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How to Keep a Design Project Moving

~ By Brad Squires

Design team going over contact sheets at a meeting in the creative office

It happens all too frequently. Everyone read the Creative Brief and gave their sign-off. The design team was selected because they had the most experience in your industry. The project schedule had plenty of padding built into it. But your web or graphic design project is nowhere close to final and you're a month past the deadline. How does this happen? Following are seven common causes for a design project to get held up, and suggestions to help you meet your deadline.

1. The Project Lacked a Goal

It is surprising how many web sites, brochures, and marketing campaigns are completed without first deciding upon the goals of the project. Ask yourself this question: "What do I want my audience to do when they see/read/receive this piece?" Without knowing the answer to this question, your project is at risk of repeated redesigns as it succumbs to the aesthetic opinions of all who give their feedback. Make sure everyone on the team has a clear vision of the goal, and help them to measure comments and feedback against this known objective. As Wayne Gretzky says, A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.

2. The Decision-Makers Were Left Out of the Decision

It can be very disheartening to have your final design ready to go to print only to have it pulled by the company president when he sees it for the first time. At the beginning of every project, make a point to conduct stakeholder analysis. Spend time with your stakeholders and find out what their hopes are for this project. Stakeholders can contribute expert knowledge to the project or can offer their political or commercial endorsement, which can greatly enhance your outcome.

3. Skimping on Exploration

A crucial component in any design process is exploration. This is the time when many many many ideas are generated and explored for their worthiness. Skimping on this step in order to rush the project along can get you into trouble by leading you too far in one direction just to learn that it's not working. Far better to explore many different options while they are still in the rough stage before deciding on a direction to fully develop.

4. The Review Process Was Prohibitive

If the success of your project requires you to get 14 different middle-managers to all agree on a design by next Monday, you may be in trouble. If your project does require sign-off from many department heads, which can often be the case if your campaign will span several marketing channels, it is crucial that you build more room into your project schedule. Show stakeholders the respect that they deserve by allowing them enough time to provide thorough and well-reasoned feedback. By doing so, you are enhancing your chances of success - not only for this project, but future projects also as you'll enjoy stronger relationships with the stakeholders you treated so respectfully.

5. The Feedback Was Not Useful

The objective of iterative design reviews is to narrow in on the appropriate solution, using the decisions of one meeting to improve the breadth, depth or fidelity of the solution for the next meeting. One common affliction in the world of design, which David Cronin has called the Revision Death Spiral, occurs when designs are repeatedly revised without any progress toward a coherent solution. The symptoms of this are easy to recognise: an initial visual design direction review where the client "doesn't like" any of the proposed approaches; or subsequent meetings where the client decides that the currently chosen path should be scrapped in favour of a previously abandoned path.

The blame cannot be placed entirely on the heads of the client. Although clients will tell you that they'll "know it when they see it," it is rare that a client is sufficiently knowledgeable about visual design to articulate why they feel that a proposed solution or approach is not working. It is the responsibility of the design team to make sure they are getting the type of feedback they need to allow them to move the design closer to the solution. Asking the right questions, showing a progression of designs, and keeping the project objectives close to the focus of the discussion are tools that effective design teams use to keep a project moving toward success.

6. The Team Was Not Engaged

Your team is the most important resource you have available and their enthusiastic contribution will make or break your project. Look after them and make sure the team operates as a unit and not as a collection of individuals. The leader's roll is to create an environment which allows each team member to do his or her best work. Without encouragement, clear communications, trust, and ensuring that each person not only understands their role, but has a clear picture of success, the project will move sluggishly toward an uninspired conclusion. Create a milieu where criticism is recognised as valuable for improvement, taking inspired risks is rewarded and mistakes are not punished and you'll have a fertile climate for innovation.

7. Failing to Estimate Time Accurately

Habitually underestimating the time required to carry out certain tasks within a project can have a snow-ball effect within an organisation. Time estimates drive the setting of deadlines for delivery of projects. If a time requirement is grossly underestimated, the deadline gets missed. If this becomes a pattern, deadlines begin to lose meaning and peoples' assessments of your reliability will also be affected.

The ability to make accurate estimations of the time required to implement a project comes with experience and training. The first step towards making good time estimates is to fully understand the problem to be solved. Pay attention to the complexity of each project and allow time for internal meetings, other high priority tasks, holidays and sickness and so on. By improving your skills and providing accurate time estimations, the deadlines you set will command greater respect. When this happens, your team will be prepared to respond when it really is crunch time.


Brad Squires is the founding principal of the San Francisco based design firm Bold Type Design. He manages projects for a wide variety of clients, mostly large businesses. Brad has noticed that projects within certain types of corporate cultures move along quickly, with teams that function in that ideal state of "flow" while other corporations have cultures which seem to dwell always behind the deadline. In his work with Bold Type Design, Brad Squires and his team apply fundamental principles for moving projects along to successful conclusions on-time and within budget. Read more at www.bold-type.com


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