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Sometimes we voice strong opinions on topics touching the design and visual communication industries, sometimes we dispense advice to students, professionals and clients. If you’re into that sort of thing, this blog’s for you.
Mr. Magazine, AKA Samir Husni, the Director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi recently interviewed me for his website. In an article titled: Editorial & Good Design – What Magazine Making Has Brought Together, Let No Shrinking Budget Put Asunder we talk about budgets, client relations, the importance of how a magazine flows, and what keeps me up at night. Here are some sound bites:
"I was in college; I was going to design school and I was doing the cartoon for a local nightlife magazine in Phoenix, Arizona. I was basically a glorified intern; I really hadn’t designed anything of note. I had just been an illustrator. Late one night I walked into the office to turn in my cartoon and the publisher’s wife was there and she said that the art director had just quit and asked me to design the magazine. And I just said yes because that’s what we were taught to do; you never said no. So, the next day I started designing the magazine. I had never designed a magazine before. I thought I understood magazines, but that magazine was horrible. I did a horrible job designing it. They paid for my education in print production."
"I think the only way to truly overcome bad decision making is to spend a lot of time with the client educating them on what makes a magazine good, and how that affects the bottom line. So many of them believe that if they make it, readers will come. And so many go into it with the idea that all they have to do is get that first issue printed and the advertisers will come flocking. It’s a pretty rude awakening when that doesn’t happen."
You can read the full interview here.
There are many rituals in the realm of business. By far the worst of those rituals is the dreaded meeting. Of course, that's not to say a good meeting doesn’t happen every once in a while. It’s hard to say with a straight face that every meeting held since the dawn of time was a waste of time. I think we can all rattle our brains and come up with at least one that impacted our jobs and the projects we were working on in a positive way, but that’s what we call an anomaly.
Some facts from Entrepreneur Magazine:
Meetings Are Distractions
Let’s say you’ve scheduled a meeting for 10 a.m., and one of your workers is tackling a complex problem around 9:45. Rather than keeping that train of thought going and working through the problem bit by bit, that worker is forced to break their line of thinking to attend an unrelated meeting.
Some workers might anticipate this and simply refuse to work on anything at all before the meeting, knowing their work will only be interrupted. This causes a severe hemorrhage of potential productivity.
Meetings Wander Off Topic
No matter how large or how small the group size or how carefully you’ve planned the agenda, your meeting is more than likely to eventually wander off topic. And when it does, the entire function’s been lost. The ideal meeting is one that stays on topic completely during the entire course of the session. Unfortunately, the ideal meeting doesn’t exist.
Meetings Have Unnecessary People
This is one of the worst qualities of meetings, and it’s nearly unpreventable. They’re generally scheduled with little regard for the time of people attending them. The scheduler – usually the boss – will often throw people onto the roster even if there’s only a small chance that the topic is relevant to them or that they’ll have something meaningful to contribute.
This inflates the number of people attending, which is sometimes seen as a good thing — more minds means more opportunities to solve the problem at hand — but it’s actually quite damaging. Not only does it draw more employees away from work, it also muddles the focus and presents more opportunities for distraction.
Meetings Multiply Time Spent
When you schedule a one-hour conference, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s only an hour, so even if it isn’t completely productive, you’ve only lost one hour of time.
Unfortunately, this mentality doesn’t illustrate the whole picture. Meetings take time from everybody attending. Say you have seven participants in an hour-long meeting. By the confab’s conclusion, the company has lost seven hours of time. Assuming it’s a weekly meeting, you can multiply that by 52.
You’re wasting more than 360 hours of company time every year simply by calling that meeting.
Meetings Aren’t Work
This negative characteristic of meetings amplifies all the others, and it’s the most important one to understand when considering the actual importance of meetings to your company’s productivity.
While many people consider meetings to be “work,” they aren’t. Just because they take place in an office with people doesn’t mean that anything actually gets done. Most meetings are spent talking about work, and if you’re talking about work, you aren’t actually working on anything. Talking about solving a problem doesn’t solve the problem. In some cases it might clarify the problem, but in many cases, it will only complicate it or do nothing at all, putting everyone back at square one when the meeting is over.
The Time Cost of Meetings
According to a recent talk by TED speakers David Grady and Jason Fried, there are more than 3 billion meetings every year, with executives spending 40 to 50 percent of their total working hours in meetings. With almost 34 percent of all meetings ending up as wasted time, that means executives who spend 23 hours of work per week in meetings are flat-out wasting almost eight of those hours — nearly a full day of work every week. That loss in productivity is estimated to waste nearly $37 billion every year in the U.S. alone.
