Creative work can be measured! Just not like that

The other day I was reflecting on previous employment experiences and during that reflection I let loose on Twitter with some rather harshly-worded criticisms. I stand by those statements but I did feel to expand upon the topic and incorporate into it a question that was posed to me in a job interview recently “Describe the qualities of your ideal manager”.

The tweet in question opened with:

Anyone who wants to try and measure my contribution to an organisation through a spreadsheet …

I won’t finish it as I like to keep my blog somewhat civil and leave the profanities to my Twitter stream. However, it is something I feel strongly about and continually feel frustrated with.

I want to be clear and say that I do not believe creative workers should be treated like primadonnas. I do not believe that creative workers should be afforded any more rights or freedoms than other workers. I do believe that creative workers should and do work as hard as other employees and indeed I believe the scope of “creative worker” encompasses more than people who tout the “designer” job description on their business card. I do believe that the outputs of creative workers can be measured and that performance can be evaluated.

I also strongly assert that measuring a creative worker’s value through a spreadsheet of hours worked, pages typed or designs delivered is both foolish and lazy.

Even in factories for which Industrial Era scientific management theory was developed, workers still create, innovate, challenge assumptions, iteratively improve and apply creative thinking techniques. It’s not unique to graphic design or business strategy or industry visionaries. For a good example of such a factory I recommend Maverick! by Ricardo Semler.

If I were remunerated according to the value I have delivered to organisations over the years I would be a rich man today. However, that’s not the way it works and I agree to a salary like most employees. That doesn’t stop me from striving to deliver maximum value in terms of increasing revenue, increasing reputation and customer satisfaction, increasing brand penetration or any of the other factors that I influence in my role as a designer.

Sadly, too often my performance is measured not by these factors that actually matter but by the same measures that workers who churn out widgets in a factory are measured by.

If the average output of workers in a factory is 50 widgets per hour and one worker is outputting 30 widgets per hour then there’s a potential issue there. Notice I don’t jump straight to accusations of underperformance as it’s entirely possible that worker is the only one being sensible and not working himself into an early grave, or could be getting every widget right while everyone else has a 50% failure rate.

Translate that to creative workers and suddenly those measures don’t make sense. What would outputting 2 wireframes per hour as opposed to 2 per day indicate? Does that take into account any of the working or thinking that went into those deliverables? Does the mere quantity of wireframes indicate at all what assumptions have been tested, how many iterations they’ve been through or reflect the skills and expertise of the designer?

Compare this scenario: Two designers work on a design challenge. One designer gets straight into their favourite software application and churns out a bunch of wireframes in an hour. The other designer stares at the ceiling all morning, sketches some ideas in the afternoon and then finally in the last half hour of the day gets into her software application and produces some wireframes. Not as pretty as the other designer, but still valid wireframes.

After implementation, the first designer’s work sees a revenue increase of $5,000 while the other designer sees a revenue increase for their client of $80,000.

According to the sort of dumb metrics that have carried over into the creative industry from the early 1900’s some would judge that the first designer is better. Faster, higher quality outputs … or other such nonsense.

Of course, in reality it never works this way that a designer can be benchmarked against another designer working on the exact same problem … you didn’t think the solution would be easy did you? No.

Research has demonstrated through EEG/fMRI scans that there are no flashes of inspiration and that “Ah ha!” moments are preceded by brain activity that the person is not consciously aware of, thus validating “staring at the ceiling” creative thinking techniques. That said, creative workers should feel completely comfortable with clearing their head, creating cognitive negative space, free-associating or even meditating as part of their creative thinking techniques toolkit.

The answer to the issue of management of creative workers is complex. It starts with solid, rigorous recruitment practices. Forget the designer’s portfolio and look at the business case. What effect did their work have on the bottom line for their clients? Only a few designers are graphic or visual designers so stop looking for pretty pictures and pleasing colour schemes. It doesn’t matter if your favourite colour is blue; what matters is whether those designs worked.

Be open to the idea that a sketch on the back of a napkin can be more valuable than a “high-fidelity” wireframe that some designer has agonised over for hours to get pixel perfect. Be open to the idea that highly-valuable design deliverables can take form in mediums other than visual. I always make a point of advising organisations and clients that some of my best design work takes the form of words rather than designs or concept maps and models rather than screen designs.

Another important principle of managing creative workers and indeed any employee is what I think of as a burger where the employee is the meat in the middle, but the manager is both above ‒ as a leader, visionary and strategist ‒ and below ‒ as enabler, administrator and cutter of red tape. Whilst not always appropriate (Managing the Unexpected has some good thoughts on this) I believe most of the time a manager should also be a leader.

Managers shouldn’t seek to fully understand how a creative worker works or seek to influence individual styles and techniques but they should have a good idea of how to measure outputs. Financial impact is still the ruling metric of the day in our capitalist economy although slowly there are other factors that are beginning to gain prominence such as sustainability, democracy, full disclosure, ethical persuasion, conservation, environment, people’s health and well-being, open source, sharing, supporting developing nations and disadvantaged people, fair trade, education vs exploiting ignorance, long-term views vs short-term gains and so on. I’m not talking about unethical practices of greenwashing; I’m talking about designers really seeking to make a difference rather than just make money for their clients.

These are important attributes that time sheets or productivity tracking software cannot account for. No, I’m not kidding when I tell you that I’ve been the victim on more than one occasion during my career of such software and been told to spend more hours of my day with “productive applications” open and active.


As I said, it’s a complex issue and I know that it’s a frustration experienced by creative workers who simply want to do good work and managers who struggle with attempts to reconcile the value of outputs with old-school notions of productivity and diligence.

I can type 120 words per minute if you’d like. I can do it all day if you’d like. It’ll be complete bullshit and add no value, but if that’s what you want from me so you can be satisfied that I’m working hard then fine. I’ll be handing in my resignation notice before I go home though.

I invite managers, creative workers and employees who don’t consider themselves “creative” to share their thoughts and stories in the comments.

If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends and colleagues.

8 thoughts on “Creative work can be measured! Just not like that”

  1. It’s that old ‘quality versus quantity’ chestnut.
    It is a wonder that this is still an issue, but as Nathanael points out, its outdated scientific metrics that are still being upheld in many workplaces.
    Good luck to all you creatives out there with this challenge.

  2. “The romantic image of an über-programmer is someone who fires up Emacs, types like a machine gun, and delivers a flawless final product from scratch. A more accurate image would be someone who stares quietly into space for a few minutes and then says “Hmm. I think I’ve seen something like this before.” — Why programmers are not paid in proportion to their productivity

    (I think I pointed this link at you during your first online rant!)

    1. Yes you did! And I’ve continually had to pull people up on the fact that they exclude programmers from the creative workers bucket. Coders and developers innovate and create original works or creatively adapt and repurpose existing artefacts in much the same way designers do.

  3. Hi Nathanael

    As I’ve already tweeted – Spot on. What I would like to add is that creative work/workers are not alone in this. For years there has been talk about the challenges of measuring intangible assets

    Unfortunately, Australia, like America still takes a bean counter mentality to this. Parts of Europe have taken a more enlightened approach. For example, the estimated value of their creative workers is factored into their balance sheet as an asset, not a cost.

    Yes. it is a big mindset shift – for creative workers and management. In my experience it is better to get on the front foot with this. By that I mean creative workers articulating how they believe their work should be measured. The challenge for managers is to recognise and accept that they might have to measure down stream. Both need to recognise that some things just cannot be readily measured (like the creative spark itself).

    None of this is insurmountable in my view. The hardest part is, in fact, culture and practice.

    Cheers – Steve

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