[What happens when designers have no clear career path, and there's no culture in the studio that helps nurture them? You get an old grumpy designer. In this article, design consultant Alexandre Mandryka identifies the causes and symptoms, and prescribes treatment.]
You've done it all. You've moved up through the ranks of associate and junior designer. You have been through crunch to ship games. You've mastered the internal tools, pioneered new pipelines and techniques, and trained other designers to use them. But now you are tired of waiting for that promotion to senior level and lead positions: it is getting on your nerves, and it is starting to get old.
Or maybe you are a manager, lead designer, producer, or HR, and you don't understand why that highly skilled and very promising designer turned into a negativity beast. You know he's good, but you are at a loss to turn him back to the path of success and create the team pillar that you need.
Having been myself on both sides of this potential career dead-end, I want to share with you my recent study on what I call "Old Grumpy Designer Syndrome".
Symptoms of the Syndrome
An Old Grumpy Designer is generally quite experienced, has developed knowhow and has achieved some status for it -- owning some part of the tools or processes and being a reference on them. The problem is that instead of using this recognized knowledge to help the team and project move forward, he's constantly showing how wrong others are and how doomed their efforts.
You'll often find that the ideas the OGD is most likely to devote his knowledge and energy to burning down ideas that are not his or that challenge what he has established himself. He has become resistant to change and evolution, he just doesn't want to have to learn new tricks or to reconsider his current ones, and he will do everything he can to prevent that from happening.
Not only is the team wasting valuable energy and insight interacting with him, but as long this toxic behavior persists unchecked, creativity gradually goes down, as it can only exist in a positive environment where ideas are nurtured instead of shut out. A failing creative dynamic within a team is definitely a sign that should ring a bell and trigger further investigation.
Another trait that can appear in an OGD is extreme ambition that is disconnected from the realities of your project. An OGD can compare the current sprint with the actual end results achieved by the reference blockbuster game and develop negativity as a result. They might think they need to win the Super Bowl in one play and get paralyzed by it, when all that is asked is to gain a few yards.
The last frequent trait of OGDs is that they consistently ask for a higher position, either for a senior rank or lead. Because of their experience and skills, this is a perfectly valid progression, but as these designers usually don't get promoted because of their attitude, it leads to a frustration buildup that of course worsens the other symptoms.
Establishing a Diagnosis
When trying to identify if you are facing an OGD, it is important to look for the symptoms discussed earlier. Study the way a designer communicates with his peers, gives feedback and proposals.
Generally, a grumpy designer will be trigger-happy with the reply-all button and tend to be quite present in mail threads and flame wars. Brainstorms or group discussions are also opportunities to notice his tendency to shut down others' ideas and try to impose his own.
Another thing to look for is career dynamic. Has the designer been at his level for some time now, or has he been stuck too long in the past? It is only natural that stagnating at a given level is bound to create a perpetual bad mood and can be a catalyst for the other issues, especially if no adapted growth path has been offered.
Ultimately, browsing all archived performance reviews is going to give perspective and help monitor the appearance and evolution of many of the issues that have most probably been already recorded and communicated to the grumpy designer.
Often, you will see a discrepancy between self-evaluation scores and those given by the manager. I have found that this is often ignored, especially if the overall appreciation is that the designer performs satisfactorily, but it is actually important to discuss the reason behind this divergence of opinion.
I witnessed a case where a designer received high marks and was noted as exceeding expectation, his self-evaluation, though, was even higher than this. This shows that the praise is not perceived, and this can lead to a dangerous and unnecessary self one-upmanship that will actually hamper designer performance and progression.
Of course, if this situation has been going on for too long and the same problems keep appearing in the report, you generally see overall performance go down -- sometimes to critical levels.