Now if the above wasn’t enough to get you to at least rethink your approach to the number of meetings you have, I think there is a more sinister and pressing reason to look at the number of meetings your company is having.
Here’s an excerpt from an article on NPR.org in which they talked to Al Pittampalli, an author and an expert on “meeting culture”:
“One of the biggest problems in organizations is that the meeting is a tool that is used to diffuse responsibility,” Pittampalli says.
He says meetings alleviate the anxiety of making tough calls by delaying decisions, instead of making them.
Bad meetings also recur because, in many cases, the people leading them don’t know how to run a good one.
There’s a lack of self-awareness among meeting leaders. The vast majority self-report that they believe they’re conducting meetings well, while the vast majority of participants disagree. Yet Pittampalli says no one speaks up.
“Nobody is willing to give feedback to their boss,” he says.
And so the endless meetings go on, and on, and on.
In conclusion, it’s my strong belief that there is a direct connection between the number of meetings an organization has and the strength of its leadership. In a world dominated by committee systems and flat organization charts, we seem to have forgotten the value of education, experience, and hierarchy. We no longer foster talent and train it – instead we place everyone on the same playing field and then reward ourselves for taking opinions seriously that are often given by people out their league. It may sound sacrilegious, old-fashioned and perhaps even dictatorial to those born into the millennial generation – but, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus."
Bob Dylan once said, “You can't be wise and in love at the same time.” No quote rings truer when it comes to designers presenting their work. Designers by nature are passionate about the work they do, but the contemporary climate designers work in often asks them to do everything twice as fast—and with smaller budgets. Therefore it’s difficult to switch gears between the love of the work and the process of selling it.
A great presentation has the soul of a well-made documentary and the intelligence of a well-defended court case. Presentations are so important that they should be given almost as much attention as the design solution itself.
What makes a great presentation?
A great presentation has the soul of a well-made documentary and the intelligence of a well-defended court case. Presentations are so important that they should be given almost as much attention as the design solution itself. And in the I-need-it-yesterday world we live in, that can be a hard thing to do.
It goes without saying that the presentation of design is an art form in and of itself. Just like design and the creative process, the art of presenting should have a step-by-step structure. If you really want to make your presentations impactful, it’s a good idea to design your creative process with the necessary steps to give you the correct information and documentation needed for a successful presentation.
Think of it this way
Presentations are stories, nothing more. Your job as the presenter is to tell that story in the most compelling way possible. Selling ideas isn’t easy. When it comes to presenting work I have one guiding principle: Have a reason rooted in design theory for every decision you make, backed up by research.
If you can find that balance between passion and intelligence—being in love with your work and being wise about it at the same time—your presentations will be clear, information-based stories told not by a designer infatuated with their work, defending it to the bitter end, but a person in love with the solution to the problem at hand. When this transition takes place you will be seen as a real business partner, not a prima donna that’s hard to work with.
You wake up one morning and your car doesn’t start. You have it towed to the dealership and you take the bus to work. The next day you get a call from the dealership and they inform you your car is fixed and ready to be picked up and that you owe them $1,500 for the repairs. You ask, “What was wrong with my car?” The dealership replies, “You know, we really don’t know. We fiddled around with the engine yesterday, tried to start it this morning, and it fired right up. When can you be by to pick it up?”
Now I would hope you wouldn’t pay that dealership a dime until they told you exactly WHY your car didn’t start, HOW they fixed it, and WHAT parts it took to do so. Yet so many design presentations lack that same kind of detail.
Step 1: Start with Why
Everyone wants to know WHY. It’s how our brains are wired. By starting with WHY you have a platform to lay out your approach, show them you understand the problem you set out to solve, all the while giving your presentation a natural, conversational way to walk them through your process and presentation. The WHY phase of your presentation should outline the following:
An overview of the project and its objectives
Doing this gives the presentation a framework. Much like a good documentary, you need a beginning, and there is nothing wrong with setting up and recapping the project as you understand it, and organizing its solution.
Outline problems that needed solving based on the project objectives
Based on your and the client’s understanding of the project’s objectives, outline the problems and list the challenges in order of importance. This way you can give the presentation a structure and order. This also helps your audience follow along mentally. Remember that you are the communicator in the room, not them. Don’t assume they are simply going to pay close attention to you simply because you are standing up in front of them.
