Thoughts on Performance Reviews for Designers

As last year came to a close and I was taking stock of the many things for which I’m grateful, the fact that I did not have to write year-end performance reviews for staff members was near the top of the list. Managers know what I’m talking about: that annual (or even semi-annual) ritual of summing up months and months of of an employee’s performance nuances in a single document. In many organizations, they a standard part of the manager’s job, a tool intended to engender productive teams, keep people motivated, and check against lackluster performances. In theory.

When I was at The New York Times, writing reviews for my staff was among the most painful parts of my job and a nontrivial downside of the holiday season. As much as I enjoy all the excitement and cheer and vacation time of December, I always knew that reviews would be due in January. In order to get a jump on them I’d need to start them in earnest in the midst of all that holiday excitement.

For each review, I’d have to solicit feedback from at least a handful of the staff member’s peers. With that input, I’d then look back on a year’s worth of work deliverables and, if I had been particularly conscientious, any notes that I might have made about how that staffer had done during the course of the year. At The Times, there was also an understandable if burdensome emphasis on distilling all this feedback into eloquently worded narratives, not just simple lists of bullet points. It was all very time consuming and very, very, laborious.

Which isn’t to say that I saw no value in the process. On the contrary, the reviews I received from my own superiors were by and large thoughtful, constructive and (usually) timely. They offered me insight into my own performance that I don’t think I would have had otherwise, and they gave me an opportunity to course correct in areas where I’d been neglectful. I was very grateful for those reviews, for how respectful they were of my own efforts, and I did my best to pass on similarly constructive criticism to the people who worked under me. It was hard work, and I’m sure I didn’t always succeed, but I tried.


The Value of Feedback

Looking back at the whole annual reviews process, I feel some ambivalence. I hated writing them, but I knew they could be valuable when done properly. I also realize that proper reviews are not necessarily the norm for designers. The New York Times, to its credit, was a place where designers received reviews from people who actually understood our work, who were conversant in the vocabulary of design and who comprehended the value we tried to bring to the business. That may not be uncommon, but it’s also certainly not the rule for the profession, especially for those who work in-house at companies whose business is not principally design.

In fact, the reviews I got and gave at The Times may have been the only useful reviews I’ve been involved with in my career. When I was a young designer working at a print design studio, the performance reviews were somewhat earnest but just as often full of the owner’s capricious preoccupations. I found them to be a useful gauge of his usually highly biased view of the world, but not particularly useful career guidance. Later, when I was a co-owner of a design studio, I can’t even remember if we gave any performance reviews to our staff or not. If we did, it was almost certainly in an ad hoc fashion, and I doubt if they were very useful.

Performance reviews seem to be taken more seriously in large organizations, in the kinds of environments where there is enough structure to essentially compel managers to produce them and employees to submit to them — largely because they’re such an uncomfortable, unenjoyable process for everyone that corporate bureaucracy is almost a prerequisite for making them actually happen. The problem is that most design organizations are not that large, and when they are, they’re not good at giving performance feedback to the designers they employ. The upshot, I would guess, is that a lot of designers find them useless or, if they don’t, they probably should. Getting a review from someone who has an inaccurate understanding of what you do is a waste of everyone’t time. Unfortunately, yearly salary increases are often tied into these reviews, further inflating the value of bad data.

A Better Way

There’s probably a better way to do this, but on the whole there are probably enough inherent problems with performance reviews in general — for every kind of profession — that a design-specific remedy is not close at hand. I shudder at some of the solutions that more quantifiable professionals are subjected to: there are enterprise level systems that require employees to periodically declare their goals and numerically measure their performance against those goals via horrific software interfaces. It’s always struck me that if a company has implemented such a thing, the last thing they’re really interested in is the employee. Reviews should be personal, and the only true purpose of such software is to simplify an executive’s life by making the process very impersonal.

I’ve never heard much talk at all within the design community about reviews, whether people like them or dislike them, which of course leads me to believe that designers generally have little use for them. If you’ve had a different kind of experience or have experience a different approach to performance reviews altogether, I’d be really curious to hear more.

