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6 posts from June 2008

Designers Hate Estimating, Pt. 3 of 3

In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this series, I shared some of the common variables that designers should take into account to reduce their "cone of uncertainty" when estimating a project.

In this final post, I want to talk about the things that designers often don't quantify when creating an estimate.

Factor: What the client needs, as opposed to what they articulate they need. The client wants a new logo, but that's not the business problem that comes out in your exploratory call or meeting. If you need to reframe the problem for them as part of the process, you need to consider it as a variable and secure more time and money to do that work. The way I couch this to clients is that designers aren't just problem solvers. They also have talents in helping clients to understand their problems, clearly define them, and then solve them. This is our strategic role beyond providing decorative assets.

Factor: How the client will behave through the course of a project, and if that will influence your work. Clients ask designers for references, but it's not always a bad thing to check up on your clients and/or closely observe how they interact with their peers or other vendors. This kind of gut check should govern what kind of buffer or multiplier you apply to your project fee, or whether you wish to engage with them at all. Sometimes you need to say no gracefully.

Factor: Not budgeting for potential failures through the design process. Why do we budget for exactly how long it will take? There should always be contingencies for at least one point of failure. Assume that at least one thing will go wrong, and be prepared for it in advance of it happening.

Factor: Not having an articulated business process that fits another designer. Let's say you're indisposed and you need to pass off your project to another designer. Many designers make the fatal mistake of estimating it to a person as opposed to a role. Don't just say, "It'll take me twenty hours to design this logo." Think about how long would it take any designer to design that logo. Leave room, should you get too busy or need to hire a freelancer, that the project can be covered without losing your shirt on the estimate. This may sound like heresy to some solo-flight designers, but this is what keeps large agencies alive.

Factor: You've never done a specific deliverable before. If a project is outside your realm of expertise, most designers usually assume they'll eat the cost of learning how to do it. This opens up risk from the client's perspective, and also gives them a point of negotiation to have you burn up hours meeting impossible goals. Do your due diligence and consult with one or two colleagues and ask them for advice on how to bid the project. Don't just give it away if you haven't done it before, or let the client know you can be taken advantage of because you're not an expert regarding this one type of deliverable. You should always continue to control the process of the project, follow your established design methods as they apply to the deliverable, and not allow the situation to become a power play.

Designers Hate Estimating, Pt. 2 of 3

Contingency Fee

In Pt. 1 of this series, I introduced Construx's "cone of uncertainty" and how to narrow the risk in your estimates by determining what unknown variables exist in your project scope.

Let's work through what these variables usually are, and how they can be brought in line in your estimate.

Define the Problem before You Estimate

In your estimate, what you need to demonstrate most is your understanding of the problem. Your approach to how it should be solved would follow, and should always be consistent. As a quick example, let's think through the variables that exist in creating a new logo for a local business.

Many years ago, I would estimate doing a logo by looking back through previous project to see how long it took for a project of a similar type, bash together an estimate based on how long they think it would take, multiply it by 1.3x to give some cushion for contingency, slot in some money for printing costs if they need to create any supporting materials as part of their bid, and send it off to the client.

Today, I focus more closely on what the client needs before I think about how I'm going to create it -- even if I've done a similar type of project for them before. And I charge my client for this extra time spent on the estimate as part of my overhead and creative fee, because they're getting more than just a cost for creating a logo.

Let me try to break it down here.

There's data from your prospective or current client, relating to specific needs out of the project (looking for brand lift, increase in perception, greater sales, etc.), as well as competitive analysis and market research.

There's qualitative information that your client provides in the way of what customers and staffers think about the old logo, which adds up to an impression of why they need a new one. These elements shape up into a business problem, which must then meet your process.

This information can usually be teased out in a single phone call, with some follow-up via email. I recommend making a set of questions you always ask in the exploratory call and keeping them by your phone in case you're surprised by an opportunity.

Have a Consistent Process for Creating the Solution

Within that same exploratory phone call, you should delineate what standard steps the client would take through the project, and what they are given with regard to rounds of review per each deliverable as part of the scope of work. Get that on the table from your very first conversation, so they're aware that they will follow your working process, not vice-versa.

It should go without saying that all of your rounds of review and costs for work outside the scope of the proposal must be in writing to protect your interests. I also recommend providing an hourly estimate of your work for a project, not a flat fee. There is always risk in accepting a flat fee, as it places the onus on you for understanding all the ways a project could go sideways and accounting for them.

