Rewarding Creatives
by Steven Morris

Do you know what it takes to keep your creative team motivated? As this veteran designer discovered, the secret to a happy staff isn't just showing them the money.

We creatives are a fickle bunch. When you get past our ultra-hip outward expressions, we're a relatively hard-to-please group that thrives on constant change and challenge. Due to the subjective nature and relative value of our work, we need ongoing reinforcement and acknowledgment that we're doing a good job. This is even more important when a designer is trudging through the 11th rendition of a demanding client's "fun" fuzzy-bear logo, only to have him say yet again, "I don't like it."

Like good news on CNN, positive feedback from clients is rare in our industry. Don't hold your breath waiting for your clients to share it. It's up to us as managers to find ways to reward and fuel the fires of inspiration beyond the paycheck.

As a creative and a manager of creatives, I'm constantly looking for ways to inspire myself and my team—from group outings at the art museum to bonding time around one of the pinball machines or the pool table in our studio. Especially in a down economy, firms are hyper-conscious of keeping the financial flow in check. Yes, salary hikes are good, and bonuses have impact, but studies done by American Express Incentive Services and other incentive companies have shown that money isn't the most effective way to demonstrate appreciation for a job well-done. A non-cash reward provides a tangible, lasting reminder of achievement, while fostering a family environment.

Just think of the occasions when you receive gifts. Ask yourself, "Would I rather receive a gift that has a high level of emotional resonance (i.e., a well thought-out, handpicked present that was carefully wrapped by the sender) or a check stuffed into a greeting card?" For me, the answer is clear: The gift chosen especially for me has a deep and lasting impact that goes far beyond its monetary value. This personal touch creates a closer relationship between giver and recipient.

I'll admit that I'd been relatively unaware of the many ways different creative groups (both firms and in-house teams) reward and inspire their staffs. My experience in working for others wasn't exactly helpful. So when I opened my studio, I searched for ways to build a culture and an ongoing creative wellspring. In talking with fellow managers, I've learned of the varied and heartfelt ways in which firms acknowledge their employees. (This discovery was both humbling and inspiring. It also made me want to send an application to a couple of the companies.) These ideas fall into two categories—non-salary compensation and creative inspiration—although many creative groups offer rewards in both areas, and several activities serve both purposes.

Sharing the Wealth

If you're looking for ways to demonstrate appreciation and respect for a staff member's contribution to your team, you have tons of options. While some require a financial commitment on your part, others may involve time—as in, paid time off.

Robert Dietz, principal of Platform in Seattle, has offered both to his team. On his senior designer's fifth anniversary with the company, Dietz gave her an iBook and a 10-day sabbatical in addition to her regular three weeks of vacation. She took time off in four consecutive weeks. Dietz admits it was tough for his small firm to pick up an absent staffer's workload, but the benefits spoke in volumes when she returned to the office happy, recharged and grateful. In addition, Dietz handpicks holiday gifts based on the tastes and personality of each person in the firm. A sampling of these gifts includes tents, PalmPilots, MP3 players, watches and portable DVD players.

Rewarding his staff with time also works well for riCardo Crespo, worldwide creative director of Hot Wheels/Mattel in El Segundo, CA. He assigns QDOs (Quality Days Off), to be used for whatever reason, no questions asked, at intervals of one day for every two months clocked. Staffers are encouraged to use these days away from the studio to recharge their creative batteries. Additionally, Crespo gives his creatives gift certificates to a specialty-graphics or art-supply store, which they use to fill their personal idea files. He guides them to choose materials that inspire them, especially those from outside their disciplines. For example, a graphic designer might select a book of fine-art photographs; a copywriter might opt for a collection of handmade papers. As a result, the group gains a diversified reference library that's custom-fit for the team members.

Karan McReynolds, creative director at Ariel Creative in Rockport, ME, focuses on simple tokens of appreciation for her staff. For example, Ariel Creative has rewarded designers for a project well-done with an annual pass to the local museum or a gift certificate to an art store. McReynolds stocks the office with fresh fruit and other healthy snacks, and she arranges regular delivery of fresh flowers for the conference table. She feels that listening to her employees' needs in terms of workspace, computer equipment and continuing education is equally important. All of these rewarding efforts, regardless of size, add up in a big way.

