A List Apart


Designing Through the Storm

Designing Through the Storm

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I am a terrible designer. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that there are moments when I’m a terrible designer. We’ve all experienced low points, and whether they’re caused by tight timelines, hostile clients, infighting, personal disasters, or something else entirely, we have to find a way to work through them.

What works for me

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It’s hard to be critical of your own work when you have your nose to the grindstone. As a designer who also manages a team of desigers, I’ve had the opportunity to test several techniques for working through slumps, beating burnout, and coping with creative challenges.

Your own personal paper trail

Establish your goals and document them before you begin to design. This doesn’t necessarily mean composing a full-fledged design specification, but it helps to have written notes on hand in the later stages of a project as a sanity check. Ideally, your notes will be part of a larger documentation structure that includes some form of creative brief, project management documentation, and up-to-date client feedback and sign-off notes.

Your personal notes can consist of both words and images that encapsulate two distinct types of ideas: subjective goals such as “The result should look elegant, yet mysterious” and objective goals such as “The result should avoid large clumps of text and small fonts.” It’s helpful to maintain both of these lists as aids for realigning your work with the original project objectives along the way.

From big to small

As with any other design project, you’re probably going to start with big, rough concepts and then move forward with refinements after obtaining client approval of your general artistic direction. Even on projects with very tight schedules, you’ll still want to get documented approval before you fine-tune, lest you wind up with a concept that’s judged “unusable” at the last moment.

Keep client communication balanced

I like to send mockups, layout schemes, sample markup, photographic ideas and mini-prototypes to project stakeholders at short intervals to solicit feedback. Even if no one is tapping on your shoulder for a progress report, I recommend resisting the temptation to complete your masterpiece in a vacuum.

If you’re not getting enough feedback or are nervous about approval and the project stakeholders prefer not to be bothered, adopt the shortest mutually acceptable feedback cycle. If, on the other hand, you have a client who wants to micromanage every color change and typeface tweak, you’ll probably need to push back a little so that you have time to focus on the design itself as well as the client’s input. Which brings me to my next point…

Break between iterations

I have a tendency to do my best work first. If my initial ideas aren’t approved, I can end up in a spiral of decreasing quality and increasing quantity in my quest to comply with client requests.

After my first criticisms roll in, it’s important for me to step back and take some time to internalize them. If you’re like me, you’ll need to try to understand the motivations for the revision requests and patiently consider your response before moving on to the revision itself. This also gives you time to develop a well-reasoned argument if you decide that you need to push back.

If you’re sure that the client has missed an important point or made a decision without understanding the potential consequences, you’d be remiss if you didn’t make a calm, diplomatic argument for your point of view. In many (if not most) instances, you’ll be overruled; such is the nature of client services and professional design. In those cases, you’ll need to take a deep breath and figure out how to refocus on the problem in a way that meets the client’s requirements.

Never design to prove a point

Then there are those nightmare projects (and stakeholders) that challenge your ability to be reasonable. At a certain level of frustration, it’s tempting to turn around and give your critics exactly what they’re asking for—a literal interpretation of the suggestion that highlights its weakest aspects or contradictions.

This benefits no one, and you won’t get the “I told you so” moment that you’re after. In reality, the client almost invariably loves the very comp you’ve created to show them the error of their ways. If you’ve made a clear argument and still lost the battle, it’s time to move on and begin brainstorming creative ways to fulfill the request without compromising the project’s aesthetic integrity.

Seek inspiration

Often, when I find myself struggling for a new angle on an old concept, all I need is a source of inspiration. It’s a simple tactic, but one I often overlook—particularly during moments of stress.

Grab a fashion magazine, revisit your favorite website, or even dig out some promotional junk mail from the trash; whatever it takes. Your peers, your role models, and your competitors (in short, your environment) can all help you think differently about the problem at hand.

When your work isn’t working, tell someone

Your client wants the project to succeed. If you’re having trouble and you’re not sure whether your concerns amount to real show-stoppers, stay on task and give yourself a deadline to make a stronger assessment. At that point, you should be able to say confidently that you are either on the right path or off-course; if it’s the latter, it’s time to talk to your project manager. The key is budgeting enough time into the project to take action.

One of your manager’s main responsibilities is to provide the resources and support you need to do your job—provided that you articulate your needs promptly. Sometimes you have to spend more time or money than originally allocated for a given design task; as long as that’s the exception and not a habit, most managers will understand.

What works for you?

The above practices have helped me and the designers I work with stay productive and creative even in stressful circumstances. They certainly won’t work for everyone, though—perfectionists may need to learn to let go instead of being more focused, and some designers freeze up after feedback instead of going into a frenzy of rushed revision.

So let’s talk about it. How do you get yourself back on track when something goes wrong? Project and team managers, how do you help your designers produce consistently great work when morale weakens and obstacles arise? What tricks have you learned for managing the client-communication side of the design process when things get tense?

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