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  1. The primary problem with annual reviews is inherent in their title. Reviews, if they are to be worthwhile, should be offered on a continual basis. I have distinctly uncomfortable memories of having experienced annual performance reviews, particularly those given by non-designers: they were a crapshoot. The financial benefit they provided seemed to coincide with whatever project was last accomplished. If your reputation was on the upswing within the 2 months prior to your review, then you were brilliant and dependable and you were rewarded accordingly. If your last job was troubled by anything (including the curse of a difficult client), you needed to rethink your approach and redouble your efforts. To add insult to injury, you were given just the regulation raise and the encouragement to “try harder.”

    Consequently, given my own experiences (both receiving and giving reviews), I would agree that most corporate mandated reviews are close to useless.

    However, my experiences working in small design firms or offices headed by professional visual creative folk provided me with insight into how greatly constant feedback could improve both attitude and performance. This truism was virtually guaranteed if the feedback was delivered by an admired and trusted colleague. One of my favorite corrective comments came in the most indirect fashion from a much beloved boss. Perhaps mutual respect is the defining factor in all effective communication, especially one that helps to define your career trajectory. In short, if you’re going to give them, make them an ongoing dialogue among colleagues. And regardless of whether you’re the giver or the receiver, take notes throughout the year. Memory is an inventive, holey thing.

  2. Management consultant David Baker of Recourses.com has a primer article about an alternative approach for performance reviews. See here: Link

    Basically Baker is an advocate of regular, short, mutual feedback sessions conducted on a walk rather than the traditional, onerous annual reviews. The annual reviews become a compilation or an overview to be celebrated.

  3. I’m not a big fan of the yearly performance reviews either, for many of the reasons you mention above. I’ve found that it’s essential to setup a routine with everyone on the team. At minimum, I have a weekly check-in scheduled for a few minutes with each designer to provide feedback and discuss any issues they are facing within the organization or any design problems they are wrestling with. This is in addition to regular project reviews. The regular check-in approach is great for highlighting issues before they become major performance problems—to me it’s more productive to provide gentle nudges weekly than hard pushes yearly, if something is off.. It’s also a great way to create a two-way dialogue with the team.

  4. I had a great ‘continual review’ system with my manager at my last agency job. After lunch on Friday we’d have a quick chat about the past week, upcoming things, long-term goals, etc.

    We had annual reviews as well, much the same peer-submitted feedback, but I found those invaluable as well.

    What I find odd is how difficult the idea of constant constructive feedback is. I’d love to know when I mess up/rub someone the wrong way rather than having to hear it vaguely on a piece of paper eight months later. The ‘now’ is always more actionable.

  5. Those short informal continual employee reviews are also espoused by Daniel Pink in his book, “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.”

    @khoi, as tedious as that process was, it sounds like there’s a high standard of consideration, grace and empathy at the Times because of it. Those are factors software can’t track.

  6. Wonderful post and great follow up comments. Thank you everyone.

    I’ve now worked as a designer and an Interactive Director. So, I’ve been on both sides, giving and receiving reviews. In terms of receiving reviews, I crave and need them and most people I talk to feel the same way.

    The people I work with want to be successful and they want constructive feedback on how they can become better at what they do. I think most people feel this way. Nobody wants to do average work and call it a day.

    The hard part of the whole thing is giving constructive feedback. It’s incredibly hard and as Khoi said, time consuming! And I can’t say I’m particular good at it either.

    I find that giving feedback on an ongoing, informal, in-person basis to be the more powerful method, but I think it works best when it’s coupled with formal, written documentation to record progress and make sure everyone is crystal clear on where things stand.

  7. What a timely post as I’m in the middle of reviewing my team of web developers that I started managing mid-year and got no real hand-off from my predecessor. I want the review process to be valuable both to the employee and to me. To this end I’ve stopped reviewing the work itself in the annual review but focus on how the work was done. The “soft skills” if you can stand the HR lingo.

    I think the feedback about the actual work product should be given in the moment and in public when it’s praise. The annual review should focus on communication, teamwork, initiative etc. These are the things that make an accomplished employee a valuable employee.