Step 2: Continue with How
The natural extension of WHY is HOW. The HOW phase of the presentation allows you to explain and show them the various solutions you came up with based on the goals and problems that were laid out and explained in the WHY stage. By outlining the paths you took, showing which ones worked, which ones didn’t, and what you learned from each, you show a great evolutionary path of HOW you came into what was to become your solution. By showing them what doesn’t work and how you came to make your conclusion proves that you have explored all the possibilities, and why you eliminated them as a solution. It also shows them what elements survived, further demonstrating the evolution of the project.
Show them your research (or a clean, concise variation of it.)
Again, clients are paying you to solve problems, not make things look pretty. Explaining your research and how you did it gives your presentation the weight it needs.
What conclusions you made based on the research
Verbalize your thought processes. It shows your client that what you did has meaning—meaning to their project and the solution. Explain your research as the catalyst to show the client color choices, font choices, and other basic design decisions.
Show them sketches, thumbnails, doodles, color swatches, etc.
Show them how you cook in your kitchen. Let them know what you tried, abandoned, and why. This backs up your solution by showing that you tried multiple approaches and eliminated them based on your research, experience, and hard facts.
Finish the How phase of your presentation with the raw decisions you made
At this point they should have a good understanding of why you did what you did and how you got there. Colors, photographs, illustration styles, font choices, copy choices, rhythm, motion, balance, contrast, all the elements that a designer uses to design.
Step 3: Finish with What
All too often designers want to impress clients with a lot of designs, so they start with WHAT they did. Sadly, this often involves simply standing up and showing 3-5 different concepts, and describing WHAT color was used, WHAT typography was used, WHAT dimensions were used, WHAT illustration style was used, etc. All the while these designers just hope that the client likes at least one of them, or at the very least likes one enough so that they can do a series of revisions, continuing in the hope that they will like one of those.
This is the shotgun blast approach. I suppose this sounds like a good idea at the time of signing the client, but it takes the presentation from a great story about WHY and HOW the work was created to a long and often annoying defense of WHAT you did. Starting with WHAT reveals the end of your story at the beginning, taking away all the exploration, process, education, and reasoning that went into the project. By finishing with WHAT you did it gives the audience the final reveal to the story you have been telling.
Unveil the solutions
Present a series of solutions that show all the decisions you made. Be honest. Tell them the pros and cons of each—this helps them understand why and how you did what you did.
Recommend the best solution
By handling your presentation in this controlled, organized way you have been slowly unveiling your ideas, education, experience, and perspective. If done right, this should give the client all the confidence they need to look at your solution with educated eyes.
Answer their questions with facts
It’s okay to sell intuition—but do it in small doses, and it should always be done in a way that makes sense to the spirit of the project.
There are times during a project when you need to be in love, and others when you need to be wise. Being able to shift between those two states is the sign of a great designer.
All relationships start out with the best intentions at heart. They only become complicated as people rush into business without properly discussing each party’s responsibilities. In the world of visual communications, I really blame designers for the majority of these occurrences. Clients are always going to want things faster and cheaper, and they will always want to be back seat designers if you let them. The responsible thing to do is to have a plan. Don’t just take the money and figure things out as you go. Make sure you know what your business can do, and make sure your clients know how you do it, and what the rules are for having it done. Makes sense? Good.
Now how the hell do you do that? Well, the simplest approach is to have a magical little document called the Client Expectations Packet. Here is what you should have in it:
The client is hiring you to be the professional, and part of the responsibility is knowing how to walk them through a project, and educating them on what it means to successfully navigate it.
The Client Expectations Packet
Part 1: Expectations
Outline the reasons for having a Client Expectations Packet. It sounds simple but never assume your new client understands how the visual communication business works. Set the stage and paint yourself as a professional. I recommend you let them know you are not a simple designer but rather a partner in their success, and that understanding their expectations and their responsibilities in this new found relationship is a key element to this budding partnership.
Part 2: Elect a Single Designated Contact
Nothing is worse than starting a project and getting a certain distance down the road and then finding out someone else on the client’s team is now seeing the work for the first time, and they want changes. It’s a classic move, it happens all the time, and it’s avoidable. Designate a single contact who is responsible for aggregating all feedback. You have the right to a process, and no one will begrudge you for it, just be honest and upfront about your needs, and what it takes to be successful. In the end they will thank you for it.
Part 3: Outline Your Process
You do have a creative process don’t you? Well, if you don’t you should. It’s what makes what you do valuable. It also give you a great way to manage the project in steps, and get proper sign-offs at the right times. This builds confidence and goes a long way in getting the clients on your side when it comes to trusting your solutions to their problems.
