Are time sheets bad for creativity?

They’ve been hailed as archaic, demoralising and pointless – so why do so many studios still use time sheets?

Mention the word time sheets to a creative and you’ll often be met with a pained expression. While they’re a staple at countless studios and agencies, they’re also a major source of stress and frustration – as highlighted by a recent Twitter debate. Mike Sullivan, Creative Director and founder of Mister Studio, received dozens of replies when he Tweeted that the use of time sheets was “archaic at best” and that getting rid of them “would go a long way in helping ease mental health issues for employees in design agencies”.

Several creatives agreed with him, and dismissed the practice of using time sheets as “pointless bean counting”, a “waste of time” and the 21st century equivalent of a clocking in machine. Some people reported teams routinely rounding up or down when logging hours and resource, while others said time sheets created a demoralising and competitive culture. 

The most common complaints around time sheets tend to focus on the issue of measuring the value of creative work in terms of hours spent. This is problematic not just because it puts pressure on creatives, which can have a serious impact on our ability to generate ideas, but also because creative projects are often the result of dead ends, wrong turns or time spent pondering a problem before landing on a great concept. This time-based approach also ignores the impact or effectiveness of creative work – meaning studios are unlikely to receive additional rewards even if their work goes on to generate substantial revenue for a client. 

Given the many arguments against them, it’s a wonder they’re still so popular – yet they remain a part of daily life for many creative teams. We speak with four studio founders – David Whyte, co-founder of Glasgow-based design and branding studio Tangent Graphic, Ady Bibby, founder of Manchester agency True North, Alex Ostrowski, founder of London-based collective Lovers and Hamish Makgill, who runs Brighton practice Studio Makgill – who all reported using time sheets to cost up projects. And while they admitted that they can be problematic, they also felt that using them was essential to their business.