How to Manage Going Overbudget
Slides from "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively" at HOW 2010

Making Time to Design


When talking with designers about what they enjoy most about their job, the actual task of designing the work is usually what they focus on as the highlight of each and every day—as long as they like the problem they've been tasked with solving. But most big projects today are complex enough that the percent of time spent actually designing them can be less than 30%. The rest can fall under the domain of project management: talking with clients, scheduling and planning, resource management, accounting, and if you're lucky, a little foosball.

"Oh, if only I could spend more time designing and less time doing [insert name of mundane task that doesn't seem to be design related at all]," is a constant refrain. But I'd like to ask that you refrain from saying it—at least out loud—because it's those mundane tasks that make the design work possible.

Project management is what keeps projects successful and profitable. For the sanity of both your co-workers and your clients, it can never be sacrificed. Once you do sacrifice it, you'll find that you're working two jobs—that of a designer, and that of a project manager. (And resenting the perceived overtime.) Your clients will expect this service from you. Your business will demand it.

The trick is to structure your time so that you're a designer less of the time—meaning fewer than 8 hours a day—and earmarking protected chunks of your workday that are dedicated to design, while others are for everything but design. This means check your email in the morning, respond to it, then shut it off for a set period of time. (At least two hours.) I like to get lost in the flow of doing the work, so I actually have to set myself a timer, whether in Outlook or on my phone, to force me out of delighting in the creative process and taking care of more mundane (but equally important) tasks. When those tasks are accommodated, I can then get back to work. I recently heard Scott Belsky echo this sentiment in a talk about making ideas happen, and it's an important habit to cultivate.

To protect this new behavior, be clear in your rules of engagement with clients that your response times will be 4 hours or less, so you can balance design with work time. Also, adjust your utilization so that it's clear that you don't need to be billing 85% to 90% of your time solely to design services. If you split the appropriate percentages of your time and effort between design and managing a project, you'll be able to bill all of your project time, even while taking care of what may seem like mere clerical tasks.

I'm just describing an ideal process here, however—to invest that extra little bit of quality to the design work, I do find myself verging out of the 8-hour workday. This is partly why I've been blogging a bit less. But when doing so, I'm aware of what's design and what's making the design possible.


Graham Pilling

It's great to read articles like this which highlight the importance of solid Project Management.

When I was made redundant from my design job, I actually ended up citing my client & process management skills as relevant experience in order to get a Project Management role.

A year or two on, and I'm now a Senior PMgr, am a qualified and accredited member of the Association for Project Management, and am finding that PM't skills are more useful than ever in my design work!

Keep up the great work, as always.


Good thoughts for designers, especially those on their own and in small firms. Designers often try to avoid the business side, but if then can plan for it and embrace it to a degree, success becomes much more likely.

The comments to this entry are closed.