Part 4: Approvals
Make sure the client knows what an approval is, and what it means, and the weight it carries for the project. Clients will always assume they can change their mind at any time since they are paying the bill, and they can, but let them understand why you need a proper approval to avoid extra charges down the road, and what effect unscheduled changes can make on the final schedule for the project.
Part 5: Revisions
Just like approvals, revisions are an important aspect of any project. Let the client know how many approvals are built into each stage of the project. Again, being open and honest up front is important here. It also helps back up the importance of the approval process.
Part 6: Timelines and Deadlines
As you can probably tell by now, these sections build on each other. Timelines and Deadlines are the very life blood of any project’s success. Let them know why you have structured the timeline like you have, based on their deadline. Make sure they understand it, and the reasons behind it.
Part 7: Change Orders
Projects change. That’s the one thing you can count on never changing. Look like you know what you’re doing by anticipating them and having a plan already in place. Explain what it takes to make a change order and why.
Part 8: Project Hard Costs
If your contract doesn’t include all costs associated with what could end up being the final project, make sure your Client Expectations Packet outlines how you will handle extra costs as they come up and how it will be billed back to them.
Now, all projects are different, and this outline should not be seen as something that cannot be manipulated as each job sees fit. Just like the creative process you should structure your Client Expectations Packet to be constructed generally enough to encompass all aspects of a project. That way you can add detail as needed.
All this might seem overly simple, but try to see and understand all the complexities of a visual communications project from the client’s perspective. Designers often take it for granted, but the client is hiring you to be the professional, and part of the responsibility is knowing how to walk them through a project, and educating them on what it means to successfully navigate it. If you can do this you have a client for as long as they need a designer. If you don’t, you’re just going to end up as the annoying designer cliché, the one they talk about to the next designer they hire. Think about it.
The creative process is, simply put, the steps used to manage a project, outline goals and generate ideas. The correct creative process makes the management of any given project simpler, the objectives clearer for all those involved (including your clients) and, if used properly, something that will tangibly increase your productivity and client relations.
I can think of more than a few Account Executives and Strategic Directors that are going to roll their eyes at this post, dismissing the ideas presented here as an unnecessary distraction between signing one client and cold-calling the next – which is, of course, an embarrassing reaction considering the business they're in.
BUT, knowing is the half the battle, right? So, let’s not waste a lot of time pointing fingers and placing blame. Let’s dive right in.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS WILL
Keep everyone on the same page
A well-thought out creative process not only breaks down complicated projects, but also educates the uninformed along the way. This gives you an opportunity to show your clients what you’re doing for them, why you’re doing it, and it gives them an opportunity to give approval at appropriate stages throughout the project, aligning visions and preventing later back-tracking. Let’s face it; an educated client is a happier, more satisfied client.
Clearly track and record all your work
Recording your work (i.e. research, mood boards, drafts, sketches, etc.) helps explain your rate and what the client is paying for. If used correctly, these records can actually be used as a selling point in new business pitches.
It should be noted that if you truly want to build a symbiotic relationship with your clients, I strongly believe it starts with having the proper information on hand to back up the decisions that you have made in the work. If you can connect the dots between conceptual ideas and tangible results, the client/designer relationship becomes a lot easier and more meaningful.
Keep your team and clients accountable for decisions
Nothing is worse than when something goes wrong, or when someone makes a mistake. Now, it’s impossible to guarantee an error-free work environment or project. But, when a mistake is made, you would be crazy not to want to know what happened and during what part of the process the mistake was made in order to prevent similar mishaps in the future. A good creative process is built around a step-by-step process that requires a sign-off from someone on the team (or from the client, depending on the circumstance) responsible for each step. These controls build in an extra level of accountability. If a project moves on to the next step without the proper approval, any team member throughout the process can tell simply by looking at what sign-offs were or were not made.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS WILL NOT
Make you more creative
It will, however, force you to ask the right questions along the way, which can only lead to a better product. People unfamiliar with the creative process think it's a magic bullet and that is an unrealistic expectation. Just remember the creative process will help you generate ideas, but it doesn’t promise those ideas will all be award winning.
Leadership is needed for the creative process to work. This means overall responsibility for a project is given to senior employees, allowing new hires or employees with less experience to learn proper procedures through a well-structured training ground. Competent leadership will go a long way in building a team that works well together.
