7 Research Findings about Managing Creative Professionals




It's 2011 and I'm sitting in front of two monitors, the Adobe Creative Suite and a cold cup of coffee. The high ceilings echo every tap that lands on my sweat-worn keyboard. I can hear two of my colleagues clicking away at the mice as they prepare compositions that I will put into a Keynote presentation.  We are hungry, exhausted and slowly loosing  our ability see our screens clearly.

Yet, illogically, we are enjoying our evening. Although I am leading the project, my colleagues insist on staying to help me revise a presentation due to a last minute change from the client. None of us appreciated the client's last minute changes, nor did we necessary feel that the work would be appreciated. However, I was fascinated by our ability to keep our spirits high. The next morning, after our presentation, we felt a sense of relief and camaraderie we had not previously felt.  As someone previously trained in psychotherapy and vocational psychology, I was fascinated by the change in the dynamics of the team. 

I decided I wanted to learn about the experience of being a creative professional. I wanted to know what keeps people driven and willing to work in order to overcome complex design challenges. So, as is my tendency as a design researcher, I began to research what that experience was like for others.

I wanted to know what keeps people driven and willing to work in order to overcome complex design challenges.

3-Part Research Methodology


Online Survey (n=119), shared within online forums on LinkedIn and Twitter

In 2011, I survey 119 professionals in the creative industry across the globe. They answered 10 questions and shared their feelings on their experiences in their career thus far. I was interested in the reasons that influenced the job decisions and work habits. As a design manager, I was overseeing multiple projects that required team work and energy from brilliant minds. 


One-on-one interviews with various professionals


Since 2011, I've conducted informal interviews with professionals in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Cambridge, Warsaw, and Copenhagen. Their personal information has been anonymized to protect their identity. Some of these interviews were open conversations that lasted for hours. Some interviews included structured activities, such as the priority card sorting activity to the right.


Secondary Research on HR, Management and Design

Resources included but are not limited to the Harvard Business Review, articles from the American Psychology Association, personal accounts and stories from various LinkedIn professional forums. I've continued to perform this research and I've linked to relevant articles in the report below.



Happiness goes down after the first month.

Survey respondents were asked to indicate their level of happiness at various times in their work. Respondents were asked to choose which term best applied to their work experience at specific times in their employment:  "Very Happy," "Happy," "Neutral," "Unhappy" or "Very Unhappy."

Only 51% of the surveyed creative professionals indicated that they were "happy" or "very happy" with work after 1 year.

Are innovation professionals happy at work?


Honest, ethical, and inspiring colleagues are more important than you might think.

How essential are the following qualities in finding a workplace?

Survey respondents were asked to indicate their level of importance of certain qualities when choosing a place to work. Respondents were asked to choose which phrase best applied to the importance of each quality:  "Very Important," "Important," "I would consider it," "Not Essential" or " Completely Unessential." The results seen here indicate the the qualities that most regularly were considered "Important" or "Very Important." 96% of participants said "honest, ethical employees" was either "important" or "very important" to them. In contrast, good salary was "important" or "very important" to only 84% of participants surveyed.


Many creative professionals voiced a desire to create "meaningful impact" with their work.

the ability to make things change
— Respondent #55, Design Manager, Spain
producing work that is meaningful, work for society and social causes, free association of common goals, mentorship and collaboration among colleagues, leadership based on love and respect rather than fear”
— Respondent #18, Graphic Design Educator, USA
going to bed at night feeling that my work has had a good impact on the world
— Respondent #47, Design Manager, USA

A consistent theme among many creative professionals is the important of producing meaningful work. However, the cultures and previous experiences of these individuals influences what they consider "meaningful." While some people translate meaningful in terms of social responsibility, others translate meaningful in terms of impact within the organization. 



"Good Culture" can mean many things to different people

company culture; a GOOD BOSS (they are the face of the company)
— Respondent #36, Design Manager, USA
Ability to be open about lifestyle in work environment, wide cultural/arts interests by colleagues
— Respondent #87, Freelance Digital Designer, USA
friendliness, relaxed atmosphere & sense of humor among colleagues
— Respondent #68, Industrial Designer, USA
— Respondent 13, Cartographer, Denmark
Good working climate
— Respondent #32, Design Intern, Colombia
The ability to “Co-create between the various departments of the company. . . . ie engineering, marketing and product development/design.”
— Respondent #82, Visual Designer, Australia
The culture of the local area/region
— Respondent #14, Architect, Denmark
What the style and personality is of the team I am working with.
— Respondent 35, Information Architect, USA
4 weeks of holidays
— Respondent 38, Graphic Designer, Austria


The importance of "job security" is inversely related to "job availability." 

For some professionals, the security of a job plays an important role in determining their next move. Respondent 38 and respondent 3 spent years searching for a job in competitive markets.  Despite the exceptional educational track record of both individuals, they eventually relocated to a different environment to find a position.

A company that has a great track record on job security.
— Respondent #3, Industrial Designer, USA
possibility of having a job instead of being unemployed
— Respondent #38, Architect, Norway


Being disrespectful is worse than being arrogant.


On average, more people are upset with disrespectful superiors than a salary reduction than a salary reduction. Basic gestures respect can be powerful in retaining professionals. 


Value, colleagues and challenges keep innovators around.

committment to continued learning and bringing in outside perspectives
— Respondent #60, Architect, USA
Colleagues are extremely important, I think I would like them be passionate, earger to learn, open-minded, patient, and friendly.
— Respondent #18, Graphic Design Educator, USA
Doing work that I find personally rewarding
— Respondent #47, Design Manager, USA

In a follow-up piece, I will identify how managers can act on these findings to improve their environments, their team's morale and the efficiency.