There's qualitative information that you control in forming your estimate, such as what kind of creative approach you think you'd take -- but I'd recommend articulating that in your creative brief. I wouldn't recommend writing the brief before getting a signature and a portion of your fee, but I generally have a glimmer of an idea of what approach I'd likely take. This thinking can sometimes provide some color in the estimate, but should never be doled out for free and can sometime be shared anecdotally if the client is looking for a detail to tip the scale in their choice of a designer.

In Part 3 of this series, we'll explore some of the incidental details that many designers overlook when estimating a new project.

Designers Hate Estimating, Pt. 1 of 3

Look Familiar?

Have you ever met a designer that likes to create time estimates for projects?

The process is fraught with peril no matter how you approach it. Estimate too many hours, the client balks at the price and you need to negotiate to a resolution. Estimate too few hours, the client gladly signs on the dotted line, and you end up taking it in the gut. Hit it bang on the nose once in a blue moon, and take yourself out for a double-tall latte to celebrate, before walking back to the office and rebalancing your books.

Well, I could alleviate some of your estimating stress by telling you that there is no perfect estimate...

...and then raise your blood pressure by venturing that your estimate could deviate as much as four times from your original figures, depending on the scale of the engagement. That is, if you don't properly define what you're delivering, and assess the risks appropriately.

Get out of the "Cone of Uncertainty"

For a quick lesson in estimation, take a page from the software development playbook, which doesn't really differ too much from the large-scale interactive estimation process -- and can be scaled down to apply to most design estimates.

Construx, a well-known software development consultancy here in the Seattle area, has an article on their Web site regarding the "cone of uncertainty" that's essential reading for any designer who is responsible for managing large-scale design engagements.

The "cone of uncertainty" is the zone in any project where a number of interrelated variables -- the details of the work to be done, your process of doing the work, who will be creating the work, etc. -- have not been defined. Any methods of reducing uncertainty can limit "scope creep" (or just plain "lack of scope"), and also create further clarity with your client over shared expectations for the life of the project.

The only way to escape from this scenario is to put all your information out on the table and determine what you don't know -- and get the answers -- before delivering your estimate. That'll be the subject of Part 2.

Give Your Phone the Finger


Multi-touch, gestural interfaces are the new black. And for the next four to five years, they're the immediate future of our ever-evolving human/computer interactions. But for us designers, I'd like to project a little further into the future and discern an even more likely scenario: true sense integration on mobile and desktop computing devices.

As designers, we usually only get to consider how media looks, sounds, and feels in a mildly tactile sense. In the future, we'll be able to consider these variables at a much greater depth and dimension than that of a static, unchanging substrate. I also wouldn't be surprised if smell and taste gained much greater prominence in the designer's arsenal.

Specifically, there are certain kinds of interactions regarding mobile and desktop devices that don't seem very far off from a technology standpoint. They do, however, require weaning us off the idea of doing our computing through a screen-topped device with a gestural input mechanism. Multi-touch interfaces don't have a ton of utility if you have disabilities, and definitely don't exploit other mechanisms we humans have for conveying and receiving information.

Here's what I'm dreaming of...

An earpiece that doubles as a phone and really understands what I want.

I don't always need to see the Internet to be able to grasp the information from it.

If you're looking to access the visual Internet, the iPhone dominates the field for ease of use and clarity and will likely be the gold standard for some time. But what if I'm going out on the town and don't want that phone in my pocket? Make the earpiece a phone as well, and pair it with trainable natural-language voice recognition software driven through the cell-phone network that learns my voice, my needs, and my quirky slang.

I could imagine the earpiece phone recognizing commands such as "give me turn-by-turn directions to Pacific Place," "pay my cell phone bill with my credit card," or "text my friend Joanie that I'll be twenty minutes late" and it will be smart enough to fulfill your actions without any major hiccups.

This is a true expression of cloud computing separate of the desktop and is where Google is starting to lay the ground with services such as 1-800-GOOG-411, which they claim is a not-for-profit venture, but makes a heck of a lot of sense in their long term strategy for having a universe of cloud-driven Internet tools that have great utility for a broad audience and further help them sell search advertising.

Knowing how excited people get about these kinds of interfaces, I could see them being smart enough to recognize patterns of behavior and quietly prompt you: "Did you mean to pass by the cereal aisle? I know you like Lucky Charms." (Okay, that would be scary...)

A touch interface that communicates through sense of touch, not screen activity.