    What I find most counterintuitive about the review process is that I find it very easy to write the “negative” reviews and very difficult to write the reviews for my good people. I hope that’s not a reflection on me.

  8. The “continuous feedback” comments I am hearing above are the key, indeed. Annual reviews are stupid to every sort of team, and nothing anyone likes doing.

    For designers (I have been a design team manager or CD a few times) I like to provide on-the-spot feedback mostly, and only sit down and evaluate /individual/ progress when there’s something to be really worked on.

    I DO really like to do AARs (some call them Post-Mortems, but I like the AAR process better. I just posted this yesterday due to a different discussion, so see my blog for a rundown on it).

    If I have to provide feedback on my team to higher management, I like to do so about once a month. One a week if the team or individual is new. I also tend to guide myself off the AAR process, so I can divorce myself from emotion and blame, specifically point out good things, and remember to talk about their continuous improvement program. “Last time, she was going to be working on skill x, and progress to date is…”

  9. I suffer under an obtuse and cumbersome PC software program, using the so-called SMART objectives method. I have to go into the program 4 times a year to list the work I’ve done since my boss doesn’t know. Trying to fill in the objectives in a project-based environment is laughable.

  10. I work at a 60 person company now, but spent the past 7 years working at Microsoft. I agree that big companies have crazy performance review systems that suck the enjoyment out of being a manager.

    Microsoft does the aforementioned “set goals, give yourself a grade against them, and compare that grade to what your manager thinks” approach. The biggest thing this ensures is that you are aligned with the goals of your department as a whole, and that your manager sees your performance with the same lens that you do. It gives an objective way of looking at your performance. That said, its incredibly impersonal, and managers seem to disappear for months on end to write these things. At Microsoft, the good managers (most of mine were amazing managers) supplement these formal reviews with weekly 1:1s to specifically talk about performance, and career planning.

    In my new gig, I manage a team of 5 designers, and find that bi-weekly 1:1s to talk about performance is working really well. We do an annual review process as well, but it is simply a summary of all of those chats that gets formalized in the presence of our HR team. I think this approach keeps managers honest, and ensures their people are getting the proper amount of attention. You can’t BS your way through a review, so you had better been paying attention to your employees throughout the year to be able to have an intelligent conversation about their performance.

  11. In all the Gen-Y-In-The-Workplace talk, one consistent theme is the young folks’ demand for instant feedback. It’s usually presented in a grim-but-true light, like, “you might not like it, but that’s how they are,” but when the modern office discovers a functional way to fulfill that need, performance reviews may be redundant.

  12. Giving good, constructive feedback in any scenario, can be hard, takes practise, sometimes guts, and by it’s nature doesn’t often get fed-back on. I work in a sizable organisation where HR do acknowledge the importance of feedback. A standard annual appraisal process is in place, plus HR recommend a fortnightly/monthly routine, for which support and training is provided. Unfortunately this doesn’t automatically result in a widespread feedback culture. In a fluid environment, where reporting lines can change, sometimes fairly arbitrarily, I’ve come to believe it’s really down to the individual managers, their attitude, level of confidence with their teams, and the relationships between individuals that determine how reviews happen. Just because the meetings are scheduled, the forms are filled in and submitted, it doesn’t mean either party gets any value from the process. Worse still, the perception develops that they are a box-ticking waste of time, which recovery from – ie. actually making annual reviews useful, can be incredibly difficult. Much of my evolving approach to giving feedback comes from the experiences I’ve have on the receiving end (and yes, I’ve been on the training too). As a learning process, you could say this is fine, but there’s still this little voice that says – “These are people’s hopes and dreams you may be messing with. Don’t screw it up.” And boy, does that guilt trip keep me on my toes, as I know how a well considered piece of insight, or the right word of support can be a real gift.

  13. So true Khoi! The feedback is so valuable, and having it come in consistently in tangible and measurable ways is key. I think it says something about your commitment to improvement though, since you took the time and went through the crap process regardless of the hassles.

    In terms of a better way, maybe check out Rypple – it sounds like it works in the ways you’re looking for.