Motivating Creative Workers: “Signature Styles” Create Added Value
Human Relations, 2009

Motivating and directing creative workers is a challenge for managers. Nevertheless, large corporations rely on the creative work of designers, engineers, artists and writers to maintain a competitive advantage. While these workers add economic value through their creations, their identities (solitary, independent, idealistic) can be at odds with the more pragmatic goals of a corporation.

Professor Kimberly Elsbach provides insight on getting the most from creative workers in her recent article, “Identity Affirmation Through ‘Signature Style’: A Study of Toy Car Designers,” which was published in the July 2009 issue of Human Relations. Over a three year period, Elsbach interviewed toy designers and observed them on the job at a major U.S. toy manufacturer referred to by the pseudonym “CoolCars.”

Her study of toy car designers is representative of creative workers generally (knowledge workers, symbolic analysts, professional and technical workers, etc.) who work for commodity based industries such as automobiles, apparel, furniture and appliance manufacturing. Elsbach’s findings suggest that creative workers perceive themselves as having distinctive, creative, professional identities that they seek to incorporate into their product designs.

These unique design styles, or “signature styles,” while not publicized by the corporation, are caught by the trained eye of hobbyists, collectors and other designers. For example, one toy car designer includes a stylized version of his face in every car, while another always includes some special trap door or moving part.

These signature features help designers identify their toy cars as individual products, instead of corporate commodities, and affirm the distinctive identities of their creators and improves their satisfaction at work. For these reasons, Elsbach suggests that managers should introduce situations where creative workers have face-to-face interactions with collectors and design enthusiasts via collector shows, Web sites, social media and small venues.

Elsbach encourages companies that rely heavily on their creative workers to allow them to develop an individual name-brand by having complete design control over at least some of their projects.