is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
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.+