What's the weather going to be? I go to the weather service on my phone, and when I touch the screen to see what the upcoming weather's going to be like through the weekend, the surface of the touch interface gets hotter or colder depending on the time period my finger hovers over. Sounds frilly, right? Sure, if you aren't blind. Blind people should be able to ask their phone, "What's the temperature going to be tomorrow?" and have the phone adjust its heat output in relation to today's temperature to indicate the relative difference.

Another example. Let's say I'm considering taking SR-520 over I-90 to get to the Eastside. I ask my phone (using my voice interface) how the traffic is on SR-520. The steering wheel gets harder by 30%. Should I take I-90 then? The steering wheel softens dramatically. There are other ways of getting data instead of me barking orders to my phone/car/computer, then having it bark at me a series of choppily-voiced words, which are interrupting my enjoyment of the new MGMT album.

Yes, the multi-touch gestural interface is very cool and gets rid of that mousy thing on the desk. But I want more sense out of my touch interactions.

Forget the idea of the phone altogether. It's part of the devices around me.

I know phone manufacturers want to make money from our phone networks that require devices that earn money for large publicly traded companies through the use of night and weekend minutes... but doesn't that idea sound... quaint?

I'd be perfectly happy if phone calls followed me from device to device around me, instead of me having to carry a device around in my pocket. Sure, there is the love that I'd lavish on a phone as part of my technological pocket arsenal next to the iPod, the (soon to be smart) wallet, my house keys, my sketch notebook, and my pack of mints. But I'm of the "less is more" camp, and less means no phone whenever possible.

Since I'm Gen X, I'm cool with being a little out of touch. I'm already seeing that use of cell phones will stratify, with phones being generated for the youth as part of their uniform, while from Gen X on up, it's seen as a necessity, not as an entertaining activity. Higher-end luxury phones will be wispy, while phones for the youth will be badges.

But really, I'd like to get rid of the word phone altogether. Or at least call this new category of devices something else. The whole beauty of the term "mobile device" is that you don't have to say it's a phone/MP3 player/GPS/Knife/Wii remote. Let's just tack the word "multi-sensory" onto mobile devices and hope that the device manufacturers can pay it off with something that delivers some real utility to us technology junkies.

Farewell, Graphic Designer. We'll Miss You.

PMS Type A

If you're hiring somebody for a design position... if you're freelancing in the design community... if you're about to make the leap into this burgeoning field... leave the word "graphic" off your title. Just call yourself a designer.

I think it's time to put the title "Graphic Designer" on the top shelf in the closet, turn off the light, and tiptoe softly to bed.

A "Graphic Designer" today may be responsible for a range of graphic applications across various materials, but that's not what we're paid to do anymore. We're asked to consider audience experiences through media. The expression of that consideration is our tangible work, but the volume and quality of thought that creates the work is often just as valuable. Designers can contribute insights and ideas that have ramifications far beyond some ink on a page, or colors on an LCD display.

At the shop where I work, in any given week we may be responsible for creating a motion graphics piece, a Web site, a poster, a 60-page annual, a logo, an advertisement, an email, or a brand experience that extends into a physical presence at an event. Different people at my office have deep competencies in many of these areas, but none of us can be great at all of them -- which is as it should be. But the thinking underlying all of the design as part of those deliverables is always focused in the following way:

1. We think about, over time, what the audience may expect from our clients, and exceed those expectations through what they experience.

2. We consider what happens through the audience interaction with each touch point, and attempt to make them as intuitive and effortless as possible.

3. We see how those interactions/touch points sew themselves into a cohesive story and experience, fostering meaning over the course of a relationship with a brand.

Design as a discipline has broadened to encompass functional considerations in a way that has made the term "media designer" or just plain "designer" carry more (ambiguous) meaning. And I like it that way.

Designers reduce uncertainty and provide meaning, value, and respect for our client's products and services. Adding the term "graphic" doesn't speak to long-form experience. It speaks of responsibility for managing visual graphic quality, which is often reduced by clients to a function of decoration.

I'm not interested in decoration as a sole function of being a designer, and the designers that I work with -- while passionately dedicated to creating the most artful visuals they are capable of achieving -- know that a killer design won't overcome a flawed strategy. Well-designed visuals don't function in the marketplace if they don't speak to a grounded insight into a real human need. Besides, as design tools become more easily used by our clients, our skill sets will overlap, and they'll be telling us to drop the leading by two points on the paragraph styles.