Lessons Learned #1 - On Feedback

Photo by  Tim Arterbury  on  Unsplash

The past couple of months working on Small Fires has largely been taken up with finding an illustrator. One of the things I want the books to invoke while reading is a sense of familiarity — the thinking being that things that are other create a feeling of distance, and so having familiar features in all of the books will help different people and stories feel a little bit less unknown.

One of the ways I plan on creating familiarity, is using the same illustrator across the books. So you can imagine I wanted to take my time finding the right person for the job!

I began by narrowing my search down to four incredible artists, who each had a distinct aesthetic, and asked them to draw the same image. The goal was to get feedback on each from my target audience and decide from there. The only thing was, I was absolutely in love with one of them, who used bold, thick strokes and who’s style was completely different to anything else I’d seen — and I was sure the feedback was going to reaffirm this was the artist to choose.

But alas, though in theory I knew the power of feedback, putting it into practice blindsided me. The artist I was convinced of ranked the lowest amongst my audience (for both adults and children). Even worse, some people commented that the style actually reminded them of blackface — a derogatory practice that goes against everything Small Fires stands for.

At first I denied it, wondering how people could possibly interpret something so wrong? The artist was African, so they couldn’t contribute to something like that. People just didn’t get it.

But then I sat with it.

My anger and frustration at being proven wrong melted away with the comings and goings of a couple of days. When I returned to processing the data (some 200+ comments from in-person chats and Facebook groups) the pattern was clear, the feedback less cutting.

I realised that even though the artist and myself hadn’t intended to invoke negative connotations, the fact remained that they had. And if a handful of people in a hundred had commented on it, what would that look like at scale?

It was with a heavy heart that I let the artist know that I wouldn’t be working with them past the first commissioned image, and moved forward with two other artists that had more of a positive reaction.

So — my commitment to myself from this process?

Sit with feedback.

I’ve found often my first reaction to something that goes against my beliefs is to instantly shut it down. To jump straight into denial, anger and frustration — to mentally discredit the person saying it, while trying to find proof points to back up my own way of thinking.

But something magic happens when you give it time. I found myself thinking about it from different angles, investigating alternative pieces of evidence and trying to spin an alternate story.

With time, the emotional reaction fades, and logic becomes clearer.

It’s still something I need to remind myself in the moment, because it’s such an engrained pattern in my thinking. If you have any thoughts or suggestions for how you do this in your own practice, or daily life, I’d love to hear it!


Lessons Learned is going to be a regular series from me about all the many things I’m learning as I build Small Fires. Part reflection, part working in the open, these learnings are here to share what I’m discovering and also give an insight into the operations and thinking behind the organisation.