Giving credit where credit is due and promoting your staff's hard work can be a cost-effective and valuable way to help your creatives build self-esteem. By regularly entering and winning design competitions, you not only add feathers to your studio's (and your clients') cap, but the contributing designers also gain deserved and desired recognition. Young designers routinely tell me that winning design awards is one of their core goals. This recognition comes in both public and personal ways. By entering competitions, you demonstrate pride in the work that your staff contributes and place a strong value on their efforts.

Your employees want direction and rewards, even if they don't say so. We often forget that simply saying, "good job" or "thank you" goes a long way. Do it regularly and do it honestly, and you'll see lasting results in their improved performance.

Fueling the Fire

One of the most important things you can do for your creative staff is to enable them to keep their sources of inspiration fresh and their creative energy flowing in harmony with your company's goals. For many of us, that means not only keeping up with what's going on within our industry (through design shows and conferences), but also seeking outside and unrelated influences.

Many design groups pay for their staff to attend national or local professional events. Morris Creative closes for a day every February so that our entire team can attend the AIGA/San Diego Y Design Conference. This is a local, intimate event with presentations from internationally known speakers in design-related fields, including small, hands-on "Thinkshops." It affords us a team-building and educational platform right in our own backyard.

In addition to the pinball machines and pool table at the studio, we take periodic "play days" in which the studio closes and we goof off as a group. Staffers typically throw suggestions into a hat and then vote to choose the activity. Outings have included trips to local art museums, day hikes through a state park and even a surfing class—a humbling experience even for the teacher. Our team recently designed and created a bench as part of AIGA/San Diego's BenchMark campaign, in which 150 local artists created benches as a public art exhibit in conjunction with the city's playing host to the 2003 Super Bowl.

Likewise, the outdoorsy people at Ariel Creative have had group outings that range from 10-mile snowshoe treks to weekends on a schooner. And the firm conducts Friday afternoon "Whine" sessions in which the staff shares stories of the week and plans for the weekend, or whatever comes up.

David Lemley of Lemley Design in Seattle employs the Japanese tradition that no conversation is "on the record" when employees are out drinking with the boss. Information shared during the firm's Friday evening happy hour gatherings cannot be held against anyone later.

The most engaging creativity-boosting activities might pair your firm with another—like the exchange between Lucas Digital and the Nike design team. Kelly Hawkins, lead graphic designer at Lucas Digital, describes this as an inspirational opportunity to see how other creative teams collaborate and brainstorm. Designers from Lucas Digital visited Nike's headquarter's in Beaverton, OR; a month later the Nike team traveled to Lucas Digital in Marin County, CA. Each team presented its creative process and sources of inspiration and shared works-in-progress for critique and brainstorming.

At Top Design Studio in Los Angeles, Peleg Top and his staff participate in a variety of regular rewarding and team-building events. Every Wednesday, staffers get over their work-week hump by having a yoga instructor in for a light, midday session. The firm holds a weekly luncheon where a different staff member cooks for the five-person group. The budget for the ingredients must stay under $20, and the dish should be something the host has never prepared before.

Creative retreats and team-building events are among the most powerful ways to build a firm's culture. While some retreats may be purely for fun, many mix business with pleasure. Often, firms invite families to participate in weekend activities, where staffers spend part of the time venting, team-building and brainstorming. During a two-day retreat, for example, a firm might spend four hours each day in working sessions. The balance of the time is free for families and individuals to play together.

The Benefits of Creative Rewards

Creatives need nourishment beyond a solid paycheck. The benefits of implementing an ongoing, consistent and creative rewards program will pay off handsomely. By rewarding your creative staff, you build a stronger, more collaborative team that better understands your company's values and culture. You share the wealth in unexpected ways throughout the firm and express appreciation for a job well-done with the same level of creativity that your staffers pour into their work. And this boosts morale and inspires the group.

Creatives prefer to work with people and in environments that promote their values and artistic aspirations. It's difficult to be an effective designer if there are distracting office politics, dull cubicle workspaces or a lack of encouragement and communication. Simply put, an out-of-the-box designer wants to be rewarded in out-of-the-box ways. Money matters, but without creative fulfillment, employees will look for other opportunities. Count on it.

Furthermore, employees are more likely to go the extra mile, become more emotionally invested and work those occasional weekends or late nights if they feel they're respected, appreciated and part of the team. And they need to respect you, the manager, too. Your emotional investment in your staff will return the same to you and your firm.

This article has been reprinted with permission from and written by Steven Morris. Steven is the head honcho of Morris Communication, a San Diego firm that specializes in identity and collateral design for the toy, game and entertainment industries.

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