Client Mood Swatch Guide
"Design Product" Syndrome

The 97% Rule

97 Percent Rule

When I was a designer, as opposed to a design manager that also happens to design things, I would always chuckle inwardly -- in a kindhearted manner -- when my creative director, art director, account manager, copywriter, or CEO would tell me to give 110% on every project.

You'll never hear those words out of my mouth. The concept of giving 110% is misguided, and not just for the illogic of exactly where that extra 10% comes from. (Your sanity?)

It's hard to do your work profitably unless you plan for giving 100%. So I say, limit yourself to 97%. The last 3% isn't the meat and potatoes of the work. It's polish. And it's usually where the profit gets burned up on your job.

Giving of your personal time in a self-sacrificial desire to meet a corporate goal is 110%. But in those circumstances, time is the only thing you have to sacrifice. Time is the easiest commodity to give away, but many agency professionals forget it's also the most valuable. It's much harder to keep things at 97%.

One agency that I worked at would dole out an 110% Award for those who had put the most effort into their job in that month, or demonstrated something that showed they went "above and beyond" the level of service anyone would care to expect. I recall being nominated for said award once because I put together a new business PowerPoint with voiceover over a very long weekend, capped by an overnight and an 8 AM team presentation. Bleary eyed, tired out, they patted me on the back and let me leave a little early so I could sleep it off, then be in bright and early the next morning for the pitch, Round 2. (Ding.)

The same agency noted above would assign us very short timeframes for projects in an attempt to keep the projects profitable. "Go ahead, take as long as you want! But the comps are due in three days." Really, if I gave 110% on this project, I'd need a cot in the corner, a personal chef and masseuse available at all hours, and a Schnapps IV drip. Neither of the three were ever forthcoming.

In those situations, we designers on the creative team banded together and hatched what I can call here, posthumously, the 97% Rule. The rule, put quite simply, was save the polish for the very last moment in the project and only allow yourself a narrow window in which to futz around/clarify any small layout problems. Otherwise you'd be there until 11 PM, kerning merrily away, every single night. That's not sustainable.

You'd think the work would suffer. But it didn't. What suffered was your pride, turning work in for multiple rounds of review without perfecting every last detail of every page. There's nothing that drives us designers more insane than turning something into our client's hands knowing that a few details still aren't right. And knowing that our clients won't know it. Sacrilege.

But when you think about it, giving up control of the microdetails until that last round frees your mind and elevates you to make sure the concept and layout are sound. The designers got strategic very quickly, and knew how to battle for the idea first, the layout second, and the micro-details last.

Thankfully, I've been able to shake this 97% habit at subsequent agencies, where the Ford Factory assembly-line model does not predominate. However, in estimating projects, I had to re-account for those extra hours past concept where we would get out the towels and start polishing the silver to a bright glowing sheen. But certain bread and butter projects just don't require 100%. There's no way anyone will ever know you gave 97%. (Except another designer. So don't put it in your book, okay?)

And the 97% rule doesn't hold up well when you're talking about truly artistic projects. A great idea executed well (at 97% percent) can be trumped by a great idea executed fantastically well, with care and attention to every aspect of its being, right down to how the jute strings are tied on the Japanese binding of the annual report that you had to letterpress-print using only wind power and ink derived from crushed Goji berries...


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