When I was in college, one of my favorite professors, Megan Fitzgerald, assigned a 20-page research project that would be due at the end of the semester. You may be thinking to yourself, “Why would anyone favor a teacher who gives out 20 page research papers?” Well, Ms. Fitzgerald was different. When she handed out the rubric for the paper, she also handed out a sheet with a list of dates that were approximately 3 weeks apart. She gave us a list of “mini-deadlines” leading up to the final deadline. Genius. She had given us a tool that would help prevent procrastination, decrease stress levels, and boost productivity. In my opinion, this is quite possibly one of the best time management concepts. In this article, I will explain how I have turned Ms. Fitzgerald’s rubric into a mantra for designing on a deadline.
Communication and Preparation
The keys to designing on a deadline are communication and preparation. Speak with your client. Discuss what the goals of the project will be, and clearly decide what each party wants to get out of the project. Ask questions about the review process. The larger the corporation you are dealing with, the more likely you are to get into that all-too-familiar “approval by committee” territory. Be sure to understand who exactly will be participating in the approval process and obtain their contact information. Keep the lines of contact open at all times.
Another tip is to be aware of their schedule- will anyone important to the approval process be going on vacation before the estimated completion date of the project? Take both your client’s schedule, as well as your own, into account when planning. If you give yourself two weeks for a mockup and then one week for revisions to be completed, you are assuming that the client will get back to you immediately. Create a schedule that allows the client ample time to respond, so your deadlines won’t need to be pushed back. Allow time for all of the necessary parties to review, as well as the necessary time for you to finish these changes.
Expect the Unexpected
When creating your execution schedule, be sure to accurately estimate how long it will take for you to complete the tasks you are promising. Then add 20-30%. Why? Because nothing is ever easy. Add this “disaster time” as a safety net for any difficulty you may run into. For example, your client may need extra time to send photos of his new building, or you may experience a sudden power outage that causes you to lose several hours worth of work. If you add time specifically for these types of situations you will rarely find yourself scrambling to finish something at the last minute.
Procrastination, Let’s Not
Speaking of scrambling at the last minute… Do not procrastinate. Since you have all the information to create an accurate execution schedule, this shouldn’t be a problem. Avoiding procrastination will not only save you a bit of stress, but it will also allow you to produce optimal work. Although many people love to brag, “I work best under pressure!” I have to disagree. No one works best under this kind of pressure. Make time for your projects, so you can create the best solution for your client, and produce work that you are proud to put your name on.
Break It Down
Just as Professor Fitzerald taught, a great way to meet your deadline is to set up a series of mini deadlines. Go over your process with a fine-toothed comb. Define each step of the process, how long each step will take and then set mini-deadlines accordingly. Don’t forget to add disaster time, like I mentioned above!
First Things First
Once you have your execution plan in place, it is time to get started. Focus on one step at a time. Do your best to avoid multitasking, as it often decreases your quality of work. Set aside a block of time where you will do nothing but one task. When that task is completed, move to the next, and so on. If you need a break take a break, but don’t try to finish ten things at once- it’s ultimately fruitless.
Avoid the urge to go back to old tasks and add things. If you planned correctly, you should have sufficient time to complete the task well and won’t have to skip back and forth. Another important aspect of completing tasks one at a time is to stop being a yes-man (or a yes-woman, in my case). Just because the client asked for something, doesn’t necessarily mean the design needs it. Justify your design and move forward as scheduled.
On a daily basis, we all need to complete hundreds of tasks. It is nearly impossible to remember all of these tasks without assistance. For example, setting yourself reminders through desktop or mobile applications can help you to remember those little tasks that often get away from us. Is there a small detail you find yourself often forgetting? Set a reminder. Do you have a mini-deadline coming up? Set a double reminder- one for a week prior to the deadline, and one for two-three days before.
Another way to utilize the reminder system is to use it on your clients. If you send a mockup to the client on Monday, and you have allotted him 5 days to get back to you, set yourself a reminder for Wednesday. That way, if you don’t hear from the client within the first few days, you can follow up. Your client will most likely appreciate your initiative, and respond accordingly. Using a reminder system can help to keep you, your client, and your project on track.
If you are in the middle of the project and notice something is not right, don’t let it fester. Bring the problem to the client’s attention and discuss whatever means will be necessary to fix it. It will be much more efficient in the long run to fix something now, than to keep going only to find that you will need to make changes on top of the fix later.
Monitor the Project
This may seem a bit obvious, but I think it needs to be mentioned here. You, the designer/developer/project manager, need to monitor the progress of the project. Whether you are working by yourself, or delegating tasks to a team- take responsibility. Just as I stated earlier about setting reminders for the client, and for your own deadlines, designate certain dates as checkpoints. For example, on Wednesdays, look over the execution schedule you have created and make sure everything is being finished on time. If it isn’t, figure out what the problem is. If the issue may push your deadline back, you can notify the client in advance rather than irresponsibly allowing the deadline to go by. Have you delegated tasks among team members? Wednesday should be the day you double-check their work, to make sure everything is up to the standards you have promised the client.
Show Them Who’s Boss
I must admit, this is one is a bit tricky- even for me! All too often we have clients that will drag their feet, or be overly careful in the design process. While I do prefer it from the alternative- a client who doesn’t care about the design process or acknowledge a designer’s expertise- it can still be frustrating. So how do you cope? The best way to become an authority figure to your client is to always be an authority figure. I recently read an article by Cameron Koczon called “An Important Time for Design.” In the article, he explains that a designer needs to be more of a partner than a commodity. Of course, as a designer, I couldn’t agree more. I personally feel that design impacts every aspect of our lives- whether we acknowledge it or not- and it can ultimately make or break a product, client, company, website, etc.
So the question remains- how do I make my clients feel that way? Be an authority in every aspect of the word. Present yourself in a manner that commands respect. This means dressing the part. If you are a designer who meets clients face-to-face, leave the baseball cap and club wear at home. In addition, learn your industry as well as theirs. Know what is happening in the design world, and be up to date on all the latest trends, gadgets, etc. Basically, you need to make the client feel at ease. Your client should never need to wonder if they made the right decision in choosing you as their designer. Meeting your deadlines is a large part of committing to that authority role. Deadlines are a part of life, there is no denying that. However, what makes a great designer or a great company is the ability to meet those deadlines. Speak to your clients honestly, knowledgeably and respectfully, and they will be most likely to reciprocate.
Contact us today, we promise to complete your design project on time.