Solve all your problems
This is the most common excuse employees will have for not using the creative process. All creative endeavors need direction if they are going to be effective (read: profitable) for your company. This process is not a magic cure-all. It has to to be implimented and maganged like anything else.
One size will not fit all
Another common mistake is thinking that the creative process is a rigid set of rules. We have to understand that every company and every project can vary greatly. Creating a process with broad enough steps to allow for interpretation is a must. This is why leadership is so important. Someone with a good understanding of how a project starts and is finished inside the company is needed to manage every project. Having someone who clearly understands the implications for how each step effects the next is a must.
Lock your company into one way of doing things
The best creative processes are flexible and allow for interpretation. They allow changes to be made on the fly depending on the project’s scope and demands. Good processes will make every project more manageable and easier for a creative team to navigate. Again, it’s all about leadership, understanding and executing as a team.
THE PROCESS ITSELF
The following is a step by step breakdown of the “generic” creative process. Remember this is just an outline. Your creative process can be more or less detailed depending on the type of projects or clients you work with. It’s also worth noting that I consider this a more modern version of the creative process as it mixes the steps of the more traditional “idea generation” process with important administrative and project management elements more suited for the modern design environment.
Step 1. Administration & Acceptance
This is an easy one. No one should work without a contract or clearly defined expectations around the project’s scope. Outlining who is responsible for what, and in what time frame, is a must. This is the time to get all legal matters handled. It is also the best time to outline how you and the client will work together, how often communication will take place, and at what interval decisions and milestones will be signed-off and discussed. It’s also a mental thing. What a designer is really doing at this stage is accepting that the clients problems are now your problems. In other words it's hard to solve a problem unless you have mentally (and in this case contractually) accepted there is one.
Step 2. Research & Defining the Problem
It goes without saying that you need information before you can solve any creative problem. The amount of research you will need to do, and the time it will take you to get it, will obviously depend on the size, scope, and budget of the project. But, this is a crucial step and should not be skipped.
Step 3. Ideation
One of the things that stuck with me since my school years was something a professor once told me: “It’s not the designer’s job to come up with the right solution, but rather to eliminate all the wrong ones.” That always made a lot of sense to me. And you can’t really do that without a fair amount of time and a great deal of exploration. One of the biggest mistakes designers make is that they “think” they know the answer to a problem without any exploration. It’s been my experience that your first 50-100 ideas are going to be terrible AND they are going to be the same 50-100 bad ideas your competitors have. Push yourself, be honest and keep sketching and exploring until you get that rush of adrenaline that lets you know you're on the right track.
Step 4. Judgment
If there is one step that is usually missed or skipped it’s this one. All too often in the modern age of “we needed this done yesterday,” designers try to impress the client with doing things quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that things need to get done in a timely matter, but never underestimate how powerful educating the client on how doing things right can be. If done right this can be another selling point and something that can make you or your company standout from the competition. The judgment phase should really be used to take a step back to look at all the goals and requirements outlined in steps one & two. You have to have the ability to be honest with yourself and be willing to take a step back if the project demands it.
Step 5. Execution
If you have done the first four steps correctly, this step is an easy one. You simply have to build exactly what you proposed to the client as a solution to the definition of the problem that you outlined in steps one and two. The solution should be backed up by your research from step two. Proven by your exploration in step three. Defended by your examination in step four. And now you’re simply executing work that has been defined, researched, explored, conceptualized and questioned. All the while the client has been educated, informed and kept in the loop, and has made key decisions with you or your team at the right pre-scheduled moments.
Step 6. Feedback
The final step of any successful creative process is defining and understanding success. Eventually the project you and or your team just finished will be released into the world. You need to know how to measure that success and document it. If, worst case scenario, success is not met, how will you adapt to help solve the problem? Remember that design should be a solution to a problem not a catalyst for more of them.
In closing, I developed this version of the creative process because I believe in design as a universal way of solving problems. Although there are many ways of entering and having success in this business, we all deal at some level with the “currency” of creativity. Creativity at its core is the art of generating ideas and if you truly believe that, then you have to ask yourself, "What are clients really paying for?" I tell new clients in the beginning of the process that I’m giving them the final design for free. What they’re paying for is the time, research, experience and process I applied to the problem so that I could solve it. That’s what makes design valuable, not whether or not it’s “good” or “bad.” Those terms are too subjective to be of any use to us as designers. What we need to do is find appropriate solutions to problems. That takes time, and a proven well-thought out process. So if you’re not selling process, what exactly are you selling?