What’s the truth/insight?
    “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” — Bill Bernbach
  2. Is it about what it’s about?
    It’s about fresh breath, not mouthwash.
  3. Is there room for a reward?
    Comedians don’t explain why the joke is funny. They let the audience do some work.
  4. Does it pass the “one hundred people in a room” test?
    If you give the brief to 100 of your peers, how many come up with the same idea?
  5. Is it on brief/strategy?
    A good creative brief is the booster rocket of great ideas.

Five questions for critiquing the execution phase.

  1. Does it use the right tone of voice for the audience/brand/subject?
    Just to be clear, is this spot saying Kylie Jenner can stop police brutality with a Pepsi?
  2. Is it clear what the audience is supposed to think/feel/do?
    This is likely in the brief, but is it in the work?
  3. How can the art/copy do a better job of supporting the copy/art?
    It’s a game of give and take, push and pull, try this, and let’s see.
  4. Is the reward gap too wide/narrow?
    It should connect with someone, not everyone.
  5. What resources might help?
    What (or who) do you need to realize the full potential your idea?

A note about love note etiquette. 

The kind of love notes that take the form of hard questions and strong suggestions are what creatives crave during critique. This kind of love note can sometimes be uncomfortable to give, but it would be selfish not to. 

The “I love it” love note is about the work. It feels good to hear that friends and colleagues love the work, but it’s most constructive once the job is complete. Critique time is for moving the work forward, so love notes like these during critique should be followed by a but or an and.

Finally, this isn’t an easy job. Creatives need friends and colleagues around them that have their back. The last love note is the “I love you” love note. It might be a cup of coffee, an ear when someone needs to vent, or being generous with high-fives. This love note has nothing to do with the work; it’s all about the person doing it. This is about being a good human. It’s personal and always welcome.

That’s it, I guess. 

Phase-specific creative critique is a great way to approach giving and receiving feedback on creative work. Maybe the stuff about phase vs. stage and different kinds of love notes was only tangentially related, but it’s true and was worth mentioning.

And finally, just in case you want to share this with folks, here’s a tweetable summary of this article: Depending on which phase of the creative process they’re in, creatives need different types of critique and support.

Oh, wait—one more thing.

Be clear and specific with your critique feedback. “This headline isn’t working” and “This image could be stronger” is lazy. Don’t be lazy. Match the creative team’s effort in the feedback you offer. What’s not working about the headline, and what might improve it? What does “stronger” even mean in the context of the image? Critique feedback should be helpful, not just a voicing of opinions.