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January 2008

1 post from December 2007

The First Point of Failure

The brochure cover design and rough layout were easily approved, you've proceeded to layout and typeset beautiful copy written by a freelance writer, €”and the client hates the copy. It's all wrong.

The changes that he described to you over the phone require the writer to create a new draft. Then you'll need to replace the copy through the brochure with a new content structure that requires redesigning the inside completely. And based on the copywriter "missing the mark," which you don't quite agree with, now the client's thinking the overall concept for the cover may need to change as well. And of course, they don't want to pay for the changes outside of your current estimate...

"But I told him that he needed to read and approve the copy before I'd go to full layout. He said he was too busy / on vacation / (insert client excuse here) and that he trusted me / my staff / my freelancer to do great work..."

More often than not, there is always a first point of failure in a project where an issue like this comes to light. It could be a late approval that influences your delivery date, a round of concepts that the client dislikes, or a misjudgment of exactly how many hours you'll need to deliver that killer Flash advertisement.

These points of failure can be traced back to concerns that rest outside the traditional "design process." Failure is an important and inevitable part of the creative process, often leading to truly breakthrough design solutions. But when major failures occur during the business processes of a project, you can get knocked right out of business.

In this above scenario, the first point of failure was the desire to please a client, no matter what the cost. Wearing your account management hat at the expense of your project process can trump the controls you keep in place to ensure that you don't have to work over your time estimate. While it's tempting to mold your progress to your client's availability, there's always a point of diminishing return (and profit) for the graphic designer. This becomes even more risky in a creative agency setting, where thousands of dollars in staff time can go out the window without client approval at key milestones.

Other common points of failure occur when:

  • The creative agency or designer isn't able to enforce boundaries around each phase of a design project. This usually emerges from entering into a project outside their area of expertise without having lived through what it would really take to fulfill the job profitably. In smaller projects in print and online, missteps can result in rework and added time and labor. In large-scale web design and video projects, a lack of boundaries can lead to absolute failure and huge costs amassed to start projects over again.
  • The client doesn't want to work within the project boundaries. This can happen because the client didn't disclose there were multiple stakeholders within their company that had to approve each round. If the designer or agency doesn't ask the client about the need for multiple rounds of approvals and changes, they may feel uncomfortable penalizing the client by asking for more money. And like above, the client can feel like they are a hinderance if they aren't available during important approval rounds and want to keep the project moving towards an absolute deadline. There's an endless list here of reasons why the client can strain against an agency's process, and if the designer or agency doesn't stand firm, there's usually no going back.
  • The client doesn't understand what they're asking for. They may have never handled a project in the discipline they've been asked to manage. The process you've been tasked to take them through baffles them (branding and web design being the usual suspects). Questions about their business strategy, business process, brand positioning, and sales methodology percolate out of your design work and open new areas they haven't grappled with fully. The design brief may become invalid partially through a project and require scrapping progress and starting over--something every client loves to hear.

While these kinds of situations often seem an inevitable part of a designer's life, they can be eased by making sure that you do the following:

  • You have properly researched and digested the business problem in the creative brief. And by digested, I mean that you've thought through, validated, and proposed focused solutions for the client's business problem in advance of any design work. Without the proper context and frame around the business problem, your design won't hold as much weight in the client's mind. In advance of writing the brief, you may need the client to fill out an intake questionnaire that fully examines the kinds of things clients may not have thought through (such as brand positioning and sales process methodologies).
  • You devise and keep to a workflow during your entire project--and make your client continually aware of the schedule and their ongoing responsibilities. If the client doesn't know they're on the hook and accountable through the entire creative project, you have no authority to make demands when things go sideways, both in pushing schedules out and in asking for more money. On the flip side, if you haven't properly planned your project out and uncover all the unknown variables, you're on the hook if it impacts your bottom line.
  • You keep within the boundaries of the proposal. I have fond memories of developing elaborate pitches at big agencies to try and land projects ($20K time investment). Then, when the work actually came in, we'd show five concepts instead of three at the first round, and then produce an extra brochure design or two if we were feeling nice ($5K). Most smaller creative agencies and solo designers can't afford to throw this kind of money out the window, and it trains clients to have expectations of their design firms that exceed the boundaries of profitability and professionalism.

Strangely, the larger the project, the more that the actual process of designing almost seems to be a mere fraction of the work necessary to make clients happy.

What are points of failure you've had in your design projects? What did you discover in the process that made you a better designer and a better businessperson?